Hall of Fame Interview
Interviewed by Michael Bina
When you were growing up what career did you think you would pursue?
Did you ever imagine that you would be working in the field of blindness? Did you find the field or did it find you?
Who or what influenced you to work in this field?
In elementary school, I became very interested in becoming a priest. Having been raised a Catholic and gone to a parochial school, priests were very important in my life and I looked up to them. I decided to go away to the seminary in the 9th grade much to the chagrin of wonderful Mother who did not object for fear of interfering with my "vocation." I spent 4 years of high school, 4 years of college and ½ year of theology in the seminary before realizing that I could probably not live the life of celibacy that was required.
This awareness came close in time to when my Bishop, John Wright of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, invited me to consider going to the North American College in Rome for my theological studies, a great honor for a seminary student. As a result, I had to meet with the Bishop and explain why I was turning down this great honor. I was quite anxious about this meeting but found the Bishop to be very paternal and understanding and I was flabbergasted when he genuinely encouraged me to do what was best for me. Eight months later I left the seminary and within a year had learned about orientation and mobility. Before a year had passed, I was enrolled in the O&M program at Western Michigan.
Twenty-five years later, after I was appointed as President of the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind, I was on my way to be interviewed by a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I passed the building where I had met with Bishop Wright. I was reminded that this same Bishop had been instrumental in establishing the Guild 30 years earlier. He had given me "permission" to choose whatever career was best for me and that had led me to the field of blindness. Having become an administrator, I had now been hired to direct the Guild where my challenges were to lead it out of desperate financial circumstances and to keep it available for the blind adults of Western Pennsylvania. The significance of this coincidence, if that was what it was, was not lost on me.
I ended up working in the field of blindness because I had a cousin who was congenitally visually impaired and who was a student at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. During the years I was away at the seminary, she and I had corresponded regularly and had become good friends. Shortly after I left the seminary, she invited me to be her guest at a "parents" event at the school that her parents could not attend because of illness and work responsibilities. At that event, I met Bob Hughes, a graduate of the Western Michigan O&M program and I learned about that profession for the first time. He put me in touch with Don Blasch who convinced me to enroll in the Kalamazoo program. I guess you would say that the blindness field found me. As a result of my experience, I have often suggested that we recruit future professionals from among the families of our students and clients.
Who were your mentors?
Like many graduates of the Western Michigan program, I was certainly influenced by members of that faculty, especially Don Blasch and Stanley Suterko. They were so practical and down-to-earth about this profession and yet encouraged further professional development as well. Later I was influenced a lot by Bill Wiener when he came to the Western PA School for his internship and by Bruce Blasch when he came to the University of Pittsburgh to begin a training program for orientation and mobility specialists. Later when I served as the Superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind, I was very much influenced by three of my Board members who themselves were recognized leaders in our field and are now fellow members of the Hall of Fame, Warren Bledsoe, Dick Hoover, and Russ Williams. Given the fame and contributions of these mentors, I believe that I had a very respectable upbringing in this field.
In your career you have been a mentor to others. Give an example where you had a positive influence on a colleague or young protégé.
Given my opportunity to instruct new students coming into the field as mobility specialists at the University of Pittsburgh and at Cleveland State University, I have been able to provide some students who knew nothing about the field with their introduction to it and with their basic foundation of knowledge in it. It has been very rewarding to watch them emerge as strong professionals in this field and to see them make their contributions.
As a residential school superintendent and as an agency executive director, I have had the opportunity to attract members of other disciplines to bring their expertise to the school and agency serving blind people and to orient them to the special needs of blind students and the programs that served them.
Most of all, I have appreciated and benefited from my relationships with my peers as we have influenced each other while growing into our profession.
Do you still recall the names of some of your blind or low vision students and clients? Which three come to mind and why?
