by Peggy Chong, The Blind History Lady
In his 2018 banquet speech, “Authenticity, Diversity, and the Synergy of the Organized Blind,” President Riccobono highlighted several of the women leaders of our organization’s past. You can read the speech at https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/convent/banquet-speech-2018-2.html. Due to time restrictions, President Riccobono was not able to introduce us to all our female national board members from the past.
A great percentage of our members serve on NFB committees and chapter boards; some serve on our affiliate and division boards. Only a few have what it takes to serve on our national board. Attending meetings of committees and boards is not what makes a leader. No, it is what we do after the adjournment and before the next meeting.
I would like to introduce to you a woman who served on our national board of directors during the late 1950s and early 1960s who did not appear in that address, yet was a strong leader from Massachusetts who served in almost every capacity in the Federation, Anita O’Shea.
Anita Marie O’Shea was born June 21, 1924, in Springfield, Massachusetts. She had an older brother and sister who were twins and seven years her senior. As a child Anita played with her siblings and the neighborhood children, running, swinging, and having a great time.
At the age of six, she attended the Armory Street School with her friends. One day, while in the second grade, her parents got a call. Little Anita could not read the board and did not pass the school’s eye exam. Her parents took Anita to a local doctor. She had surgery on her eyes. The doctor came back to the parents and said that he could not do much for Anita but that she was very lucky. In Massachusetts there was Perkins Institute, and she would get a good education there. Anita was not totally blind; she had some “travel vision,” so she was “lucky.”
But Perkins was in Watertown. Back then, there were no freeways. The trip was more than three hours each way. The depression had come to Massachusetts and the O’Shea’s. Gas was costly. Her parents debated sending their little princess far away from the family, worried about breaking family ties. Her father, Thomas, was most set against it. But mom said that her little girl needed to go. Mom won out.
In many ways Anita had her mother to thank for her positive attitude about blindness. Octavia had a gift to accept and embrace what she could not change. Because her mother demonstrated to Anita that she was still their little princess, blind or not, Anita accepted the changes to come.
Anita entered the first grade at Perkins in 1932. Through her schooling years at Perkins, she learned to read and write in Braille and developed a love for literature. In her junior year, Anita submitted a poem entitled, “March Nocturne” to the Atlantic Monthly. The poem did not win but appeared in the list of finalists in the publication. She became an expert typist. She took many music classes and excelled at the piano, enjoyed the drama classes, and participated in some of the athletic programs at Perkins.
As often as they could, the family would load up the car and drive to Watertown to visit Anita. The first year was the hardest for Anita since she got homesick, especially at night. Seeing her family often was a blessing and a curse because Anita could not go home with mom and dad at the end of their visit.
During her last years at Perkins, Anita took a two-year “Dictaphone” training program and was certified. She graduated Perkins in 1942 and quickly found Dictaphone work in Springfield. Anita moved back in with her mom and dad after graduation. After Octavia’s death in 1946, Anita cared for her father, cooking and keeping house for the two of them. Thomas was a man she admired, a Rock of Gibraltar for Anita. Her family says that in many ways Anita took after Thomas.
To advance in her career, she took classes at the Gough Secretarial School in Springfield to become a medical transcriber. There were no special allowances made for Anita because she was blind. She studied hard to memorize all the medical terms, what they meant, and their correct spellings. She hired a tutor, an instructor at the Springfield Technical College, to become better than the rest of the girls looking for work. That Latin class she disliked immensely at Perkins now was paying off.
Anita felt she had to be just a bit better than the other girls. Sighted girls could easily look up spellings and check on meanings in the print reference books. But Anita could not use those books. They were not in any alternative format for her to borrow or purchase at that time. Not to worry. Soon she landed her first medical transcriber position at the Wesson Hospital in 1959. It would be several years before she could save enough money to purchase a medical dictionary that she placed in her medical record office at Providence Hospital.
In the spring of 1959, she took additional blindness training to learn how to travel with a white cane. Her vision had been slowly decreasing over the years, and by 1958 she was totally blind. Being able to travel with ease would make her more employable now that she had finished her medical transcription training.
At her work station there were many forms to keep track of. Her job required her to type in the correct boxes on the form; all data was dictated to her. Anita learned the layout of the forms, how many lines to roll down in her typewriter, and how many spaces or tabs were required to get to the specified box on the form. In her desk drawer, forms were filed in folders to make it quick and easy for her to locate.
