Remembrances of C. Warren Bledsoe
Presented by Richard L. Welsh, Ph.D. and Rodney J. Kossick at the Maryland School for the Blind; April 8, 2005
Richard L. Welsh
On a warm summer day nearly 93 years ago, the Superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind, John Francis Bledsoe, was checking out a garden growing behind his house. Periodically, on that warm afternoon in July, 1912, the Bledsoe family doctor would stick his head out the second floor window of the Superintendent’s residence and update John Bledsoe on the progress of the birth of his son, Warren, whose birth, life and death we have gathered to remember today.
Now, you might ask, how do I know that detail? Well, of course, I know that because Warren told me about it as he had learned it from his mother and father. There are many things I know and many things that some of you know because Warren passed them along to us. He was not only a story-teller, but he was, perhaps more importantly, a writer. It was his lifelong interest and ambition to share information with other people. Not only information, but also ideas and opinions. He liked to describe himself as having "an itch to scribble." He loved to write. He wrote down everything. He kept diaries and logs. He was a tireless correspondent with friends, family and colleagues. He wrote numerous articles and book chapters. When he was in the service he always kept a shoebox filled with index cards on which he had written ideas, facts, information about all sorts of people, places and things. His fellow soldiers used to tease him about it. They referred to the shoebox as "Warren’s brain."
It was the extreme good fortune of people who are challenged to live without vision or with severely reduced vision that Warren was born into the field of education of blind children by virtue of his birth on this campus. His good friend, Father Thomas Carroll, referred to him as a "congenital worker for the blind." Warren’s presence in our field was first documented when, as an eight-year-old boy, he was photographed sitting in the front row of a group photo of the attendees at the 1920 conference of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind which met on this campus. During his childhood, he sat at his dining room table with some of the leading lights in this field, Superintendents from many of the schools for the blind. He said that they were like "uncles" to him. Who knows how much he absorbed about educating blind children from those early exposures or how that experience shaped him.
After attending the Gilman Country School in Baltimore and graduating from Princeton University in 1934, he was hired by his father as an English teacher here at MSB. As Warren said about his employment as a teacher by his father, "He was not adverse to giving members of the family employment if he could get them at a good price." For four years he taught English and became quite involved in a drama program for the students. That is quite interesting given our gathering here today in the Russo Theater that was built to support the ongoing drama programs of the school. In fact, some of Warren’s first involvement in figuring out how to help blind people get around independently came as he worked to help students move independently and naturally around the stage for the productions that he helped direct.
In 1938, Warren participated in the Harvard class for teachers of the blind, one of the first organized attempts to provide the specialized training that teachers of the blind needed. This course was given in collaboration with the Perkins School for the Blind, and Warren resided on the Perkins campus for the year he was in Boston. He reveled in the opportunity to spend time in the Perkins Library, one of the largest collections at that time, and still today, of literature related to education of the blind, and here his interest in and respect for the history and philosophy of our field was nourished.
Also, during that year in Boston, Warren’s interest in writing continued to emerge and he began writing a novel. Following his return to Baltimore in 1939, he taught for another year at MSB before resigning in 1940 to finish his novel and see it through the publication process. This novel was titled Fiddle Longspay and a reviewer, Edith Walton, writing in the New York Times Book Review in 1942 described the novel as "dealing with a large, peculiar and aristocratic family who have lorded it in Maryland for a couple of centuries or so, and who in all their habits and attitudes are almost indecently leisure class." In summarizing the book, the reviewer says that it "is a very amusing book,…and that its humor flows easily and spontaneously as humor does not always do." And she ended the review by saying "No doubt this is not the kind of story which purposeful young novelists should be writing, (a reference to war time seriousness) but as comedy it sure is adroit, civilized and funny. One book, of course, cannot tell the tale, but it looks as if in the field of light fiction Warren Bledsoe were a find."
By the time his book was published, war had broken out and Warren had enlisted in the Army Air Force. He described himself as "Not an indifferent soldier but an inept one." He had been assigned to the public relations office at Craig Field and charged with editing and writing a camp paper, the Craig Field Journal. A weekly feature of this journal was a legendary elephant and archery squadron that he invented commanded by Major Fiddlesgift. His work had drawn the attention of the editor of YANK MAGAZINE who put in a bid for this writer’s services.
This request, however, coincided with a search that was going on throughout the Armed Services for members who had had experience working with blind people. The Army was taking on responsibility for providing rehabilitation training to service men and women who had lost their vision as a result of war activities. Warren’s name was submitted and soon he found himself joining his fellow MSB teacher, Dick Hoover in a special unit at Valley Forge Military Hospital in Phoenixville, PA. This was the first of several times during the remainder of Warren’s working life when he had to set aside a preferred path in order to do what was required to advance opportunities and training for blind people.
