Braille Monitor                         November 2020

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Rich and Blind: I’m Here to Tell Ya

by Peggy Chong

Peggy ChongFrom the Editor: The older I get, the more I like people who are fanatical about things. They are exciting. Their commitment is inspiring. When I first met Peggy Chong, I had no idea that she had any interest in writing. I knew that she and her computer were often at war and that her husband Curtis often came to the rescue. Whether he was rescuing the computer or Peggy was never quite clear. I did not know that this interesting woman was fascinated by history, but certainly readers of the Braille Monitor know it now. Here is another in her stories about blind people who might be overlooked were it not for her efforts. If you would like to learn more about her publications, you may contact her at [email protected]. Here is what she says:

Hello Blind History Lady fans. This month we highlight a man who was rich as a sighted man and remained rich after he lost his sight, despite spending a lot of money on a cure.

Meet Charles Frederick Luthy, who was born March 1, 1894, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Civil War veteran and Albuquerque Mayor John Luthy. Fred, as he was called by family, went into banking, following in his father’s footsteps. He married at the age of forty to Cyrene, and they had two children.

On June 23, 1938, he and others from the Albuquerque National Bank (ANB), traveled to the Two-State Drilling Company’s operation six miles southwest of Monument, New Mexico. Bank President George Kaseman from ANB was investing in the mine, and he wanted to see the process of drilling through rock known as "shooting the well." This involved sending down a shell filled with nitroglycerine that detonated below the surface to increase the flow of the oil.

About 5:30 p.m., the blasting crew removed the nitro "bomb” from the truck. The audience was standing within 150 feet of the drilling rig, usually a safe distance, when the bomb just exploded. Kaseman was killed along with seven other men. Fred and four others were seriously injured. There was a bright flash, and Fred knew this was not good from his days working in oil fields. Then the boom. He thought of his wife and little boy back in Albuquerque. Fred made it to his friend George to see if he could help, but George was dead. Funny thing, Fred remembered his last thought, “It would have been nice to own a Cadillac.” Then all went black.

Because of the remote location, it took an hour before help could reach the site. After treating the wounded, they were transported over rough terrain to the local Hobbs Hospital. Doctors and nurses were sent from Albuquerque to Hobbs to help care for the wounded men.

As soon as Cyrene was notified, she contacted a pilot friend, Bill Cutter, and their doctor, P. G. Cornish. There was no airport of any kind in the Hobbs area, so they landed in a field near town. The next day the three from Albuquerque loaded Fred into the plane and flew home.

Fred was admitted to the Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque where he remained for two weeks recovering from his many wounds. The sight in one eye was gone. The sight in the other eye was not great, but he still had some vision.

Fred went back to the bank within a month of the accident. Knowing the sight in one eye was gone and he would soon lose the sight in his other eye, the question if he could be a banker as a blind man did not enter his mind. How to do it was the question! His memory had always been good, much better than his friends, and that was one asset. His second asset was his skill with numbers, which was rarely matched in the bank.

In 1938 there was little in the way of resources for any adult blind person in New Mexico. No matter how much money, there were no resources for blindness training. Fred was not poor and did not want to wait until he lost his wealth or standing in the community for any public assistance that the state department might offer him.

Fred wrote to doctors all across the country, looking for a specialist who could restore his sight. He spent time in a New York hospital, but there was nothing to be done. Fred had a glass eye placed into the empty socket left by the explosion that allowed him to look much better visually to his employees and customers. After he healed, there was little scarring unless someone looked closely. Fred wore eyeglasses, not dark glasses, that helped to minimize the visual looks of the scarring.

Fred still had his family investments, gold mines, oil fields, and more. He had his stock in the bank and rents from his many real estate holdings around town to bring in a steady income for his family. Many expected Fred would stay at home where he would be "safe and secure." With his financial status, he would still be accepted into many of the social clubs in which he held membership—or would he? He had raised funds for many charities, those “unfortunates” who did not touch his circle of friends. Would he now be seen as "one of those" and find himself on the outside of his circle, the object of pity or worse, a charity fundraiser!

It was the heart of the depression, tough times for any banker. But wait, wasn't it he who had set policies for his bank that kept it afloat when the banking industry had suffered through a depression in 1924? Was it not he, when President Roosevelt ordered all banks to close on March 6, 1933, who reopened his bank nine days later? ANB was the only operating bank in the city for six months. Since 1924, ANB, under his leadership, continued to grow from less than a million dollars in assets to more than four million to date, even under the constraints of the depression.

He reminded himself that at the close of 1934 the bank celebrated its tenth anniversary with thirty-three staff people including five women working in the bank, almost triple the amount of employees from its founding. Fred did the hiring and training of each of these individuals, and he could still hire and train staff even without his sight. From an initial handshake, Fred had learned to judge the character of a person. Blindness would not alter that.

One month after the accident, Fred was named president of the Albuquerque National Bank to replace his friend and mentor, George Kaseman.

