The People Who Made Our Movement


by Peggy Chong

Since 1920, the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota (originally called the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind) has enjoyed a wealth of strong and dynamic leaders. They defined the goals of the organization and worked tirelessly to carry them out.

In the twenties, they built up a great financial base for the organization. The thirties brought the depression, yet our leaders could keep the organization going. In 1935, the Minnesota Bulletin boasted that the organization was debt free.

The forties, fifties, and sixties brought many changes and innovations in the blindness field and to the lives of the blind. There were always forward- looking leaders who would not let the organization stagnant. By the seventies, the focus of blind people had changed and the organization changed to lead the way for a better life for the blind of Minnesota and around the country.

It is interesting that our leaders always looked outside the state for better ideas. They took the best from what did work and learned from the mistakes of others so as not to bring problems home to our state. Always willing to share their knowledge, they kept up correspondence with many blind people around the country and as many organizations and agencies as they could to ensure that blind Minnesotans would be at the forefront in the blindness field.

Many of our leaders and members were not just a "flash in the pan." You will note from the list below that our leaders have always been men and women who are committed to the organization and to blind people. A vast majority of our members and leaders have been members for forty and fifty years. The organization was like family to many people. It was a place to learn, be nurtured and to give to others. For some it meant a place to live or a springboard to a career. It is no wonder that Federationists care for each other as a family would.

Better still, the organization has been filled with multigenerations of families. For example, did any of you know that Dale Heltzer's father was a board member in the 1950's? Louis Heltzer first appears in the minutes in 1953. He was a vendor and served on the Board of Directors from 1955 to 1960. He resigned in 1960 but remained active until his death. His son Dale is a past president of the Rochester Chapter.

Tim Aune's parents brought him into the organization before he could technically become a member. Ralph and Ferne Aune helped to get the age for membership lowered in the organization. Ferne was active on the Welfare and Membership committees as early as 1946. Ralph served on the Board in the 1960's and on many committees.

Other families included the Houghtelins, O'Days, Jorgensons, and I can't forget my own. My mother, Gwen Breuer, was a member in the early 1970's. She brought me to my first meeting.

Through reading the records of our organization, I have met some wonderful people who made the organization that we are all proud of. I would like to introduce them to you now.

Clarence Johnson

Clarence joined the organization in 1940. From the early '50's until the '80's, Clarence served many terms on the Board of Directors. He was president for four years from 1951 to 1954. He opened up committee and board meetings to all members. His goal was to have all members participate in the decision- making processes of the organization and become more involved. Under his administration, the organization began holding meetings outside the Metro area. Clarence was known for a level head and a sense of fairness. He worked on the House Committee during much of his time on the Board. His level head and calm approach to all problems kept many situations between residents from escalating into larger problems. We have just recently lost Clarence and he will be truly missed.

James Schleppegrell

Jim joined sometime in 1948. He became a leader in the early 1960's. While he was president in 1969-71, he laid the groundwork for the Student Division and for chapters in greater Minnesota. The organization was composed of older members and he realized that to survive it needed new blood. During his term as president, the organization began to take greater part in issues outside the Home and welfare legislation.

Lillian Frendin

In 1924, Lillian was the first woman on the Board of Directors. She was later elected president from 1928 to 1930. When discussing issues she showed much insight. At a Board meeting in the 1920's, a discussion of half fares for the blind on trains took place. She opposed half fares as she felt they would allow the railroads to refuse to carry blind passengers unless accompanied by a sighted person. For many years, she was the chairman of the Welfare Committee that visited sick members or those who could not get out of their homes. Upon her death in 1954, she left the organization over $2,000 in her will.

Frank Finsterbach

Frank was a founding member in 1920. He is credited as the founder of the Home for the Blind because of his driving effort to keep the idea alive in the organization and his fundraising for the Home. He and his wife Annah worked tirelessly at the Legislature speaking for the Home and the pension bill (known today as welfare payments). Frank was the first President of the organization.