The interesting story of what came next has been detailed by Warren in a chapter titled The Originators of Orientation and Mobility which is in the textbook, Foundations of Orientation and Mobility. It is too long to recount on this occasion, but the short version is this. As Warren and Dick Hoover and others on the staff at Valley Forge struggled with the challenge of how best to get blinded soldiers on their feet and back to their families and to their communities as independent contributing members of society, they focused on the skill of getting around independently and safely. Warren and Dick knew from their experience on this campus and with other schools that not much formal training was done about this except for the dog guide training schools which had begun in the previous decade. Those blind people who had developed the skill to get around by themselves were usually self-taught or had picked up a few pointers from other blind people. Some had a little vision that helped them a lot and others depended subtly or overtly on the assistance of sighted people. But the emphasis was on subtlety. It was thought that one of the nicest compliments that could be paid to a blind person at that time was "He gets around so well and know one can tell he’s blind."
The method that Hoover and Bledsoe settled on to help as many of the blinded soldiers as possible was to teach them how to use a new invention, a lightweight long cane, the Hoover cane as it came to be called, to touch the walking surface in front of them. This change was revolutionary for a number of reasons. First it said that everyone could learn to be independent to some extent, or as far as that person’s skills along with systematic teaching could take them; and secondly, it was far from subtle. It required that the blind person clearly demonstrate that he was blind by using the long cane, even though this demonstration was one of skill and not primarily one of need. This method was also carried out by sighted instructors and there was a lot of resentment of this fact by blind adults who were leaders in the rehabilitation services for the blind.
As the war ended, there was an understandable desire to dismantle as much of the Army structure as possible. Warren, himself, was eager to return to his writing career. But he and others were worried that if the Valley Forge program was dismantled, the positive and innovative gains that had been made would be lost. The short version of the story is that Warren ended up working as a consultant for the Veterans Administration and then as a staff member seeing to it that the skills and techniques that were invented at Valley Forge were transferred to a new center that was established within the VA at Hines Hospital near Chicago. In order to make this happen, Warren, with the support of other new leaders in the field had to challenge the VA bureaucracy, had to push past the objections of many established leaders in the field, and had to get the recommendations for a new center brought to the direct attention of General Omar Bradley who, by that time, was in charge of the VA. But Warren believed in the value of these new methods and techniques and he knew from history that many of the approaches to rehabilitation developed following World War I had been lost when the war ended and the center for blinded soldiers was closed.
Warren always felt that he had the extreme good fortune to work closely with and develop a friendship with Russ Williams in these post war efforts. Russ had been blinded as a soldier and had gone through the early training at Valley Forge. He came back to Valley Forge as a staff member and was there when the war ended. During this time, he began to further develop the travel techniques that would eventually complete the basic platform of the orientation and mobility profession. When Warren was given the opportunity to establish the center at Hines, he tapped Russ to lead this venture, a decision that Warren always regarded as one of his best. He and Russ selected and trained the first staff at Hines and this group went on to develop comprehensive rehabilitation techniques that were eventually, and still to this day, used by many rehabilitation centers that were developed around the country during the ensuing decades.
In the meantime, Warren went on to function as the coordinator of services to blind veterans in the central office of the VA. This involved much more bureaucratic infighting than Warren had a stomach for, but he did what he had to do. He would have rather been writing, but he was successful in getting an office established for a director of services for blind veterans, but he had to make a direct appeal to the White House in order to make it happen. Eventually, Russ Williams moved from Hines to take over this position in Washington. Warren described himself as being "punted down the field", at that time, from the VA to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. There he worked under the leadership of Miss Mary Switzer, another outstanding leader who made many good things happen for people who were disabled as well as for people who were poor or challenged by other social and personal problems.
This was a great time to be associated with this branch of HEW, and Warren took full advantage of the opportunity. He understood from his experience with both the Army and the VA, that successful programs depend on the selection of people of good character who are then well trained for the work they are expected to accomplish. With his input and guidance, federal funds were directed to establish the first university-based training programs for orientation and mobility specialists. Clear guidelines were established for the nature and quality of the persons who should be considered for this training and the curriculum and learning experiences that they should be provided. Many of these guidelines, which Warren himself had a great hand in developing, went on to form the basis of the standards on which certification for mobility specialists was eventually established.
