Newel Perry: Teacher of Youth and Leader of Men


(Address by Prof. Jacobus tenBroek at a Memorial Convocation for Dr. Newel Perry at the California School for the Blind, Berkeley, March 25, 1961)

I come before you today--indeed we are all gathered here--to discharge a public duty and to honor a private debt. Newel Perry was a public figure. To us, he was also a personal friend. We can appraise his public contribution. We can only acknowledge our private obligation and personal attachment. We can detail his public record, define his influential role, itemize his accomplishments, recount his deeds, enumerate his statutes, specify his doctrines, disentangle the elements of his social philosophy, identify the general and the institutional fruits of his life's work, analyze and psychoanalyze the personality traits that made him a leader. Upon the life we shared, we can only dwell in memory, sifting through the loose meshes of the mind the hours, the days, the nights, the months, the years of our common experience; the fears, the travails, the aspirations, the laughter that were ours together.

We were his students, his family, his intimates, his comrades on a thousand battlefronts of a social movement. We slept in his house, ate at his table, learned geometry at his desk, walked the streets interminably by his side, moved forward on the strength of his optimism and confidence.

The boundless devotion to him of his wife Lillie (to whom he was married from 1912 until her death in 1935) spilled over onto us to balm our institution-starved spirits, to lighten with gentle affection the bewilderment of our eccentricity and the unnatural confinement of our segregation. Upon a later generation of us, after the death of Lillie the same bounty was conferred in her turn by his sister Emma Burnham, who lived with Doctor during the last twenty-one years of his life.

As a forward youngster of twelve, who made so bold as to address him as "Doc," I was once thrown out of a class by Doctor with such a lecture as still rings in my ears. As a somewhat older youngster, still forward but now also bored by the slow pace and the unimaginative techniques of high school, I was expelled by him altogether for incorrigible recalcitrance. Eventually, despite these unpromising beginnings, I did graduate from high school. With plenty of ambition but no money. I prepared to enter the university. At that point I was denied State aid to the blind, a program then newly instituted as a result of Doctor's efforts in sponsoring a constitutional amendment and a comprehensive statute. The reason was not that my need was not great. It was that I intended to pursue a higher education while I was being supported by the State. That was too much for the administrative officials. Almost without discussion, Doctor immediately filled the gap. Just as Warring Wilkinson had earlier done for him, he supplied me with tuition and living expenses out of his own pocket for a semester while we all fought to reverse the decision of the State aid officials.

It was ever thus with Doctor. The key to his great influence with blind students was, first of all, the fact that he was blind and therefore understood their problems; and second, that he believed in them and made his faith manifest. He provided the only sure foundation of true rapport: knowledge on our part that he was genuinely interested in our welfare.

Aside from these immediate personal benefactions, there were three habits of life--one might almost say three elements of personality--which I formed out of his teaching and example when I was an adolescent in his charge. First, an attitude toward my blindness, a conception that it is basically unimportant in the important affairs of life.   A physical nuisance, yes. A topic of unembarrassed conversation, a subject of loud questions by small children in the street as you pass, certainly. But not something which shapes one's nature, which determines his career, which affects his usefulness or happiness. Second, a basic assumption that sighted people generally have boundless good will toward the blind and an utterly false conception of the consequences of blindness. It is their misconception about its nature which creates the social and economic handicap of blindness. Third: public activity as a rule of life, a sense of responsibility to exert personal effort to improve the lot of others. While I was still a lad in my teens, I was attending meetings and doing work that Doctor assigned me in the blind movement. He was a social reformer. He made me one, too. Through participation with him, these attitudes and practices became habits of my life. So deeply instilled were they that they have remained ever after an almost automatic behavioral pattern--potent and often governing factors in my outlook and activity. Mature reflection in later years could only confirm through reason what his influence had so surely wrought in my youth.

It is altogether fitting that we should hold this memorial convocation at the California School for the Blind. It was here that Newel Perry came in 1883 as a ten-year-old boy--penniless, blind, his father dead, his home dissolved. Two years earlier, he had lost his sight and nearly his life as the result of a case of poison oak which caused his eyeballs to swell until they burst and which held him in a coma for a month. It was here at the school that Warring Wilkinson first met and took an interest in him, laying the basis for future years of intimate relationship and mutual endeavor. Warring Wilkinson was the first principal of the California State School for the Deaf and the Blind. He served in that capacity for forty-four years, from 1865 to 1909. With his characteristic interest in his charges, he soon saw young Newel's full potentiality. He sent him from here to Berkeley High School to complete his secondary education. It was he who overcame the numerous obstacles to this arrangement, so fruitful in its understanding of education and of the needs of the blind. Newel continued to live here at the school while he attended the University of California from 1892 to 1896. Again admission had to be secured over strong resistance. Again Wilkinson was the pathfinder; Newel his willing and anxious instrument. Wilkinson's role In Newel's life as a youth can hardly be overestimated: father, teacher, guide, supporter--in Newel's own words, "dear Governor."