I recall the names of many of my early orientation and mobility students and I recall many of the specific lessons that we shared together, both the successes and the problems. Having returned to Pittsburgh where I first taught as an instructor, I have had the opportunity to see some of these students as adults to see how their lives have developed and especially how they have used the skills that we worked on together. I remember one young man who was a marginal academic student and a marginal traveler. I worried about what would become of him. It turns out that he had a long and successful career as an employee in a sheltered employment setting where he had enough travel skill to be able to get back and forth to work on his own every day for 30 years. I have another former student who stays in touch regularly and who meets me and my wife for lunch or dinner periodically. While she is not the best independent traveler, she gets around the Pittsburgh community using a combination of public transit and specialized transportation. Every now and then she calls to ask my advice on a new route that she will be using. I have also hired a couple of my former students who have developed an expertise in access technology or social work. And I had the shock of being introduced by a former student to her grandchildren.
What would you list as your two or three proudest moments in your career?
Being inducted into the Hall of Fame was a very proud moment for me. I had never anticipated that kind of recognition. I was also very proud to have been selected as the Superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind at the age of 34. The challenge of leading a school with over 200 students and 300 staff was great, but I felt that through the interview and selection process, I had garnered the support of the Board and I was proud of that because this was a very talented, professional, and committed Board. Finally, I was very proud when the first issue of our textbook, Foundations of Orientation and Mobility was published. I was pleased about the contribution to our field’s literature that this textbook represented.
Did you ever imagine that you would be recognized and inducted in the field’s Hall of Fame? When you were informed that you were an inductee, what were your thoughts?
I had not anticipated that I would be inducted into the Hall of Fame and especially so soon after leaving the field because of my disability. I knew that there were many others who were quite deserving, and I had nominated one of them, Sir Francis Campbell and this led to a very embarrassing situation. I had been in touch with some of the descendants of Sir Francis when I had successfully nominated his son, Charles F.F. Campbell, and they had attended his induction. These family members knew when the following year’s inductees would be announced and they called me to find out if Sir Francis had been selected following his second nomination. I had to tell them he had not, and they, naturally, asked me who had been selected instead, and I had to tell them that it was me. It was very embarrassing.
During your career you undoubtedly saw the field change in many different ways. How did it change? In which ways do you wish would have changed more?
Professionalism and the number of professionally trained O&M specialists greatly increased during my 40 years in the field. Certification was established, and advanced and a code of ethics was adopted. These were all good things. Ironically. the availability of more O&M specialists probably contributed to the increased use of itinerant services in which individual students and clients end up receiving fewer and less intense hours of service and developing less independence as a result. That has been unfortunate in my opinion. I would have preferred to see the increased number of O&M specialists result in students and clients receiving more intense services and greater independence. Also a system of licensing or required certification has not yet developed to the point where professional O&M services are required and properly reimbursed.
Also, when I entered the field, a widespread and effective accreditation system had just been developed. This appeared to be a good system for improving the quality of services available in communities around the country. However, opposition to accreditation developed from a consumer organization which felt that it should control it. Schools and agencies were reluctant to participate in an accreditation system that was publicly opposed by a national consumer organization. As a result, the accreditation system has not had the broad participation that would have resulted in more widespread consistency in services throughout the states.
What three to five pieces of advice would you give to people entering the field just beginning their first experience working with clients or students?
First, I would advise that all professionals keep their primary focus on what is best for their students or clients. This is not always easy to do and may result in some conflicts and difficult decisions, but it is the bedrock of all successful professionals. Secondly, I would encourage each professional devote some of their time to the advancement of the profession itself. Keep up with the literature, write up your insights, publish and make presentations, participate in research when possible to help develop the data on which our professional decisions are based, and participate in your professional association through which you can contribute to and encourage the development of your fellow professionals. Finally, be sure to enjoy the experience especially through your contacts with your fellow professionals. This can be a source of real pleasure and satisfaction in your career.
What are three to five pieces of advice would you give to those in the field who are experienced in the field, "having been around a few years?"
Those who have been around for a few years should make a conscious effort to synthesize what they have learned through their years of experience and not be shy about sharing that with people who are new to the field. Each of us has a unique perspective that has resulted from our own experience which is different than anyone else’s experience. We each have our own insights from which others will benefit, but we have to be willing to share them.
Secondly, it is also important for those who are experienced to continue to keep an open mind in regard to new learning and experiences. Be open to what the young professionals bring to the table and to their observations. Don’t live entirely in your past. You will have a much greater opportunity to influence new professionals if you show an openness to their experiences as well.