Federal money was also used to fund and promote more than 30 demonstration projects around the country in which the role and value of these new mobility techniques were taken to all corners of the country. But even with this great push, these innovations were not readily accepted by everyone. Warren had to continue to educate, convince, cajole others to try this new approach. There was also resistance to the idea of a specialized profession to help blind people learn how to get around independently. While attending a conference of the American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB) in Pittsburgh in 1966, Warren and others were taking a lot of grief for these new developments. On his way home, while stopped at a restaurant, he scribbled out on the back of a napkin, a set of principles for those who work in the rehabilitation and education of the blind. This statement was titled "Credo Ascribed to Certain Masters of the Art of Teaching Blind People. The first line of this credo appears in today’s program.
After he retired, Warren returned to MSB to serve as a member of the Board of Directors. He brought to the deliberations of the Board his experience in establishing these new service programs as well as a clear sense of what worked and why. He also was instrumental in recruiting other influential members to the Board including Dick Hoover. Russ Williams, Dr. John Bordley and Bill Buchanan.
Consistent with his interest in writing and his recognition of the importance of history, Warren worked very hard to see to it that libraries were established and stocked in agencies and schools for the blind around the country. He made it his business to see that complete collections of the field’s journals were in these libraries, and he even started a new publication, The Blindness Annual, through AAWB to encourage writing and to provide a vehicle through which he could expose professionals in this field to the best of past writing by leaders in this profession.
For his role in creating a new profession, in establishing a new method of delivering rehabilitation services to people who lose their vision, for helping to establish and promote training programs for professionals in this area, for preserving and encouraging the further development of the literature of our field, Warren has received practically every major award that the field has to offer. Most of these awards are named after leaders in our field, and interestingly, and perhaps uniquely because his career spanned so many years, Warren knew personally most of the people after whom the awards he received were named. His impact on the field was such that he has begun to have awards named after him too. AER, our professional organization established a publications award named after Warren. MSB also established an achievement award in his name.
Regardless of all of this recognition, Warren was really a humble man who tried to avoid the spotlight and who bent over backwards to reflect any credit for any good thing that happened on to other people. This characteristic was very clearly evident when Warren was writing the chapter on the Originators of Orientation and Mobility that I mentioned earlier. This chapter was commissioned for the first comprehensive textbook in the field of O&M of which I was one of the editors. Warren started writing this chapter and went great guns for a couple months and then he stalled. After several months of making no progress, it became apparent that he had encountered a block of some kind. I discussed this problem with my fellow editor and our publisher and thought about where he was stuck. I knew enough about the story he was trying to tell to realize that he was stuck at that point in the story just following the war, when Warren himself played the most prominent and most important role in what was to follow.
When I returned home from that meeting, I met with Warren and tried out that theory on him. Along with that hypothesis, I offered to try to help him move past the blockage by writing that portion of the story myself, allowing him to correct and edit it and then having him complete the rest of the chapter. Warren acknowledged that I was probably right and that he was reluctant to describe his actual role in the process. However, he was too much of a historian to allow the story to be told by someone who wasn’t there when someone who was there was available to do the job. So he agreed to tell his story in full detail, as long as we would allow him to include in the text a note indicating that he was doing so at the request of the editors. We agreed and the resulting chapter has been the most interesting and charming in this book which has been used to educate mobility specialists for the past 25 years. Some of Warren’s contemporaries, including Russ Williams, read the chapter and learned things about Warren’s role in the development of this profession that they had never understood before.
In 1977, I had the opportunity to hear Warren deliver an acceptance speech when he received the Alfred Allen Award. In this speech, he acknowledged his family, his wife, Anne, and his daughters Hester and Ginny and he said, "I don’t think any man ever had better support at home for a career in work for the blind. They curse the villains and cheer the heroes, but privately. They seldom, if ever, put a wrong foot. There was a tense moment when Hester Anne at the age of six proposed to father Carroll, and he accepted. But she let him off the hook when she discovered he worked for God and lived in Boston." He went on to say, "My girls right-thinking with respect to work for the blind, will come to light when I tell you that at a very early age Ginny began to pray for Miss Switzer, Miss Diamond and all their pets and friends. So a lot of the people in this room were prayed for regularly in my house."
In spite of being born on this campus and growing up among the top professionals in this field, Warren really had his sites set on a literary career. But like many of his generation, the group that Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation," he set aside his preferred career to do what his country and what blind people needed him to do. In that same speech in 1977, he referred to the novel that he wrote before the war, and he said, "The blurbs on its jacket quoted me saying that I wanted to write a book a year for the rest of my life. But the same social holocaust which brought Dr.Lowenfeld to our shores propelled me into the War Blind Service and showed me there are some more important things in life than doing what you want to do."
