Articles

People won’t believe the colonel’s blind

Col. Eddie Baker helped start a unique organization for the blind. It’s copied all over the globe. Baker himself is its best advertisement; lots of the people he meets don’t know that his eyes are made of glass

DOROTHY SANGSTER February 15 1954
Articles

People won’t believe the colonel’s blind

Col. Eddie Baker helped start a unique organization for the blind. It’s copied all over the globe. Baker himself is its best advertisement; lots of the people he meets don’t know that his eyes are made of glass

DOROTHY SANGSTER February 15 1954

People won’t believe the colonel’s blind

Articles

Col. Eddie Baker helped start a unique organization for the blind. It’s copied all over the globe. Baker himself is its best advertisement; lots of the people he meets don’t know that his eyes are made of glass

DOROTHY SANGSTER

WHEN a night watchman in Toronto, pensioned for a leg wound and loss of sight in one eye, fell on a slippery pavement a few years ago and injured his good eye, a hospital doctor operated on him and t hen hurried to the telephone to make an urgent call to Eddie Baker.

“Can you come over here and be with this man when he comes out of the anaesthetic?” he urged. “If you’re with him when he learns he’s totally blind for life, the news may not be so hard to take.” Eddie Baker is, of course, Lt. Col. Edwin Albert Baker, OBE, MC and Croix de guerre, managing director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, who has himself been sightless since a German bullet got him between the eyes at Mount Kemmel in 1915. His presence at the bedside of a newly blinded man can probably do more for him than anything else, for not only does Baker accept the handicap of blindness he overlooks it. What’s more, he’s convinced that anyone who wants to can do the same.

People connected with the CNIB say Baker’s personal brand of courage and resourcefulness is largely responsible for the growth and success of this remarkable organization. Dedicated to the principle of helping the blind to help themselves and offering a wider variety of services than any other institution of its kind anywhere, the Institute is unique in the world today. Britain has nothing to match it. United States admirers have publicly acclaimed it as an example for Americans, and a rehabilitation centre patterned on the CNIB is

currently being set up in Cairo to serve the hitherto neglected blind of the Middle East.

No less extraordinary than the organization is blind Eddie Baker himself a tall, vigorous, goodlooking man of sixty-one of whom a volunteer canvasser once complained, “He makes being blind sound so normalƒ” Baker neither looks blind, acts blind nor talks as if he were blind.

Unlike many sightless persons who gaze downward with a peculiar “listening” expression, Baker regards the world with a pair of such remarkably keen grey-blue eyes that it is practically impossible to remember t hey are made of glass. Interviewing him at his home recently I was convinced he was staring at one of my white gloves which I had dropped in a puddle on my way up the walk. So strong was the feeling that I had no peace until I tucked it into my purse.

Montreal artist Lilias Torrance Newton, commissioned to paint the colonel’s portrait for Baker Hall, a Toronto residence for blinded war veterans, intended out of sympathy to paint her subject in profile. Then she met him, changed her mind and painted him in striking full face. “That amazing, direct gaze of his!” she marveled.

Unlike the prototype of the blind man, feeling, groping and tapping his way from corner to corner, Baker stands straight and moves confidently. He carries a white cane but seldom uses it. Every inch of the sidewalks around his home on Russell Hill Road in Toronto’s Forest Hill is familiar to him— the upgrades, t he

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People Won't Believe the Colonel's Blind

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downgrades, the places where old roots have broken through the pavement or made little humps. Nothing except a thick fall of snow, which obliterates all his small signposts, can faze him.

Once in a while he actually forgets he is blind and humps into something. Because he moves so quickly and surely, with his arms relaxed at his sides, his four children when they were small had to remember minor points of home etiquette. Roller skates had to be kept out of the halls and off the stairs, and doors liad to he closed or left wide open. Otherwise Baker’s family never seemed to notice he was blind. Visitors have often been startled to locate Baker down in his basement workshop, operating a power saw in the pitch dark. He has made an assortment of goodlooking household furniture in his workshop, including chairs, end tables and storm windows. He says he chose woodworking as a hobby because as a youth he was used to tools and because it demands complete concentration, and so takes his mind off business.