When she had her own money, Anita shopped for nice business clothes for work and play. She called Forbes or the Wallace department stores where she loved to shop. She would ask for the dress department and talk with her favorite salesclerk (back then, salesclerks worked in the same dress shop for decades). The clerks would find Anita stylish outfits in the fashions of the day. She would accessorize each outfit with jewelry, scarves, handbags, and shoes. Each article was selected not just for fashion but comfort and complementary style. The jewelry almost always included clip-on earrings and necklaces. By touch, Anita knew each article in her closet and jewelry box.
Anita had her hair done regularly at a local salon as most women did. Today we can tell on her; when beginning to turn grey, she had it dyed a medium blonde. Her hair was always in place and fresh.
Family and friends loved her vivacious attitude toward life. Her bright, wide smile and her laugh was infectious, and she loved to laugh. Anita liked to tease her brother, especially over her beloved Red Sox. At family gatherings she loved a good joke. Anita loved to read; she also loved to go to the movies, especially those featuring Rock Hudson, Steve McQueen, Rosalind Russell, or Suzanne Pleshette. She also enjoyed listening to music, going to the theater, and dancing. She loved going out to eat. Most of the time she ordered seafood because it tasted so much better on the east coast.
Anita was the family “newsletter.” Each thanksgiving she spent with her older brother’s family. They played cards and caught each other up on the family news. For years, making a long-distance phone call to family often meant bad news since it was too expensive to call. Thus visits from family and friends were most welcome when news or other family business was shared.
The holidays were also teaching times on blindness to her family. At Thanksgiving she would bring her slate and stylus to Braille a deck of cards. She gave Braille lessons to her nieces and nephews. Some even learned enough to write to their aunt in grade one Braille.
At Christmas Anita went to her older sister’s and visited with her family, sharing the news from Thanksgiving. Anita’s sister lived nearby in Springfield. Each holiday season, her sister would come to her home and help decorate Anita’s Christmas tree. It was a tradition between the two sisters. After her sister’s death, Anita put up her tree, but it was not the same. In 1962 her father passed away. Anita found new apartments and for the first time lived on her own. Although she had gentlemen friends, Anita chose to remain single.
Now, to more on Anita’s involvement in the blind community. Because of Perkins, many blind adults knew one another in Massachusetts and kept tabs on each other. In 1948, at the age of twenty-four, Anita helped to organize the Greater Springfield Association for the Blind. She served in many capacities for the chapter including president. In her chapter she led or inspired many activities both serious and fun. In 1957 a newspaper account of the chapter’s fun side was entitled, "Blind Singers Make Recording." A quartet of blind singers, all members of the Greater Springfield Association of the Blind, made a recording as the "Mellow-Dears." They also recorded the song "Captain Peter Jingle." The article had a photo of the quartet with Springfield’s Mayor Brunton and three of the four members of the quartet: Anita O’Shea, Mrs. Juanita Cassady, and Mrs. Edythe Lassiter. One member could not be there for the photo and that was Mrs. Janina C. Dumas.
As a part of the National Federation of the Blind, all chapters in the AIB participated in the White Cane Week. WCW drives raise money for the national organization and local affiliates. In Springfield professional placards were designed to promote WCW. Tables were set up at the local shopping malls in the Springfield area as well as businesses such as Westinghouse.
Each year the Springfield chapter held an annual banquet. Anita was often the mistress of ceremonies. Her poise, quick wit, and her ability to read well from her Braille notes impressed not just the sighted but inspired many of the blind members to work harder at their Braille. The chapter invited many NFB leaders from across the country to meet the members. Jacobus tenBroek accepted invitations and attended the 1956 banquet where he met Anita for the first time. It was Anita’s energy behind the scenes that made many events successful.
No one could accuse her of not being pro-active. In 1960 the local fire stations wanted to place reflective, glow-in-the-dark fire truck stickers on the homes or at the bedroom windows where a blind person lived. The Springfield chapter and others would have no part of it. They took on an active public relations campaign. News articles presented their position stating that having their names at the fire station was more than enough. Announcing to the community that a blind person lived at that address would invite crooks who would steal checks from the blind person’s mail or tempt the crooks to force their way into their homes.