Continue to support your professional association and be a presence at the meetings and conferences. Meeting the "old-timers," the people who have been around for a while, is very motivating for the younger professionals and motivates their own participation in the association.
When you look back on your career, what was a humorous experience that really made you laugh?
Two things come to mind from my earliest days as a mobility specialist. One of the best users of abstract compass directions was an "ungraded" student who was not very good in most academic subjects but he was a whiz in mobility and in orientation using compass directions. I could give him a route using exclusively compass directions and be assured that he would be able to remember them and follow them accurately. Overall, he was highly motivated to qualify for a pass to allow him to travel off campus independently. Several months after he qualified for his pass, it came to the attention of the school staff that he was using his pass privileges to go off campus each day after school and travel a few blocks to a local tavern, have a glass of beer and then travel back to school for dinner.
The other event came during an end-of-the-year trip to a local amusement park with our graduating seniors. The plan was to have the students assemble near the entrance to the park at the end of the evening when the park closed at 10 P.M. When we did, there was one group of 4 students missing. These four were being led by one student, Dennis, who had a fair amount of vision, however, shortly after 10 P.M. the main lights of the park were turned out and Dennis’ advantage as a leader disappeared. As a result, I went back into the park looking for this group. I was walking through the park calling "Dennis." "Dennis." Finally, I heard Dennis return my call. "Mr. Welsh." "Mr. Welsh, are you lost?"
What question haven’t I asked that you wish I had?
I anticipated that you might have asked if I had any regrets about how my career has gone, and I would like to mention one. While I appreciated the fact that I had early opportunities to move into leadership positions in my career, the price of doing so was that those opportunities took me away from direct services to blind students and clients. In looking back from this vantage point in my career, I wish that I had had spent more time providing direct services. Those were the experiences that I most cherish and that mean the most to me now.
The following interview was conducted for Stone Soup, the newsletter of VisionServe Alliance, and appears here with the permission of editor and author Mike Bina.
This interview more specifically reflects Dr. Welsh’s career and his thoughts regarding best professional practice.
Richard Welsh Stone Soup Interview
Interviewed by Michael Bina
Michael Bina (MJB): What didn’t someone tell you about being an administrator that you wished they had?
Richard Welsh (RLW): Two things come to mind and they are interrelated.
Being the chief administrator in a large organization can be very isolating from a social perspective. My first Board Chairman at MSB, Jim Campbell, actively discouraged my interest in developing close social relationships with members of the staff and encouraged me to develop a social network in Baltimore apart from the School. As the years passed, I came to appreciate his guidance more and more.
Secondly, I did not appreciate in advance, how personally and deeply I would experience the worries and anxieties about the organizations that I was in charge of, especially the financial concerns and their impact on the people who worked for the organization. When money was short, it was the first thing on my mind each morning when I awoke.
This second concern is probably related to not doing a good enough job with the first. More balance helps to keep things in perspective.
MJB: What did someone tell you that did not quite register until…
RLW: I was chosen to become Superintendent of MSB, while on the faculty of Cleveland State University (CSU). MSB’s attorney was friends with Dr. Waetjen, the President of CSU, and contacted him for a reference on me. This then led to an offer from Dr. Waetjen to mentor me about running an organization before I left for Baltimore. Dr. Waetjen stressed the role of the CEO in helping the Board and its committees to manage their responsibilities. The importance of this advice became more and more evident as my years of experience as a CEO grew. I especially cherished and followed his advice that the trust relationship between the CEO and the Board was an essential foundation of a good relationship. As a result, I always tried to make sure that the Board would hear any "bad news" about the School or the organization from me first and not by way of the grapevine or the newspapers.
Also, during this time at CSU before I moved to Baltimore, I spent some time learning about administration from the husband of one of my fellow faculty members. He had been a community organizer long before it had become a qualification for President and had run community agencies for many years. He had retired from such agencies twice, but twice had been asked to come out of retirement to head up another organization that was in trouble. Lindy, as he was called, knew from his own experience and from working with many others, that people like myself, who were coming from a clinical or direct service profession to an administrative position frequently did not have a good understanding of the importance of the budget. He knew that some tended to think of a budget as a necessary evil, but not related to the real work of the school or agency. Lindy changed this perspective for me by describing the budget as "your program expressed in dollars." No matter how good or how valuable the services are that you offer your clients, unless they are reflected in the budget, they just don’t exist. Lindy’s philosophy became a very helpful concept to me. "Your budget is your program expressed in dollars."