Baker can walk down any street and spot the location of trees and telephone poles, or enter a strange room and tell almost exactly the distance between himself and each wall. Psychologists call this “facial vision,” and explain that the blind feel a reaction, light as a spider web, brushing across their skin and warning them when they face a solid object. Baker maintains ninetyeight percent of it is hearing—a matter of direction by sound waves. His contention seems to be borne out by

recent discoveries of Austrian scient ists that the blind build up a sense of aural direction through the detection of echoes—that the spider-web sensation comes from sensitive ears which catch sound reflected from surrounding objects. Thus a blind man with bandaged face and hands can still detect an object in front of him, and can be confused by experiments which misdirect sound so that it seems to be coming from somewhere else.

Baker can listen to a voice and make a good guess at the weight, height and age of its owner. The well-trained, youthfully resilient voice of a singer or an actor occasionally can fool him into thinking they’re younger than they really are but he’s usually right on the button. He guessed my own weight at “just under a hundred and twentyfive pounds” and my age at thirty-five. (My actual weight was a hundred and twenty-two and I figure he had the age right too, but sheared off a couple of years in deference to my sensitive sex.)

Judge Frank McDonagh of Toronto, a long-time friend, says, “The only time 1 remember Eddie Baker ever mentioning his own blindness was back in 1932 when there was a provision in the pension benefit that a group of us veterans didn’t care for. We sent a delegation to Ottawa and Eddie was our spokesman. I remember he started his little speech to Prime Minister Bennett by saying, ‘You know, Mr. Prime Minister, we who have been in the dark since the war . . .’ Bennett was visibly moved.”

Something that has always struck Judge McDonagh as remarkable is Baker’s uncanny ability to recognize familiar ground. Once, years ago, when the judge and his mother drove Baker home from a function downtown, they turned onto Baker’s street. McDonagh didn’t know then which house was the

colonel’s and was so engrossed in conversation that he forgot to ask. Baker suddenly touched him on the arm, “Back up, Frank,” he said, “we’ve passed it. It’s the house two doors back, No. 412.”

McDonagh backed up the car, Baker opened the door and let himself out, walked cheerfully up the sidewalk to his door, shifted his white cane from his right arm to his left, removed his hat and nodded good-by. Then he opened the door and went into the house.

“Don’t tell me that man is blind!” said the judge’s elderly mother.

Baker has a remarkable sense of direction and is reputed to know every mile of every road between Toronto and Ottawa, and to have a passable knowledge of many other roads in Ontario as well. Lt. Col. Tommy Howlett of Toronto remembers a time he drove along a back road to the Baker cottage at Collin’s Bay, the colonel sitting beside him directing something like this: “Now it’s five more miles

. . . now turn left . . . the So-and-So family lives in this big white house you’re passing . . . there, we’re almost at the big tree . . . here it is now, the second gate on the left.” And sure enough the second gate would be Baker’s place. Howlett says he felt his friend must have a second pair of eyes hidden in his head.

‘Don’t Forget, I’m Lucky”

Grace Worts, Baker’s sighted assistant, drove him to Kitchener once and somehow got her directions mixed as she left a gas station and ended up almost where she started. Baker had not been paying attention, his mind being on a speech he was to make, but now he asked where they were, told her where she’d made her first mistake and directed her the rest of the way to Kitchener and the hotel.

There’s a story that Baker once got lost in the vicinity of Collin’s Bay and found his way by the simple expedient of tossing stones methodically in a circle until one hit a barn which he knew was somewhere in the vicinity. Taking his directions from the barn, he found his way home. Baker doesn’t recall the incident but sees nothing extraordinary about the other stories.

“I’ve always had a sort of photographic memory, a faculty for registering things I saw and heard,” Baker says. “And don’t forget I’m lucky:

I didn’t lose my sight until 1 was grown up. I can remember fairly well everything that happened before that.”

Over the years, Baker has traveled across Canada more times than he can count, often alone. He is equally at home on planes or trains, although Miss Worts claims he prefers trains “so he can pick the other passengers’ brains longer.” Baker doesn’t read Braille: although he knows the alphabet and carries a Braille watch, he finds reading slow and frustrating. On a train, he lilces best to sit in the lounge or smoking car, chatting with other passengers. Col. Howlett recalls an excited young man who buttonholed him one day on the train to Ottawa, pointed to Baker, and said See that chap over there? He’s blind! We’ve been talking for two hours and I never caught on. If a porter hadn’t put his cup of coffee down just out of reach, so he had to ask me to pass it, I still wouldn’t know.”