The chapter had a policy of providing white canes to its members and any blind person in need. After Anita became chapter president, she expanded the program to include crutches and other medical supplies. Under her leadership the chapter was able to purchase, with the help of the local Lions Club, a piece of property for only $1. The local Lions Club members and the blind got together and stuffed more than 1,500 envelopes with light bulbs asking for funds to build the Springfield clubhouse for the blind. In most cases, the Lions Clubs were not in line with the Federation philosophy with these types of campaigns. Too often the promotional line read, "Buy our bulbs and help us bring light into a world of darkness.” Because of the close relationship with the chapter, this demeaning phrase was not used.
The one-story meeting house was built in 1963 at 910 Liberty Street, for the Greater Springfield Chapter. Their contractor built a three-dimensional representation of the proposed building for Anita to examine before the plans were approved. The building provided more than just a meeting house. Members could rent the space for other activities. Anita held a shower for one of her nieces at the building. When one owns a building, there are all the details that need attention. Anita oversaw general repairs, a new air conditioner, a new parking lot, debates over the right soap dispenser for the bathrooms, and much more. One year the building was vandalized, causing a large bill that Anita and other members took on the responsibility personally to repair. The building still stands and is still owned by the NFB Springfield Chapter.
Liberty Street was the gathering place for the blind of Springfield. Committee meetings, annual meetings, and state ABM meetings were and are still held there. When not in use by the blind, space was rented to many groups for one-time, weekly, and monthly meetings for others in the community. Today the building is rented out on Sundays and serves as a church to utilize the building to its fullest.
In the fall of 1958, Miss O'Shea initiated a highly effective Braille class for Springfield's Jewish Community Center, which produced an ever-expanding pool of volunteer transcribers to meet the needs of blind college students and pupils in the public schools. A few of her trainees became Braille instructors and trained more volunteer transcribers. Later they recruited readers for tape-recording programs.
In 1960 Anita was recognized by the city as a leader. The mayor appointed her to chair the committee to head up the observance of Helen Keller Day in Springfield.
At the fourteenth annual convention of the ABM, Anita accepted the Jacobus tenBroek Award from the affiliate on behalf of her chapter for “demonstrating so fully the principles and purposes that make up the building blocks of the Associated Blind of Massachusetts.” Anita shared her publicity with fellow chapter member Andrew Boghasian, who was the flower sale chairman.
Anita was elected to the Associated Blind of Massachusetts board as an at-large member in 1957. Before the next election, Anita filled the position of vice president in that same year. When state president John Nagel took a position with the National Federation of the Blind in DC, Anita became president. In 1958 she was officially elected to that position. She served for two terms, meaning four years. As president she represented the blind of Massachusetts at conferences regarding rehabilitation and the blind. She, along with the state presidents of Rhode Island and Vermont, held the New England Conference of NFB Affiliates in January 1958. More than forty blind men and women from five states attended. These regional conferences did much to unite the state affiliates and share strategies on legislation and fundraising to better their organizations.
The 1959 state convention, held in Holyoke, welcomed more than three hundred blind men and women from Massachusetts and neighboring states. Kenneth Jernigan was the national representative. Anita was honored to spend time with him, getting to know him better. Several newspaper articles on the convention appeared around the state. In Holyoke, the association was on the front cover and above the fold with a photograph of several participants including state Senator Maurice Donahue. Much preparation went into the convention and publicity. Anita was behind all of it.
During her first tenure as president of the Associated Blind of Massachusetts, Miss O'Shea was instrumental in launching several new programs for the blind, notably the establishment of an advisory committee that met regularly with the director of the state's Division for the Blind. She also inaugurated a Job Opportunities Committee that had substantial success in informing potential employers about the vocational and professional capacity of blind people.
Early in 1958 she began the ABM’s quarterly newsletter, The Paul Revere. She appointed Eva Gilbert as editor. Eva frequently wrote articles for the Braille Monitor. Anita contributed to the Paul Revere regularly. One of her newsletter articles entitled “Blind Moochers” found its way into the November 1959 Braille Monitor. The article was not just her thoughts on blind beggars but a call to action for the seven chapters to work with the police in their communities to inform the police that most of the blind did not approve of begging. In that article she encouraged members to seek out speaking engagements to educate their community about the efforts of the blind who work and contribute to their community as well as why the ABM disapproved of begging.