As this institution was not only the school but the home of his boyhood and the foundation of his manhood, so sixteen years later, in 1912, at the age of 39, Newel Perry returned here to take up his permanent career as a teacher. He remained in that post until 1947--a third of a century. It was here that his life's work was accomplished. It was from this place as a base that he organized and conducted a movement for social reform. It was here that many of us first met him as his students. It was here that his impact upon us first made itself felt. It was here that our lifelong association with him began. How often in these halls have we heard his footsteps? How often in this chamber, his voice? The sound of those footsteps and that voice have now gone from the world as a physical reality. How often hereafter will they continue to sound in the halls and chambers of our lives?

In the years between departure from the school in 1896 and return to it in 1912, Newel Perry devoted himself to further education and to the search for an academic job. He took graduate work at the University of California, meanwhile serving successively as an unpaid teaching fellow, a paid assistant and finally as an instructor In the department of mathematics. In 1900, following a general custom of that day, he went to Europe to continue his studies. He did this for a time at the University of Zurich in Switzerland and then at the University of Munich in Germany. From the latter he secured the degree of doctor of philosophy in mathematics with highest honors in 1901. He lingered in Europe for a time traveling and writing an article on a mathematical topic which was published in a learned journal. He then returned to the United States in 1902, landing in New York where he was to remain until 1912. He had about eighty dollars in capital, a first-class and highly specialized education, and all the physical, mental, and personal prerequisites for a productive career, save one, visual acuity.

During this period, he supported himself precariously as a private coach of university mathematics students. He applied himself, also, to the search for a university position. He had begun the process by mail from Europe even before he secured his Ph.D.  He now continued the process on the ground in New York. He displayed the most relentless energy. He employed every imaginable technique. He wrote letters in profusion. In 1905, he wrote to five hundred institutions of every size and character. He distributed his dissertation and published article. He haunted meetings of mathematicians. He visited his friends in the profession. He enlisted the aid of his teachers. He called on everybody and anybody having the remotest connection with his goal.

Everywhere, the outcome was the same. Only the form varied. Some expressed astonishment at what he had accomplished. Some expressed interest. One of these seemed genuine--he had a blind brother-in-law who, he said, was a whiz at math. Some showed indifference, now and then masked behind polite phrases. Some said there were no vacancies. Some said his application would be filed for future reference. One said for what--ironically, "as an encouragement to men who labor under disadvantages and who may learn from it how much may be accomplished through resolution and industry." Some averred that he probably could succeed in teaching at somebody else's college. Many said outright that they believed a blind man could not teach mathematics.  Many of these rejections were, of course, perfectly proper. Many were not. Their authors candidly gave the reason as blindness.

We know about this period of Newel Perry's life from reports of contemporaries or near contemporaries such as Hugh Buckingham, a student at the school from 1896 to 1900 during Doctor's absence, who has prepared a manuscript about Doctor's boyhood and youth. We know about it from what Doctor told many of us in later years. But we know about it in all its poignancy, desolation and bleakness, from Newel Perry's own intimate accounts written at the time to his old mentor and true friend, Warring Wilkinson. These accounts, with copies of many of the letters of rejection, have been preserved by the Wilkinson family through the intervening years. In the last two weeks, they have been opened to my inspection by Wilkinson's granddaughter, Florence Richardson Wyckoff, who is here with us today.

I have dwelt on this period and these experiences for several reasons. They reflect, they accurately portray, a phase of all of our lives as blind people. In fact, thirty-five years later, I personally received identical letters from many of these same institutions. It was almost as if a secretary had been set to copying Doctor's file, only changing the signatures and the name of the addressee. Yet great progress has been made. Many of us are now teaching at colleges and universities around the country and filling many other jobs hitherto closed to us.

Doctor Perry's reaction to this decade of defeat and privation was remarkable. He did not break. He did not resign. He did not even become embittered. Discouragement, frustration, a sense of wrong and injustice, certainly these; but never collapse. He was not licked. We see in these bitter years of hunger and rejection the source of true knowledge about the real problems of the blind and an ineradicable determination to do something about them. Here was a mainspring of social reform, an ever-flowing motivation to redirect public attitudes and actions toward the blind. To this was added the thrust of an active and restless disposition and the wit to perceive remedies and adapt them to the need.