How grateful we are as a field that Warren Bledsoe came along when he did, and, when given the opportunity to use what he had learned growing up on this campus and to bring his own special skills and talents to bear upon the situations he faced, he chose to dedicate himself to providing blind and visually impaired people with opportunities to be all that they could be. His was a marvelous life and a wonderful career, faithful to the end to the mission that was thrust upon him and which he served with honor and effectiveness.
I was proud to consider Warren a friend and a mentor, and I hope that all of you who are or have been associated with this school and with this man feel a similar pride as you consider the tremendous impact he had on the education and rehabilitation of people who are challenged to live without vision or with seriously reduced vision.
Rodney J. Kossick
Good morning everybody.
My wife, Sue Melrose and myself offer our condolences and sympathies to Hester and Virginia and their families for their recent loss of their parents, Anne and Warren Bledsoe. I also want to express my heartfelt thanks for this opportunity to share my feelings, having known Warren since 1961, and Anne almost as long.
Bill Walkowiak and myself being students then at Western Michigan University, presented ourselves unannounced at Mary Switzer’s door, to thank her for the O&M program and our stipends. Apparently, Ms. Switzer had a full schedule that day, and asked Warren if he would see us. Warren, with typical style of a famous person, not only opened the door but also opened his heart, his history and his already considerable interaction with what he called, "work for the blind." He left us that day with a reading list and challenge of self-examination to see if we might be properly aligned-not having been born into work for the blind!
Since that day, Warren has been to me a mentor, a teacher, a critic, a listener, an inspiration, an example and friend. He taught me as much about human nature and myself, as he did about work for the blind.
Early on, I saw Warren as a famous man. Not the fame of flash bulbs or fortune, but the fame that comes with understanding; "that often the good, is the enemy of the best." He worked everyday not to let such tentacles creep into work for the blind.
Our field is blessed with famous giants, his father, John Bledsoe among them. Warren became one of these famous titans because he had the knowledge, strength, and faith to carry the torch as it was passed.
I also observed that he was a famous parent. At the 1977 AAWB convention, Portland, OR, he needed to call Ginny and Hester before we could go to dinner. There was an issue which produced an exercised conversation. Warren, how could you be so firm with those girls? Now I have a daughter in Jr. High School. Warren, how could you be so calm with those girls?
Also, at that convention, Warren delivered a masterful, memorial address and I remember him quoting an old Norse proverb, "Cattle die; kindred die; all things die; but the fair fame never of those who earned it."
Warren aspired to write "the great American novel," and thereafter a book a year. Lucky for Steinbeck, Rand and Hemingway; blinded veterans and blind persons worldwide; that did not occur. Instead, Warren because a famous writer and historian in work for the blind.
The Creator does not deal in coincidences, that is a man-made concept. Warren was right where he was supposed to be, making good use of faith and great instincts, tempered with a great, yet metered intellect. Every turn in history is enabled and guided by famous persons with just the right mix of talent, initiative, foresight, perseverance, timing; and an uncanny ability to guide and guard a ship of state through rocky shoals, narrow harbors, and hostile waters. Instigating, designing, and building a ship of state is challenging enough; but keeping it afloat and avoiding pirates and hostile cannon for several decades is the paramount accomplishment.
This is the fiber of Warren’s fame. He revealed how it is done in his "CREDO." Most people struggle to meet any number of those tenets, yet Warren lived them on a daily basis. And he classified the ways they can be achieved: Hewers and Haulers, Fetchers and Carriers, Inventors, Shining Examples, Agitators and Stormy Petrels, Philosophers and Buffers. Then he humbly asked if there were any categories we wished to add. I think we would have to add thousands, because that’s how many of us accepted the baton.
Diederot, Campbell, Howe, Irwin, Allen, and scores of famous leaders now have another in their company. Warren himself, on the occasion of accepting the Alfred Allen Award, said, "If I should win my way to heaven and not find such people as Russ Williams, Kay Gruber, the original group of Hines Mobility Instructors, Gene Apple, Don Blasch, Lou Rives, Ms. Switzer, and Ms. Diamond; I think I would want to back out." I doubt that he retraced even a single step.
No other famous person could have had such an effect on generals, the president of the United States, and Mary Switzer; in order that the Hines program and philosophy could thrive in bureaucracies, become established in universities, schools and rehabilitation agencies; and then spread throughout the world.
"Cattle die; kindred die; all things die; but the fair fame never of those who earned it."