Despite Blindness, Couple Sees Joys of Life
by Darci Smith

From the Editor: The following story first appeared in the October 17, 1997, issue of The Michigan Catholic. For those inclined to believe that only in recent years have blind people taken their place in the communities as fully contributing citizens, this is a salutary reminder that in every generation some blind people have managed to make a considerable contribution. Here is the story:

Robert and Jennie Mahoney have lived a life devoid of few joys: He served eighteen years in the Michigan Legislature, and together they raised ten children. Nothing short of miraculous is that both are blind.

"You're given one life, and you've got to do the very best you can with it," said Robert Mahoney, seventy-six. "And it's not easy—life is hard. People today want to think that everything can be easy, and you don't have to struggle or fight or work for anything. "But half the joy in life is making some success out of it," he added. Robert Mahoney's successes prompted him to write his autobiography, Living Out of Sight, which he self-published in 1995.

Jennie Mahoney became visually impaired following a high fever at age three and lost the remainder of her eyesight at eleven. Robert Mahoney has been blind in one eye since birth and lost sight in the other as the result of detached retina suffered in a skiing accident while an eleventh-grader at Holy Redeemer High School in Detroit.

The two met at the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing, where the young Jennie Kubinger studied for ten years, and Robert Mahoney attended for a year. She graduated and went on to become the first blind student at Adrian College, majoring in home economics. He earned his high school diploma from Detroit's Northern High School.

In 1941 they married and rented an apartment in Detroit and became members of St. Raymond Parish. To support his new wife, Robert Mahoney sold blind-made products—mops, brooms, brushes— door-to-door. A few years before, he had been one of the first to obtain a Leader Dog out of Rochester, he said, and Patsy helped him on his route.

"I always figured that the grace of God was there that really helped us along," Robert Mahoney recalled. "We tried to follow our faith, all the teachings."

The young couple started their family in 1944 with the birth of their son Gary. Three daughters—Roberta, Rosemary, and Colleen—and six more sons—Dennis, Joseph, Mark, Michael, Bill, and Robert—would follow. "The first five, I think, were the hardest," said Jennie Mahoney, now seventy-eight. "As the kids got a little bit older, they could help a bit, even just running and getting a diaper for you helps." When the children were young, she recalled putting bells on their shoes to keep track of where the little ones were.

After twelve years in door-to-door sales, doctors told Robert Mahoney—who was born with two bad heart valves—that he had to find a new profession. "I had everything against me when you come down to it: blind, a bad heart, and a big family," he said.

But then, as Robert Mahoney would say, "God opened a window." At the urging of a friend, Robert Mahoney ran for Democratic precinct delegate. A few years before, he had waged an unsuccessful campaign for the same office. This time, however, he won. All of his years as a door-to-door salesman paid off in grassroots connections. In 1954 he ran for the Michigan Legislature and won for his eastside Detroit district.

And so Robert Mahoney was off to Lansing as Michigan's first blind state representative. While he represented his constituents five days a week in the state capitol, Jennie Mahoney was home raising their brood. "Jennie said she used to have a nervous breakdown every day," Robert Mahoney laughed.

In 1956 the Mahoneys established a mail-order business, Michigan Notary Service, which sold seals, bonds, rubber stamps, and other notary needs. Jennie Mahoney took care of the business, basically run out of the couple's bathroom, while her husband served in Lansing.

"When the phone would ring, Jennie'd yell and say, `You kids be quiet, the business phone!'" Robert Mahoney explained. "She'd go into the bathroom, close the door, and put on her professional voice. . . . On the back of the toilet Jennie had her slate and stylus, and she'd write their name and address down in Braille." With information in hand, Jennie would move into her second office—their bedroom—and remove the typewriter from under the bed, Robert Mahoney said. "She'd get some material to mail out, type the envelope out, then put a stamp on it, and have the kids go to the mailbox," he added.

"It was really hard the first year, but then it kind of escalated and it was better," Jennie Mahoney recalled. Michigan Notary Service is still in business today, with the couple's daughter Colleen operating it.

Robert Mahoney stayed in the Michigan Legislature for eighteen years and is best known for introducing the bill that requires hunter safety classes for young people. To prove that anyone could buy a hunting license, the blind legislator went out and bought one himself. The bill passed the following year.

Faith is central to the Mahoney family, and the couple recalled attending daily Mass and the family praying the rosary together. While in Lansing Robert Mahoney joined other legislators for morning Mass each day. "Without that I don't think we could've made it," Robert Mahoney said of their faith. "The grace of God was there."

It was his pro-stance on busing and fair housing that eventually "drove him out" of his legislative position in 1972, Robert Mahoney said. "As a man and a Christian, I had to pay more than lip service to my principles and convictions," he wrote in his 1995 book. "It's always much easier to say the things people want to hear and so much harder to tell them what they should hear." Robert Mahoney went on to serve on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners and as a lobbyist, eventually moving his family to Lansing, then to Livonia, and finally back to Lansing again.

The advent of computers has made life easier for the blind, the Mahoneys reported. Most days Robert Mahoney can be found surfing the Web on a special Braille computer or sending e-mail to friends as far away as England. They also have printers to print both regular type and Braille, as well as a scanner that reads the daily mail. "And (mail) that we don't understand, why the kids are always coming over at lunchtime or in the evening," Jennie Mahoney said.

Now residents of Lansing, where they belong to St. Gerard Parish, the Mahoneys spend much time listening to books and magazines on tape, attending Mass, and playing cards or games. "Jennie and I play cribbage every day," Robert Mahoney said. "We play two games, and we have a tournament going all the time. It's really vicious," he laughed.