Christopher Easton

Christopher became a member in the mid 1920's and was the driving force behind the Legislative Committee. He often met with Mr. M. I. Tynan (the Director of the Division for the Blind in the early 1930's) to get the agency to back the pension bill and other legislation sponsored by the organization. He was a well-educated man and he is recorded as presenting many speeches on the philosophy of the organization and blindness. He reminded the group that a blind person's lack of a job did not make him or her less respectable or worthy of membership. Mr. Easton wanted the organization's policy to be well thought out before passing a policy statement.

Archie B. Erickson

Archie became a member in 1931. He was elected to the Board in 1932 and served as president several times. His last term as president was 1971 to 1973. Archie was very involved throughout the organization but his main efforts were for the Home and the Entertainment Committee. He took great interest in the new chapter formed in Duluth in 1951. When the chapter became dormant, he spent much time in building it up again and keeping it alive. During his last term as president, the organization supported a group of blind people who sued the Minneapolis Society for the Blind (MSB) to obtain representation on the MSB board. Also during that term, the name of the organization was changed to National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.

Phil Houghtelin

Phil became a member in 1931. He was a piano tuner who was a quiet worker in the organization and soon found himself on the Board. For many years, he served as secretary. Throughout his involvement in the organization, he brought order to the records and files. He compiled all the old minutes and saw that they were retyped if necessary. Phil felt that some day they would be of historic importance. Edith Bush (wife of a founder of 3M) was a friend of his and gave to the organization liberally because of the efforts of Phil. His most remembered contribution was compiling a list of foundations and soliciting them for funds. After his death in the early 1970's, it was difficult to carry on his work since his notes were all in New York Point and there was no one alive anymore who could read them.

Eleanor Harrison

Eleanor served as president from 1955-59. She was elected to the NFB national board in 1960. In her many articles and speeches, she encouraged involvement by members at all levels. In 1947 she helped organize the Women's Guild and became its first president. She was a key supporter of the Guild and felt it was under valued by the state organization.

Tom Scanlan

Tom became a member in 1970. He was soon elected as the second president of the Student Division in Minnesota. In 1974, he was elected the treasurer and has held that post since. He was a plaintiff in the law suit against MSB, was active in the Legislative Committee, and chaired the Public Relations Committee. In 1979, after winning the law suit against MSB, he served on the MSB board as one of the NFB eight until they resigned in 1982. He is responsible for getting a newspaper clipping service for the organization to keep closer track of what the media was printing about the organization. Tom was also involved in the committees that negotiated with State Services for the Blind on the organizations issues such as the Home Teacher Program run by the organization and the Commission for the Blind Bill.

Otto Grey

Otto was also a founding member in 1920. He served on the board for 15 years in many capacities, including nine years as president. He was not a big fan of new technology. After looking at the new Talking Book machine in 1933, he decided that some one else would have to demonstrate it at the annual meeting as it was just a bit too much for him. He was a peacemaker president who kept the organization together when people's goals for the organization did not always meld.

Joyce Scanlan

Joyce joined the organization in 1970. She wasted no time showing her interest in the affairs of the blind. At the Semi-annual Convention in 1970 she presented a resolution calling for blind teachers to be allowed into the teaching profession. Her interest in legislative matters soon made her the legislative representative at the state Capitol. She worked on the Grievance Committee of the Joint Legislative Committee to resolve issues with the Minneapolis Society for the Blind but without success. In the early 1970's, blind people picketed the Society. There was some apprehension among the Board, but Joyce convinced them that the public was now more aware of the problems and looked unfavorably upon the Society, not the organization. Joyce was elected president of the NFB of Minnesota in 1973, a position she still holds today. In 1974, she was elected to the national board. As first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind, she carries our Minnesota successes across the country while representing the national body.

Curtis Chong

Curtis joined the organization in January of 1975 and quickly became the president of the Student Division and secretary of the NFB of Minnesota. He served as one of the NFB eight on the board of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. Through his leadership and writings, he has had a major impact on the public relations and resolutions committees throughout the organization. He has been an advocate for many blind persons winning appeals with State Services for the Blind and the Social Security Administration. He works with many blind people to help them get started in jobs relating to computer technology. Curtis currently serves as the vice president of the NFB of Minnesota and the NFB representative and chairman on the Advisory Council to State Services for the Blind.

