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New York State School for the Blind

June 8, 2018 - 9:17pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in New York State School for the Blind, batavia, news.

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 One hundred and fifty years of history, tradition, successes, and memories were shared today at the New York State School for the Blind in a ceremony marking the institution's sesquicentennial.

Today's speakers included Thomas Ruller, NYS archivist, on stage in the photo above, with a picture of the original School for the Blind, dedicated in 1868 (the current building was constructed in the 1940s). 

It was the 23rd such school in the nation, putting New York at the forefront of building schools for blind students, Ruller said.

"One thing I found interesting is there is a sort of lore that the school for the blind in Batavia was established largely to support and provide assistance for veterans of the Civil War," Ruller said. "In looking at the first hundred students who entered the school, there weren’t very many individuals who were veterans of the Civil War."

The first official student, he said, was Samuel Stillwell, born in 1850, and blinded by a stick in when he was 10. He was at the school for only 11 months before his family moved to Missouri, where he died the next year of tuberculous.

One of the early students, the 13th, in fact, who went on to great success, was a native of Genesee County. Ambrose Shockwell was valedictorian of the Class of 1873. He then rejoined his family, who by that point had moved to Michigan, where he became instrumental in advancing the cause of blind people. He gained a national reputation as an educator and a leader in the blind community.

Ruller shared a quote about him from 1914: "He was gentle in spirit, caution in pronouncing judgment upon any subject, a great student, an untiring worker for those who are blind. It is safe to say that no other man in this section of the country among workers for the blind demands greater respect than Ambrose M. Shockwell."

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Vincent Tagliarino, Class of 1954, on piano, leading the alumni in the Alumni Alma Mater.

In his talk, Ruller noted how important music has always been to the school. For much of its history, the school's choir was sought regionally for its performances and the school had a jazz band in the 1950s and 1960s.

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State Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer and Assemblyman Steve Hawley read a joint Senate-Assembly proclamation honoring the school.

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Jack Herring presented the original diploma of Agnes Hamilton, his aunt, whom everybody knew, he said, as "Aunt Agnes," as a gift to the school, returning it, he said, to where it belongs.

Hamilton graduated in 1915. She lived until she was one day shy of her 100th birthday and Herring said she was an incredible woman.

He said he learned three things from her: That "handicapped" is only a state of mind. That seeing isn't something only done with your eyes. And, that a sense of humor is an essential part of being happy.

"There is no doubt in my mind that she could see more than most sighted people and she couldn’t even distinguish daytime from nighttime," he said.

Whenever there was a family gathering or any gathering of people, Herring said, Aunt Agnes was the life of the party.

He recalled that when people learned Hamilton had a job they would ask as politely as possible what she did for a living.

"I'm a proofreader," was her deadpan response.

Pause.

“The expressions I witnessed on their faces was memorable, to say the least, but little did they know, she was actually telling them the truth," Herring said.

Hamilton worked for Reader's Digest for 40 years proofreading their Braille edition. She kept an apartment by herself in New York City five days a week and returned to her Upstate home by herself on a train each weekend.

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Edwin Cooney, president of the Alumni Association, shared in some detail what it was like to be a student at the NYSSB in the 1960s, recalling both the sadness at being separated from family on the first day of school and the excitement of being back with your friends, meeting new people, and doing new things. He reminisced about teachers and travels and all the things that made life living and studying at the school worthwhile.

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Jacob Bross is one of the school's current students. He said wasn't doing very well at his previous school. He didn't apply himself to his studies and was often late to class before dropping out.

Transferring to NYSSB changed his life, he said.

"I lacked self-confidence that I was on the same level as my peers," Bross said. "The school gave me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone."

In addition to limited vision, Bross said he was diagnosed with high functioning autism.

"The school has given me many opportunities to socialize and form friendships," he said.

He said he enjoys going to movies, local baseball games, shopping, field trips, and participating in dorm dinners, dances and proms.

"I exercise a lot of independence in completing my work," Bross said. "My teacher believes in me. She advocates for me and tells me she has faith I can pass my Regents exam. This alone helped me build my confidence. I now believe in myself."

Once he graduates, he said, he wants to pursue a career in psychology.

(A picture and information about a student who spoke was removed at the request of the school.)

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The school choir sang the Alma Mater of the current class.

Photos below, from a room off the foyer of historic artifacts.

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June 13, 2015 - 5:28pm

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(Photo: Edwin Cooney)

Members of the New York State School for the Blind Alumni Association met for their annual reunion to recall memories with their schoolmates and reinforce their connection to the school. The opening ceremony was in the auditorium at Severne Hall last night.

Tom Flaherty, vice president of the alumni association, led the ceremony. Barbara Lemen, NYSSB superintendent, gave a speech about the school’s recent efforts to increase educational opportunities for current students.

Following Lemen, Edwin Cooney, president of the alumni association, shared history of the school through a trivia game he created. Winners received prizes including key chains and soil from the school grounds.

Cooney thought the soil would help bring back fond memories alumni made at the school. He remembers when he first attended kindergarten there in 1950 like it was yesterday.

“There were 16 boys and 16 girls in the old kindergarten building,” Cooney said. “We were in big dorms and there was a bed in each corner. You could fit 16 beds in the room so it was all very communal and very new for most of us.”

Cooney adapted to the culture quickly but felt isolated from the rest of the Batavia community. When he graduated in 1966, it took him a while to adjust socially at college because he never had the experience of going to a public school.

“Some of us were shocked when we went to college and found some people were afraid of us,” Cooney said.

Diane Scalzi, corresponding secretary for the alumni association, first attended the school in February 1957 but left three years later to attend public school. Her experience at public school helped her socially to interact with sighted students but she was concerned she wouldn’t have equal educational opportunities. As a result, in 1960 she returned to the school and graduated in 1971.

“I was worried that if I went to public school I would not get gym classes, Home Economics classes and mobility,” Scalzi said. “I was able to get through college and have a career because of my education at the school.”

Chet Smalley, treasurer of the alumni association, was in fourth grade when he came to the school in 1964 and graduated in 1973. He participated in student council, the Key Club and wrestling.

“The evolution that those of us at NYSSB were able to experience was the fact that we were able to grow up as ‘normal’ children because our blindness was incidental,” Smalley said. “We did everything else that normal children could do and that was the beauty of the school.”

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(From left: Diane Scalzi, Linda Smalley, Chet Smalley and Edwin Cooney)

Tonight the association will have its annual banquet and Sunday members will hold a memorial service to remember alumni who have passed away.

Moving forward, alumni officers are planning the association’s 100th-anniversary celebration in 2018. The officers are working with Lemen to help encourage more graduates to join the alumni association. They hope recent graduates will show interest in becoming members.

“We don’t have a member in the association that is under 50 years old,” Cooney said. “We need to acquire more members because we are getting old and need to start caring for each other.”

The alumni association has also expanded its eligibility to allow graduate’s spouses to become members. The association hopes by working with the community they can continue their legacy and pass their memories onto future generations.

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