History of ABVI of NNY
In 1918 Watertown businessman M.E. Avery became interested in assisting local blind residents. Mr. Avery may have been influenced by by a speech given by Ann Conally, a representative from the New York State Commission for the Blind, to the Watertown Rotary Club, of which he was a member. Ann, who was legally blind herself, was a dynamic speaker who spoke of the need for the community to provide employment opportunities for the blind, so they could become productive self-sufficient members of the community.
“Gene”, as his friends knew him, immediately took to heart the challenge Miss Conally had made and with a friend, Frances Lynch, opened a sheltered workshop for blind people upstairs in the old Mohican Building. A year later the two pioneers were joined by Miss Evelyn Bourcy, and during the year 1919, the three formed the Watertown Association for the Blind. Thus, the first volunteer program for the blind was formalized.
Miss Bourcy became interested in the blind through her work as the Watertown Public School Nurse where she examined students with vision problems. At this time, Evelyn became aware of the newly organized workshop. Her First participation in the workshop came at their first Christmas Party held in 1918. Evelyn is the only Charter member of the Association still active as a board member.
The work of the early association was assisted from time to time by local businessmen who contributed supplies and funds to the Association in much the same tradition as evidenced today through community fund raising efforts such as the United Way. Gene was well known and highly respected in the community. He was low key and did not enjoy being in the limelight. He would drop in on fellow downtown businessmen wearing a white handkerchief around his head which he would pull down over his eyes when greeting the store owner. “What is the blindfold supposed to represent Gene”?, the friend would ask politely. Gene would reply, “How would you like to go through life blind?” Invariably, he would be given whatever he was asking for.
The blind workers were encouraged in their endeavors at the workshop by earning income for their labor. The work included repairing and caning chairs, weaving rugs and linen. The highlight of the year was the annual Christmas Party given for all blind people in the community. Gene would send one of his young employees, Howard Marskell, present owner of M.E. Avery firm, and a board member, to pickup the people who had no way to get to the workshop.
Later the program was expanded to include blind residents of Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence Counties, and the name was changed to the Northern New York Association for the Blind.
In 1933 the workshop was given up because of small attendance and the difficult economic times of the early 1930’s. At this time it was decided to limit the service area to Jefferson county and the name was changed to the Jefferson County Association for the Blind.
It was at this time that the Association hired its first fulltime field representative, Miss Nellis Horton, a Vassar graduate, served as Executive Secretary and field representative from 1933 until 1960, a period of 27 years. Nellie’s job was to visit the blind people living Jefferson County assisting them in various ways and to promote sight conservation programs. Nellie established an excellent relationship with the blind people. Mrs. Muriel P. Burns was appointed Executive Secretary following Miss Horton’s retirement. She served as the Association’s field representative until 1967.
Mrs. Genevieve F. Ward was appointed Business Secretary in January 1960. Upon Mrs. Burns retirement 1967, Mrs. Ward was appointed Executive Secretary and field representative. She served in that capacity until December 1980 when she retired. Mrs. Ward has continued to serve the Association as a member of the Board of Directors. She was elected secretary of the Board at the last election.
Miss Ruth Child, a local attorney became active in the Association as a Director in the 1930’s. It was at this time in Association’s history, and through Attorney Child’s efforts, the opportunities to receive lifetime gifts and bequests presented themselves. In order to receive gifts the Association had to become incorporated. Attorney Child drew up the necessary letters of incorporation and the act became final October 29, 1938.
The purpose of the Association was to provide assistance to blind residents of Jefferson County and to promote sight conservation programs. For sixty-three years the organization’s philosophy and service programs remain broad in scope and flexible, changing to meet the changing needs of the community’s blind and visually impaired, or “legally blind” residents.
Some of the specific services provided included:
- Referrals to Educational Institutions
- Employment Referrals
- Eye Examinations
- Braille Watches, books, etc.
- Talking Book Machines
- Walking Canes
- Writing Templates
- Large number dials for telephones
Upon her death in 1947, Miss Florence E. Hall, who was partially blind, gave her home at 321 Prospect Street to the Association, expressing the wish that it be used by the Association, as its headquarters. The Association voted to move its office from downtown to the Florence Hall home, where it remained until 2017. Miss Hall was a retired music teacher from the City schools. She also gave private music instructions at her home.
Dedication of the new office was celebrated on June 22, 1948 with a Silver Te and Open House, and a large number of guests were on hand for the occasion.
Mr. Avery remained active in the Association as a director until his death on September 9, 1958.
Various members of the medical profession have served the Association and its members over the years. Dr. Walter Atkinson was active throughout his professional career serving the needs of the blind. He would often provide the examination and fit a needy patient to glasses without compensation. Other doctors who have carried on in the tradition of Dr. Atkinson include: Dr. Lewis Heiser, Dr. John Kennedy, Dr. James Harrington, and Dr. John Scanlon.
The following individuals have served as Association presidents:
- Miss Ruth K. Child (1938-1940)
- Miss Elma M. Wood (1941-1942)
- Robert A. Van Benschoten (1943-1944, 1971-1975)
- Miss Gertrude Baker (9145-1947)
- Howard F. Marskell (1948-1949, 1959-1960)
- Wesley Graves (1950-1952, 1960-1962)
- Frances D. Lynch(1953-1954)
- Norman K. Mack (1955-1958)
- John E. Jones (1958-1959, 1962-1965, 1981)
- Way Clark (1965-1968)
- Laurence H. Kissel (1968-1971)
- Ray Linehan (1975-1980)
- Edward Cobb, Jr. (1982-)
- Charles Metzler*
*Present Board members
At the present time the Association serves 305 registered blind people in Jefferson County.
Miss Evelyn Bourcy is the only surviving Charter member of the Association. She remains active as a member of the Association. She was employed as the supervising School Nurse for the City of Watertown School System from 1918 to 1957, a period of 39-1/2 years.