Braille Monitor                                                May 2013

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My Historic Recollections of the NFB

by Jean Dyon Norris

Jean Dyon Norris addressing a group in the 1950sFrom the Editor: Jean Dyon Norris has been an active volunteer and supporter of the National Federation of the Blind for more than fifty years. For decades after she invented and began producing Twin Vision™ books for blind and sighted parents and children, she headed the Tarzana office of the American Brotherhood for the Blind—now the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults. She is a Californian, so a good bit of Federation history has necessarily flowed around her, and she has a wonderful collection of stories and memories about the organization and its early California and national leaders. She recently wrote down a number of her recollections of Jacobus tenBroek and the NFB. What follows is a selection of these stories, somewhat edited and reorganized for clarity.

In 1958 I was looking for volunteer work to do. When I was looking through my newspaper, I saw a notice of a rummage sale to benefit the local blind organization. I had never known any blind people, but I decided to gather up some rummage and go help. I discovered a group of normal folks whose only problem was that they could not see. We had a great time, and they invited me to their weekly meetings. The main NFB chapter met monthly about twenty miles away. Tony Mannino was president of that group. I drove Tim McGinnis, president of the local group, and several club members to the monthly meetings.

Tim gave me an issue of the Blind American, the forerunner of the Braille Monitor. The featured story in that issue was by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. TenBroek’s father immigrated from Holland to Canada during the first decade of the twentieth century. He built a cabin on the plains of Alberta. TenBroek’s mother arrived in Canada on a bride ship and married tenBroek senior the day they met. When Jacobus was seven, he and a friend made themselves bows and arrows. They used a piece of burlap with a hole in the center as a target. Tragically, Jacobus put his eye to the hole from behind the target at the very moment that his friend shot an arrow and hit the bull’s eye for the first time that day. Young tenBroek lost that eye immediately and the other a few years later from sympathetic ophthalmia. Reading that story moved me so much that I decided to join the organization that he had founded and was now the president of, the National Federation of the Blind. I wrote to the Berkeley office to subscribe to the Blind American and received a warm acknowledgement from Dr. tenBroek’s wife Hazel.

Jean Dyon Norris addressing a group in the 1960sTenBroek’s family had moved to California when Jacobus was young because Canada had no provisions for educating blind children. Jacobus was enrolled in the California School for the Blind, where Dr. Newel Perry was a remarkable teacher. Many of my blind friends had been taught by Doctor when they were students at the school. Muzzy Marcellino recalled that Dr. Perry carried a ruler around and did not hesitate to whack the hand of any student who he considered deserved it. Dr. tenBroek reported that, when Dr. Perry visited his parents, he warned them not to treat Jacobus as if he were blind. He should be expected to get up, dress, make his bed, and do any chores assigned to him.

I became an active member of the local chapter and decided to learn Braille. One day I overheard a member, Audrey Hebner, telling friends that her children could not understand why she could not read their print storybooks to them. She wished out loud that someone would put Braille on the pages so that she could read the books. I went home that day and duplicated some of my own children’s books and placed Braille on the pages. I gave Audrey the books, and immediately other parents asked me to make books for them as well.

At that time Dr. tenBroek was president of the American Brotherhood for the Blind (ABB). The organization had become pretty inactive, but it still had about $5,000 in its treasury. Some members approached Dr. tenBroek about my print/Braille books, a project that interested Mrs. tenBroek. Dr. tenBroek sent Kenneth Jernigan down to interview me. When I mentioned that Audrey Hebner had given me the idea, he commented that they had gone to school together at the Tennessee School for the Blind and that there had been very few Braille books for the children to read. It seems fitting that decades later our print/Braille library was renamed the Kenneth Jernigan Library for Blind Children. Jumping forward many years, one day I answered the phone at the Tarzana office and took down a request from a grandmother who wanted some Twin Vision books to read to her grandchildren. She gave her name as Audrey Hebner. I asked excitedly if she were the Audrey Hebner who had given me the idea for Twin Vision books, and she was. We talked for a long time, and I gave her the news that Dr. Jernigan was gravely ill. She called him immediately, and the old friends talked for an hour.

At any rate, Dr. tenBroek decided that creating print/Braille books was a worthy project for the ABB to undertake; it just needed a name. My suggestions were “Dots for Tots,” “Double Vision,” and “Twin Vision.” We settled on this final name, and it is now trademarked.

During those early years of my involvement with the NFB, I did a lot of driving for the organization. Efforts were being made to organize up toward Santa Barbara. Many blind people had just given up, but a few were interested in changing things. I drove Tim McGinnis, Tony Mannino, and once even Perry Sundquist to monthly meetings.

One of the people I drove was Ms. Cruz Blackburn. She was a special friend of Frances Blend, who had founded the Frances Blend School for the Blind in Los Angeles. The three of us had lunch together one day, and they told this story: Ms. Blend was researching the addresses of blind children in Los Angeles. She made an appointment to talk with one mother who did not want it known that she had a blind daughter. So, knowing the time of the appointment, the mother put little Cruz under the bed, which was in sight of the living room. When Ms. Blend asked about a blind child in the household and began describing how wonderful a school for blind children would be, suddenly two little arms began waving from under the bed as a child emerged shouting, “I want to go to school; I want to go to school.”

Jean Dyon Norris in her office in the 1990sWhen Jacobus tenBroek died on March 27, 1968, I received a telegram with the sad news. Because he and the Federation had made a profound difference in my life, I decided to attend the funeral. Hazel tenBroek’s father, a rabbi, conducted the service. The procession of cars driving to the cemetery was very long. The grave was at one edge, and no grass was yet growing on any of that rough ground. I stood at the foot of the casket as it was lowered into the grave. I looked down and saw a small flat stone on the ground in front of me as though Dr. tenBroek were standing on it. I picked the stone up and took it home and kept it on my desk until I presented it to President Maurer. The sign I made for it to lie on says in print and Braille, “Built on a rock, the movement stands.” When Dr. Maurer accepted the stone, he told me that he would have it displayed in a safe place in the tenBroek Library, where I presume it now resides. After the funeral Mrs. tenBroek invited people to her home for conversation. She mentioned that their great Dane would stand beside her bed each night with his head just where Dr. tenBroek’s head would have lain. She somehow felt as if she were being watched over.

At an NFB of California convention sometime later, Mrs. tenBroek talked to me about her husband’s death. She was standing outside his hospital room waiting to return to his bedside when a nurse came out and rather abruptly announced, “Mr. tenBroek has expired.”

When I marveled at his willingness to trust me when I was so green, that he even let me make mistakes, she paid me the most meaningful compliment I have ever received.
She said quietly, “He knew his people.”

Because of Dr. tenBroek’s foresight and support, my Twin Vision books have grown into many other things, and as a result this is a better world, not only for the blind, but for the sighted world in which they live.

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