Torger Lien

Torger was a teacher at the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School (now called the State Academy for the Blind) in Faribault. Among other things, he taught white cane travel to the blind students. He did not leave his teaching at the school. At the December 1948, Semi-annual Convention he gave a presentation on how to use a white cane. At that time, many agencies for the blind taught their students to hold the cane out in front of them, not touching the ground when crossing the street. Every one believed the cane was just for identification. He said that the proper way to use a cane when crossing the street was to hold the cane vertically, not holding it out horizontally, as it stated in the White Cane law. He then sponsored a resolution to change the White Cane law and urged the organization to work diligently for its passage.

Marie Whitteker

Marie joined the organization in 1937. Marie used a dog to travel. In 1948, the membership discovered that the Board had strongly discouraged persons with dog guides from being residents of the Home. Dogs were not allowed in the Home unless they were kept in the basement. So Marie and some of her friends went to the March 5, 1948 Board meeting to protest this policy. They got the Board to agree to allow dog guides in the Home in all places except the kitchen and the dining room during large meal functions. Through the organization, she met and married George Whitteker who had served in many capacities in the organization including state secretary. Marie was also one of the NFB eight, elected to the board of MSB in 1979.

Ingvald "Gundy" Gunderson

Gundy was active in legislative issues from the 1940's into the 1970's. He served in many capacities with the Joint Legislative Committee throughout his involvement. In 1946, he was appointed as one of the seven members of the Blind Study Committee. For many years, he was the Legislative delegate to the national conventions. In 1960, he and Dr. Jernigan were the NFB representatives at a workshop and public hearing on Special Education and Rehabilitation in Chicago. Gundy participated in many workshops, influenced the testimony of many officials, and presented the NFB's position on the issues. In his many Minnesota Bulletin articles, he expressed his respect for Dr. tenBroek and for Dr. Jernigan and encouraged each member to become involved nationally.

Andy Virden

Andy became a member in 1951. Right away he wrote letters and articles for the Minnesota Bulletin to bring the concerns of the vendors to the organization's attention. He is well known in his community and works effectively with legislators. In 1971 when local chapters were being formed, he helped establish the chapter in St. Cloud. Andy has been President of the chapter for much of its existence.

John C. Lysen

John was the superintendent of the Braille and Sight Saving School in Faribault (now called the State Academy for the Blind) from 1934 until 1965. He was well respected by all who knew him. He strived for excellence in the school's staff and students, both scholastically and athletically. Contrary to the practice of the day, he hired many competent blind adults as teachers at the school and paid them the same as the sighted staff members. He regularly attended the conventions, and he and his wife were members from time to time. His staff members were active leaders in the organization and he made every effort as an employer to allow them to do so. He greatly improved the grounds and buildings and promoted the idea that blind people deserved dignified treatment and a pleasant environment as much as sighted people. He is credited with bringing order and quality education to the school. John was a sighted man who held much respect for the organized blind.

Joe DeBeer

Joe joined the organization in 1932. Although not much is written about Joe, it is well known that he was active politically on speaking for the blind. He led demonstrators with picket signs to the Capitol in the 1930's, when it looked as though much if not all of Aid for the Blind would be cut. Joe served as national secretary of the National Federation of the Blind in the early 1940's.

Walter Maine

Walter was an active member of the organization for many years until his death in 1956. He was a founding member of the organization. Many resolutions presented to conventions had his name on them as a coauthor. He was a piano tuner and was active in the Piano Tuners clinics held at the Home. Walter left an insurance policy to the organization valued at over $1,100 upon his death.

Mary Hartle-Smith

Mary was the first president of the Student Division in 1971. She joined in 1970. Mary not only helped to build the Student Division, but she traveled throughout the state helping to form new chapters and recruiting new members. Much of her time was spent at the State Capitol working on the legislative agenda for the organization. She was also one of the MSB 8.

Judy Sanders

Judy moved here in 1982 to take a position with the organization as Director of Educational Programs. Since moving to Minnesota, she was the first blind person to be arrested in the battle with the airlines over exit row seating. After finishing her job with the NFB of Minnesota, she became the first blind person hired by a Congressman as a district director. She has been active on the legislative front and currently chairs the Legislative Committee. For years, she has represented the organization as a speaker at churches, schools, conventions, seminars and social clubs.

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