Fred did not learn to read Braille. At first he relied heavily on recordings of meetings in his office he made on his Dictaphone. At the end of each day he would take the recordings home to his library where he had a table and comfortable chair for his after-hours work. He would listen to them again and again until he improved his memory. The Dictaphone and later the record player from the Library of Congress would be sped up to twice the speed for Fred's business and leisure reading. Most blind men and women in New Mexico did not receive library services, such as the record player and recorded books, because the Library for the Blind in New Mexico would not be established until 1967, four years after Fred’s death.

The days fell into a routine. Fred had a hired man who cared for the yard. After Fred’s accident, the hired man drove Fred to work. Fred's day began at 8:30 a.m. in the bank with a meeting of the loan committee. At 9:30, he blocked time with a secretary to read the Albuquerque Journal and the mail. Just like his reading with his Dictaphone and record player, he trained his secretaries to read quickly and to skim or jump to the more important sections of the reading.

He met with customers of the bank. Many of the customers did not know that Luthy was blind. It was not a big deal to Fred. He did not intend to hide his blindness or think it was the most important item about him. He also didn’t think it important in terms of the bank and how ANB would look after its customers’ loans and investments.

Fred continued to take notes in print. He would bring in his yellow legal pad and pen. During the meetings he wrote on the pad the notes he would need to look back at later. After the meetings he turned over the notes from the legal pad to his secretaries, who transcribed the notes and read them onto tape. By doing so, he maintained his ability to take notes and write effectively. Most likely his penmanship was not as good as it was in his twenties, but it was still sufficient and legible enough for his assistants to read them. Having a Dictaphone operating during a meeting with clients would be disconcerting to the client and stifle the flow of conversation.

Fred did not use the white cane normally associated with the blind. Inside the bank he knew his way around the business floor. Those who casually observed him would not have any reason to think the man was blind. At one point someone gave Fred a cane as a gift, but no one ever remembered him using it.

Few physical changes were made in the Luthy home or at the bank for Fred’s loss of sight; he simply made changes in his habits due to his new circumstances. When others from the bank weren’t available, Cyrene traveled with him as his guide to places he did not know and acted as his reader. It was not uncommon for a man of his position to travel with a secretary or wife, so few took notice of the presence of an assistant.

Cyrene and the children often took summer vacations in California. Fred followed, but only for a few days at a time. He boarded a train alone in Albuquerque and tipped a porter a few dollars. Then he’d ask that the porter come and escort him to the dining car at mealtime. At stops where Fred wished to get off, a porter provided the same assistance. After joining his family for a short vacation, Fred reversed course and repeated the journey home.

Each noon Fred would have lunch at the Alvarado Hotel just a short walk from the bank. His table manners suffered not one bit from his blindness, and he felt no discomfort or embarrassment eating in public. The one exception was that staff at the hotel were instructed to cut his meat before serving him.

When WWII broke out, many of his male employees were called to service or volunteered. Fred acted quickly by promoting female employees to teller positions. This was not a welcome move by customers at first. Yet Fred had faith in the women and sought out the local newspapers to promote his support for the war. He reassured the press and some of the men in the Albuquerque community who banked with his bank that there would always be one man at a teller cage for those who refused to conduct their financial transactions with a female teller.

By the end of 1942, there were twenty-eight women and thirty-three men working in the bank. Luthy was the first bank president in the state to promote a woman to an executive position. His forward thinking and his ability to see people for who they were, not their race, sex or any other feature, made him one of the leaders in hiring and promoting minority staff.

Not only did Fred work a full workday and week, but often he would take time on Saturdays and Sundays to catch up on reading or bank business. With his hand on his son Fred’s shoulder, they would go off to the bank to do business. Sometimes they would take the bus to the bank. The family had a pet dog, and one morning the two boarded an Albuquerque city bus with the mutt. The driver told them that they could not bring the pet on the bus.

"Oh, but it is a guide dog," Fred replied.

"Well…" the driver replied. Most likely the driver did not believe the two, but he did allow them to board and ride to the bank with the dog.

When the new ANB building was being built at Central and Second, Fred designed and oversaw the plans for the construction. On the weekends he would walk through the partially finished building in order to get to know the structure and monitor its progression.

After twenty-five years the bank presented Fred with a gold Swiss watch. This was not an ordinary watch nor was it a Braille watch. But it was still accessible for Fred. When pressing the button on the side, the watch would toll once for each hour. Another tone indicated the quarter hour, and then a third tone ticked off the minutes. This thoughtful gift was a prize possession of Fred's until his death.

On January 11, 1963, he and several of his fellow employees were having lunch at the Alvarado Hotel. Fred had a pain in his chest, and he mentioned it to his companions. Then he suddenly stood up and said he had to leave. Almost immediately, Fred collapsed. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. By the time the ambulance arrived just a few short minutes later, Fred was gone.

Fred left behind an estate estimated to be more than four million dollars. This made him one of the richest men in the state of New Mexico. His blindness altered his techniques, but in no way did it thwart his ambition or hamper his success as a businessman, a family man, or a leader in his community.

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