Out of these elements of mind, personality, and experience were compounded the public career of Newel Perry; and out of these elements also were constructed the programs the initiation of which made that career publicly significant. First of all, the distress of poverty must be relieved. The necessities of life must be available. The minimum essentials must be assured. So much in some way had been provided in the Anglo-American system for three centuries before Newel Perry faced near starvation and economic exclusion in New York City. The Elizabethan poor laws did it in one way. County direct relief, instituted in California in 1901, did it in another. The almshouse and the county hospital and poor farm did it in still other ways. At the very minimum, it had to be done better. It should be done by a system of cash grants, adequate in amount to maintain standards of decency and health, receivable upon fixed and uniform standards of eligibility, made generally applicable by state participation and control, and expendable by the recipient through a free exercise of self-management and consumption choice. To bring this about, however, prohibitions in the state constitution would have to be removed by the arduous process of a people's amendment, an organic statute would have to be lobbied through the State legislature, faithful administration would somehow have to be secured. Year by year and session by session into the indefinite future, the myriad minor corrections and major improvements made necessary by time and disclosed by experience would have to be worked through the legislature and the administration. And so indeed it came to pass in California.

Secondly, much more had to be done than merely relieve the distress of poverty. Security is a necessity. As an unmixed blessing, however, it is a stultifying concept. An indispensable ingredient of any welfare system is opportunity. One of the objects of public aid must be to stimulate and enable people to become independent of it. Accordingly, their initiative must not be hemmed in. The means of productive activity must not be withdrawn or denied. Independence of action and self-reliance must be encouraged. Legal liability of relatives must be relaxed so as not to spread poverty, increase dependence and disrupt family life. Economic resources, reasonable amounts of real and personal property must be devotable to plans for self-support instead of being required to be consumed in meeting daily needs. Incentive to earn must be constructed out of retention of the benefits of earning. And this too presently came to pass in California. The new system took cognizance of the need of the blind for adjustments on the social and psychological as well as the physical level. It permitted and encouraged them to strive to render themselves self-supporting. It applied the democratic principle of individual dignity to an underprivileged class of American citizens. It guaranteed them a fair measure of independence and self-respect in the conduct of their lives. The California system, the Newel Perry system, was thus far in advance of its time. It is still envied and emulated throughout the nation.

Thirdly, the reintegration of the blind into society on a basis of full and equal membership could only be achieved if they had a chance to earn their daily bread as others do in the community. Accordingly, action must be taken to eliminate restrictive barriers and legal discriminations. The main channels of opportunity must be swept clear of artificial and irrational obstructions. The public service, private employment, the common callings, the ordinary trades and occupations, the professions must be rescued from arbitrary exclusions based on blindness when blindness is not a factor bearing on competence and performance. Doctor was a prime mover in securing legal, constitutional and other provisions which protect the right of the blind to enter a number of professions; forbid arbitrary discriminations against us in the state civil service and in secondary teaching; enable blind college students to pursue their studies with the aid of sighted readers hired by the State; bring the blind in an ever-increasing stream into the colleges and universities of the State and thence into the higher callings.

These achievements--legal, social, economic and political--have been the fruits at once of Dr. Perry's leadership and of the collective self-organization of the blind which that leadership engendered. More than any other person, it was Doctor who implanted and nurtured among the blind of California the sense of common cause, the spirit of collaborative effort in seeking solutions to our problems. More than any other person, it was he who taught us that the blind can and must lead the blind and the sighted, too, when dealing with the problems of the blind. More than any other person, it was he who made us aware that to go on unorganized was to remain disorganized, that only through concerted action can the blind hope to convert and enlist the power of government and to defeat the thoughtless tyranny of public prejudice and opportune ignorance.

Newel Perry was a teacher: a teacher of subject matter and a teacher of men. He taught his specialty of mathematics and taught it very well indeed; but he taught his pupils even better. To be sure, not all the students who came his way during his thirty-five years on this campus were wholly inspired by him. His personality was vigorous and his standards rigorous. But for many of us who attended the school during those three and one-half decades it was Dr. Perry who furnished the impetus and incentive, the goad and the goal, that would light our later lives and nourish our careers. Our bond with him was not broken when our schooldays ended. We went on to become his comrades and colleagues in the cause which was always his true vocation.

Newel Perry was, in short, both a teacher of youth and a leader of men. These two roles were not, however, quite separate. For the secret of his success in both of them lay in this: that his teaching was a kind of leadership, and his leadership a kind of teaching. In his pedagogical method as well as his social purpose Doctor was thoroughly Socratic. His classroom manner was essentially that of the platonic dialogue: dialectical. Inquiring, insistently logical, and incessantly prodding.

In this Socratic combination also lies, I think, the secret of Doctor's success as the leader of a social movement. Just as in the classroom he taught his students by leading them, so as the pioneer of the organized blind movement he led his followers by teaching them. His power, like that of all leaders, rested in the last analysis upon persuasion. His triumphs, however, were not the product of oratorical or literary skill, although he had a notable gift for trenchant and incisive phrasing, the epigrammatic thrust which distills the essence of a complex issue. His persuasive power was not that of the demagogue but of the pedagogue. And it was not only his followers who learned from him. He educated the blind people of the State to an awareness of their capabilities as individuals and of their powers as a group. He educated the legislators in the State capitol by dint of dogged, relentless, well-nigh incorrigible campaigns of persuasion carried on year after year and decade after decade. He educated the general public by his preachment and his example to regard the blind not in the traditional terms of charity and custody but in the realistic terms of normality and equality.