MJB: If you would begin another administrative job today, what would you do differently?
RLW: I have always admired, but never tried, an approach that was at one time a practice used at the Seeing Eye. When possible, the new CEO overlapped the retiring CEO by several months. During this time, the new CEO would spend time doing different jobs within the organization, all the way from cleaning out the kennels, to training a dog guide and passing the dog along to a user. This always struck me as a very effective way for a new administrator to really understand the organization he or she will be in charge of. This concept is now getting broader consideration as a result of the TV show "Undercover Boss."
MJB: What have you learned about fund raising?
RLW: Two things. Some people are unbelievably generous. You don’t always see this until you are in the leadership position in an organization. My first day in charge of the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind was a payday. We were $10,000 short of meeting the payroll, we had no cash reserves, and our line of credit with the bank had been maxed out. Coincidentally, on that same day I had been scheduled to meet a man who had been a generous donor to the agency in the past. When he asked how things were going, I told him honestly. After a short tirade in which he berated our Board for allowing this to happen again, he stopped, called his secretary, and asked her to make out a check for the Guild for $50,000. He gave it to me in exchange for a promise that I would return to him in 2 weeks and tell him how I planned to prevent this from happening again.
Secondly, to do an effective job at fund-raising, you sometimes have to do something that is personally objectionable or at least quite difficult, but which has to be done anyway. When doing a capital campaign at the Guild, we started with an in-house campaign and asked the staff and the Board to demonstrate their own commitment to the cause. The very small staff stepped up impressively and together we pledged $45,000 to the campaign. Guided by an experienced campaign professional, I then approached the donor whom we had targeted to provide the lead gift in the campaign. As I made my pitch and told him about the staff’s pledge of $45,000, he was very impressed, some might say "blown away." He swiveled his chair away from me and looked out the window while repeating "$45,000." He turned back to me with a tear in his eye and said, "You know what I’m going to do, I’m going to match that $45,000 in honor of your staff." But my mission that day was to ask him to consider a gift of $300,000. It was my fund-raising "moment of truth." Without offending him, I found a way to both acknowledge the generosity of his offer and still ask him to consider the larger amount. I left his office firmly convinced of only one thing, that my mother would have disowned me had she known what I had done in response to this man’s generosity. As it worked out, he did become our lead donor at the level that the fund-raising consultant had suggested was necessary. The campaign succeeded, and I came away knowing that I had been introduced to fund-raising "hardball."
MJB: Seven years ago, you retired on disability exchanging the day-to-day challenges of executive leadership for the challenge of fighting Stage IV kidney cancer. Has there been anything you learned as an executive that has been of help to you as a cancer survivor.
RLW: There are several similarities in my experience. The first is the importance of a team of people with different roles and responsibilities working toward the same goal. In fighting cancer, you naturally use a variety of medical specialists, but you also get a lot of help from those who pray for you, those who keep in touch and help keep up your spirits, those with whom you share humor, and especially family members who help in so many ways to get you through the many crises that occur.
Secondly, you can learn a lot from those who are going through similar experiences. Just as executives can learn from the other members of Vision Serve Alliance, as a kidney cancer survivor, I have received tremendous help from the members of a large and active listserv of others who have the same disease and those who care for them. Not only do you learn from these other members, but you can also give to them, and that feels good. Sometimes you help by sharing technical information and sometimes by just being there to encourage people who are going through tough times.
Finally, in both areas, it is important to have an attitude of optimism. This has been defined recently on the kidney cancer listserv not as a positive feeling that everything will turn out all right, but as an attitude of problem-solving. Each time a new problem arises, the spread of the disease or bothersome side effects, you don’t allow it to get you down, but you regard it as a new problem to be solved. This keeps you focused on fighting the disease rather than on being overwhelmed by it. There is a lot of research that demonstrates that such an attitude has an important effect on recovery and survival. I think that it also has an important effect on success as an executive.