Baker can shave with a straight razor on a speeding train and never give himself a nick. He can familiarize himself with strange hotel rooms and strange cities almost immediately. He can eat, dress and go shopping unaided. Visitors to the Baker cottage at Collin’s Bay have never really got over their

surprise at finding their host up a ladder roofing a boathouse or climbing a tree to remove dead branches. Mrs. Baker, whose quiet confidence has meant much in this happy marriage, remembers many nights she sat up waiting for him when he took their sons for a midnight sail on the Bay of Quinte. Judith Robinson, a Toronto journalist and Baker's sister-in-law, no longer thinks it strange when he drops in at her Wellesley Street house with a tool kit to fix the banister which seemed wobbly to him on a previous visit.

Brig. J. L. Melville, chairman of the Canadian Pension Commission, who has had frequent dealings with Baker, calls him “the most constructive, independent, positive-minded man 1 know. He gets up at half-past six every day of his life. He’s hard at it all day long and there’s not a question you can ask him about veterans’ administration or legislation for the blind that he can’t answer.”

Baker's office in downtown Toronto is a large, empty-looking room on the second floor of a big old building on Beverley Street. His desk is neat and

orderly. There’s a stack of volumes tag-marked for further reference, a pile of letters ready for him to sign, a telephone and an enormous ash tray which a friend gave him with the injunction, “When it’s full, somebody’s been with you too long.” Actually, Baker measures his interviews not by the ash tray, but by his Tiraille watch. He makes his own telephone calls, memorizing the alphabet letters on the machine, placing his fingers in the first four slots, and figuring out the other numbers from there.

Practically the whole CNIB staff is

DARLING! —YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE ALMOST DONE IT!

He thought about buying me mink (I’m still mink-less); He came close to fixing the sink (ditto, sink-less);

He almost bought flowers while passing the market,

But he had the car; there was no place to park it . . . He Thought About Me, and the fact that he said it Entitles him somehow (?!) to some sort of credit.

PHILENE HAMMER

blind, or partially blind, but the organization employs a certain number of sighted secretaries and stenographers, in the interests of speed, efficiency and accuracy. Miss Worts, who came to the Institute in 1920, takes Baker’s dictation. He doesn’t relish paper work but shrugs it off as a necessary evil. He knows by memory the basic statistics and facts he needs in his job —that only one million of the nine million blind in the world live in countries with services for the sightless; that Canada’s blind population last year numbered 20,115; that eighty percent of the blind lose their sight in adult life; that approximately half of all cases of blindness have unknown or undetermined causes, and that of the known causes, cataracts (due to blows, senility or disease) ranks first in importance, glaucoma (drying up of the drainage ducts) is second, and kidney trouble, tuberculosis, diabetes and arthritis are other causes. Accidents, he can tell you, are responsible for a mere seven percent of all blindness. Filed away in Baker’s mind there must be whole books about the blind’s problems, for there is no department of the Institute that he doesn’t have to deal with.

In any given week he may be called on to discuss the organization and finances of the CNIB with the board of directors or turn his thoughts to the blind personnel who run the Institute’s forty service centres. He’ll confer with Lindsay Williamson, the Institute’s national director of employment, about jobs for the blind in Canadian industries or call a conference with CNIB superintendent A. N. Magill, just back from Cairo, to hear how the new rehabilitation centre for the Far East is progressing. Baker keeps abreast, too, of work done by the roster of “home teachers” trained in Institute classes to go into homes of newly blind housewives to teach them to cook, sew, shop, keep house and care for their children, all by the faculties of touch and sound.

In the middle of all this, Baker finds time for a personal relationship with individual blind people, especially members of the Sir Arthur Pearson Association of War Blinded, who are having trouble accepting their sudden affliction. He hates self-pity, which he calls “corroding and destructive.” He explains, “You, a sighted person, try to imagine what it would be like to be blind. You close your eyes and stumble around the room humping into things. You wonder how a blind person can bear to live with his handicap. But you’re wrong because you’re imagining blindness the way it is for a person who’s just lost his sight. The blind may start out like that but after they’ve had some training they find they haven’t lost the whole world.”