And most of all, in his role as leader, Newel Perry educated, indoctrinated, and persuaded a distinguished group of cohorts to join him in carrying on the struggle and carrying out its goals. Those whom Doctor gathered around him were other blind men and women, mostly former students, whose special talents and professional positions uniquely supplemented his.

Raymond Henderson: By profession an attorney, self-taught, by preoccupation a reformer, with poetry in his soul and literature in his stylus. Born in 1881, he attended this school from 1889 through high school and continued to live here until his graduation from the University of California in 1904. He practiced his profession in Bakersfield, California, from his admission to the bar until his death in 1945. Raymond came to the organized blind movement in his maturity from a long background of experience in other causes. He brought to it a notable array of personal abilities, a high degree of professional skill, a fine spirit of humanity, and the enrichment of wide and intensive activity.

Leslie Schlingheyde: also by profession an attorney, gentle and religious by disposition, practical rather than reflective in frame of mind, with a brilliant academic record and a liberal outlook. He was born in 1893, attended this school from 1906 to 1913, and thus came under Doctor's influence in the year of his graduation. He received a J.D. from the law school of the University of California in 1920 and from that time until his death in 1957 practiced his profession in Modesto, California, and served the blind movement all over the State.

It was Raymond Henderson and Leslie Schlingheyde who were primarily responsible for handling cases in court, for preparing innumerable legal briefs and arguments, for drafting projected bills and constitutional amendments, for continuous legal counsel during the insurgent and formative years. They were in a real sense the legal arm of the organized blind movement.

Ernest Crowley: again by profession an attorney but distinguished for his service in another arena. He kept a law office open in Fairfield-Suisun from the time of his graduation from the University of California Law School in 1923 until his death in 1952. To him, however, the law was only a necessary and not a particularly attractive means of earning a living. His law office was a cover for his real love and active life — the practice of politics. He was born in 1896 and attended this school from 1910 to 1916. He was thus under Doctor's tutelage as a student for four years. His significant contribution was made as a member of the State legislature from 1928 to 1952. It was he who introduced and skillfully maneuvered through to passage the memorable bills which are now the statutory landmarks of our movement. In a very real sense, he was the legislative spokesman and arm of the movement.

Perry Sundquist: social worker and public administrator by profession, bringing to his work a sympathetic personality, an unshakable faith in blind people and skillful management of administrative techniques and devices. He was born in 1904 and attended this school from 1918 to 1922. For exactly twenty years now he has been chief of the division for the blind in the State department of social welfare. During those two decades he has translated the principles of the organized blind movement into concrete administrative action, from legislative parchment into practical reality. Under his direction programs for the blind have multiplied and prospered, services have been expanded and their benefits spread. Most important of all, the working philosophy of the movement has been transformed into a working practice. In a very real sense, he has been the effective administrative arm of the movement.

Through the years this little band grew in numbers and evolved in normal structure. It formed the nucleus of the California Council for the Blind, which came into being in 1934 with Doctor Perry as its first president. For nineteen productive years, until his retirement in 1953 at the age of 80, Doctor forged and shaped the council on the anvil of his own will into an instrument larger and more formidable but essentially similar to the informal group from which it originated.

Doctor's social vision in the field of blind welfare outdistanced his time and placed him in the advance guard of thought and planning. His liberality on these matters gains, rather than loses, in significance when it is placed alongside his broader attitudes toward politics and human affairs; for in matters unrelated to the blind. Doctor was fully an heir of the 19th century, conservative, even reactionary, by nature, often inflexible and not without a touch of old-fashioned nationalist-imperialism. When it came to the cause to which he was most committed, he was far less a Victorian than a Utopian; less a standpatter than a restless progressive in search of new horizons.

How shall we sum up a man's life? How capture the essential quality of a human career? How convey the inward meaning, the imponderable and intangible qualities of will and heart and spirit? There are the vital statistics. But they are more statistical than vital. All that they can tell us of a man is that he was born, he lived, he loved, he died. For Newel Perry we must amend the litany at least this much: he lived, and he brought new life to many; he loved, and he was beloved; he died, and he will not be forgotten.

On the day following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann wrote some words about him which might also stand as an epitaph to the leader and comrade whom we honor today: "The man must die in his appointed time. He must carry away with him the magic of his presence and that personal mastery of affairs which no man, however gifted by nature, can acquire except in the relentless struggle with evil and blind chance. Then comes the proof of whether his work will endure, and the test of how well he led his people....  The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on."

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