After going blind, Anita kept in contact with her childhood friends in Springfield, just as she did with her own family. This proved to be a benefit to her as state president. A childhood friend, Edward Boland, became a state representative. Representative Boland eagerly took a leadership role on legislation pertaining to the blind when Anita came to his office and asked for his support.
In 1962 she stepped down as president, taking other positions on the state board including vice president until 1969 when she was elected state president once again. For the state affiliate, she got George Shearing [a blind pianist] to come to Boston and perform along with a five-piece band at the John Hancock Hall on September 16, 1969. During the intermission the ABM gave awards to those in the community who had assisted the blind of the state. It was one of the first fundraisers for the ABM. Since its inception, ABM had relied mainly on funds provided from its chapters. The concert was a success in the media but not on the balance sheet. As a fundraiser, ABM took a hard financial hit, causing it to instate a raffle with a $700 cash first prize to offset the losses from the concert.
Along with her state board positions in the ABM, Anita served on the national board of directors beginning in 1960, filling out a one-year term. She was re-elected the next year. She would serve twelve years on the national board. Anita also served on the Resolutions Committee and the Code of Affiliate Standards Committees.
National conventions were fun for Anita. They were for several of her nieces as well. She often took along a niece to convention as a traveling companion. To this day, some of them remember the many Federationists they met. When public service announcements of the Federation with Dr. Jernigan came on television, they delighted in telling those watching, “I met him!”
Anita’s first convention may have been in 1958 when the convention was held in Boston. She attended the 1959 convention in Santa Fe, where the politics of this and the next several years scared others away from the organization. On January 9th, 1970, Anita and others traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to meet with President Kenneth Jernigan at the Iowa Commission for the Blind. The NFB began to establish national divisions. Anita was one of the organizers of the NFB’s Secretary and Transcribers Division launched that weekend. She was elected its first president. The first task was to get the newly adopted constitution Brailled for the upcoming national convention. As president she set the agenda for the annual meetings and projects of the new division. One project she felt most important was to provide Braille reference material for transcribers. The Braille Monitor for April 1971 reports the plans for the first six months of the division as follows:
The Houston seminar will consist of two parts: first, there will be a business meeting of all members of the National Association of Blind Secretaries and Transcribers, during which an election of officers to two-year terms will be carried out and plans made for the ensuing year. The second and larger part of the seminar program will include three individual speakers (one from IBM regarding MT/ST equipment, etc., and two placement specialists with contrasting methods and results), and a panel of our own members who will discuss the problems of obtaining and holding secretarial jobs in competition with their sighted counterparts. Relating to the seminar, but not directly involved in it, will be a rather extensive display of transcribing equipment from the major manufacturers. This exhibit probably will be maintained from Sunday to Friday of convention week.
Some of the services referred to above include the Brailling of the 1970 or 1971 Drug Supplement of the Physicians’ Desk Reference, Harbeck's Glossary (a systemic breakdown of medical terms, drugs, surgical instruments, etc.); and the preparation and Brailling of a bibliography which will list existing Braille references for all types of secretarial work as well as the places where additional supplementary information can be obtained.
Anita would serve several terms as president for the new division.
In 1972 she was appointed an assistant social worker for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, where she worked for many years assisting newly blind clients. Later in life, Anita found out she had diabetes. She loved good food and dining out. Changing her diet was a hard thing for her to do, but she did learn to eat well. The disease took a toll on her body. Neuropathy set in. Surgeons removed one toe and then another. Then they took part of one foot. Anita got a prosthetic foot and shoes to accommodate the new foot. Being a fashion-conscious woman, she wanted to have good looking shoes. This often proved to be difficult.
As diabetes progressed, doctors told her they needed to remove her leg from the knee down. Blindness may have been the worse of two evils to her family; not to Anita. She told her family again that she felt her blindness was not a tragedy, more like a blessing in her life. To lose a leg was an indignity that she could not abide.
Her illness made it harder to travel. Near the end of her life, she was forced to miss a few national conventions, yet she continued to be involved in the Federation. Although she was retired, Anita still hired a reader to keep her current on many topics. One of the chapter members had a daughter who became one of Anita’s last readers. That reader is still active in the Springfield Chapter today. Some remember Anita from the articles she wrote for the Braille newsletter, Our Special Magazine, published by National Braille Press targeted especially for women.Anita died of diabetes heart complications on October 13, 1997. She is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Although she is more than twenty years gone from our ranks, her imprint on the Federation is still evident today.