California School for the Blind
Report Card 2012/2013


Education of
Deaf-Blind Children

in the 60s

for the 70s

of the 70s

Newel Perry, Pupil,
Scholar, Teacher Leader
CSB History

Newel Perry: Pupil, Scholar, Teacher, Leader

The historical significance of this school cannot be fully grasped without at least a few words concerning its most prominent pupil. The example he set and the influence he engendered made possible its scholastic excellence and the astounding achievements of its graduates during the three-quarters of a century it remained in Berkeley.

Newel Perry, who lost his sight at the age of eight and entered the school before the age of ten, was one of about fifty blind children in an institution devoted primarily to educating deaf children. The blind were but a small minority. Two school rooms, two good teachers, and three or four planos constituted the school's equipment. His teachers must have been good ones, since in spite of meager equipment, many acquired the groundwork of an elementary education. It is difficult to realize that in 1883, the year he entered the school, this was the sole agency for the blind in California.

Newel Perry is believed to have been the first blind person to have done it--to have won permission to attend regular classes at Berkeley High School. He was the first blind person accepted for enrollment at the University of California. He became an outstanding mathematician during his undergraduate days. Following his graduation, he received a heretofore unheard-of appointment to a full time instructorship in mathematics at the University. Interspersed in this period, he also held an instructorship in mathematics at the University of Chicago.

Had he lacked the gallant approach to living, he might never have resolved to travel alone across continental America and a wide expanse of ocean to sojourn in both Zurich, Switzerland, and Munich, Germany; nor would he have traversed unaided a great part of the European continent. Yet, at the turn of the century, these things he did in quest of a higher degree in mathematics from a European university--an academic qualification more highly prized in his younger days than in more recent times. Moreover, he supported himself a good part of the way by the simple expedient of teaching English to Swiss and German groups. They found it a fascinating undertaking to learn a foreign language orally from a blind man. He was awarded his Ph.D. while studying at the University of Munich.

On his return to the United States, New York City was the main scene of his activities for nearly a decade, where nearly all the while he was associated with either Columbia University or New York University. It was in the New York State Legislature that Dr. Perry undertook his first completely successful great legislative effort in behalf of the blind. In 1907 he lobbied through both chambers and persuaded Charles Evans Hughes, then Governor of New York, and later Chief Justice of the United States, to sign a bill providing the first appropriated Reader Funds for blind college students anywhere in the United States.

Dr. Perry returned to California in 1912. The School for the Blind in Berkeley had reached a decisive crossroads in education. The organized alumni of the school, which he had helped organize in 1898, were demanding the return of Newel Perry's progressive influence. The school itself and the Governor of the State wanted him back.

To lead the way in opening opportunities for blind people in higher education became an intensified campaign for Dr. Perry at this juncture of his life. Owing to his influence and persuasion, the California Legislature established in the State's regular budget for education a regularly appropriated Reader Fund for blind students attending public high schools, colleges and universities within the State. Dr. Perry was designated as Director of Advanced Studies for the Blind of the entire State after the creation of this fund. The always widening responsibilities of this position occupied a great part of his energies down to the day of his compulsory retirement in 1947, at the age of seventy-three.

At the time of his retirement, seventy-eight of his students had been graduated from colleges and universities and had succeeded in a wide variety of vocations and professions. His former students began to turn up all over the State and in other parts of the country as successful lawyers, business people, civil servants, farmers, judges, employment specialists, social workers, legislators, salesmen, osteopaths, chiropractors, and as jobholders of various descriptions and in an extending array of different occupations. All of this occurred at a time when the blind were considered among the unemployable.

During his more than thirty years as teacher and Director of Advanced Studies at the California School for the Blind, where he prodded literally hundreds of his students, his "boys and girls," into seeking their full potentials through higher education, he fashioned a foundation of limitless possibilities available to most blind people today.

While education was his prescription for most ills besetting the blind, convinced, as he was, that it offered the greatest promise for the overcoming of its handicap, he did not forget those less fortunate.

Dr. Perry was the author of California's Aid to the Blind Laws, the most liberal and self-help laws in the nation. At his insistence, the position of Field Worker was established at the California School for the Blind. Its purpose was that of following the graduates and former pupils of the school into their home communities to assist them in procuring remunerative employment and to otherwise aid them in becoming active members of their communities. A few months before his death, February 12, 1961, at the age of eighty-seven, he created the Lillie Perry Foundation for the Blind, Inc., named after his beloved wife, for the purpose of providing long-term, low-interest loans to young men and women who are blind, and seeking to go into business for themselves. He left the bulk of his estate to the Foundation.

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