Baker was twenty-two when he lost his sight. Earlier, as the eldest son of John Wesley and Phiilipa Baker of Ernesttown, Ont., he had been educated in rural schools and had gone to Queen’s University, class of C4. He wanted to be an engineer but war came and he went overseas early in 1915 as

a section commander of the 6th Field Company. On Oct. 9 that year, the Germans blew up a land mine at Mount Kemmel and Baker organized a party to repair the trenches. He was out front doing some wiring when a bullet hit him. He was the first man wounded in his regiment.

“It all happened in a fraction of a second,” says Baker, of the accident that changed his life. “At first there wasn’t any pain. That came later, as the nerves returned to sensitivity. *1 stumbled back to the trench. The medical sergeant called for iodine but I persuaded him just to put on dry pads, in case there was a chance I’d see again. They sent me to a tent hospital in Calais and Col. Lister, the great ophthalmologist, looked at me. ‘Nothing doing here,’ he said. So they sent me to hospital in London.”

Baker admits this was one time in his life when he did a lot of brooding. His dreams of an exciting career in engineering were gone. The only blind he knew were the ones he had seen back in Canada, holding out tin cups and begging for charity. Then one day a man stood beside his bed and introduced himself as Arthur Pearson, founder of St. Dunstan’s, the famous English training school for blinder! veterans. He urged Baker to visit the school when he left hospital. Baker, reflecting how easy it was for people to give advice when they had their own two good eyes, reluctantly promised. It was not until after his visitor left that he learned from a nurse that Pearson himself was blind.

He Could Fence, Too

Baker spent six months at St. Dunstan’s. There the turning point came when he met a young receptionist who had got himself adjusted to blindness, although he had also lost his left arm in the war. Baker says, “Up until then I felt pretty sorry for myself. Now I began to realize something that’s become more evident to me all my life —everybody has disabilities. Instead of being so sure the blind couldn’t do anything, I began to wonder what they could do.”

Baker applied for fencing lessons. They gave him a woman instructor, a foil, and a mat on the floor to mark his territory. As the weeks passed, he learned to spot her by sound, listening for the rustle of her clothes and the whisper of her breath. Soon he could outscore her. He has never fenced again, hut he says the experience gave him a valuable sense of timing and direction.

When he returned to Canada late in 1915 Baker didn’t know what he wanted to do. One evening at the home of John R. (Black Jack) Robinson, editor of the Toronto Evening Telegram, he met Sir Adam Beck, chairman of the Hydro Electric Power Commission. Beck was impressed with him and gave him a job as a typist with the commission. Robinson’s quiet young daughter Jessie, about to go overseas for VAD work, was also impressed. In 1918 when she returned they were

married. By this time Baker was working in Ottawa for the Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment Department, now the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, in charge of training and rehabilitating war blinded, whose plight, it developed, opened the way for establishment of the Blind Institute.

Until 1918 Canada had little to offer the sightless, apart from the Nazareth Institute in Montreal run by the Grey Nuns; schools for the blind in Halifax and Brantford; a couple of broom shops in Ontario; and a Braille library in Toronto which Baker joined.

Gradually, it became evident that Baker’s interest and the interest of the Braille library people were the same and so there came to be talk of an Institute for the Blind. Steps were taken to bring it into being; influential people were seen, money was raised and a constitution was drawn up. In 1918 the Canadian government gave the Canadian National Institute for the Blind a charter and a financial grant to help defray a portion of its expenses. Baker gave up his Ottawa job in 1920 and returned to Toronto as general secretary of the new Institute.

But setting up an institute was easier said than done. They needed money and had to educate the public about their project to get it. They had no ready-made staff so they had to find people who wanted to work for the blind. The blind themselves were a problem. Many of them had decided not what they could do, but what they wanted to do. Baker says, “We had to straighten out their thinking and that wasn’t always easy. We had to keep peace with them until we could get our services working.”

Lewis Wood, longtime president of the CNIB, says that the original financial scheme was to form five separate divisions in Canada, each I self-supporting. When the first three i were formed (in Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver) it turned out they had to be supported from Toronto. Then came the 1920 economic slump. It gave the Toronto Institute a big setback but it taught the divisions they would have to support themselves. After that, there was another spurt in CNIB growth, during which the Quebec and Newfoundland divisions were formed. Then came the 1930 depression which hit their finances badly but they came through it and today there are six autonomous, self-supporting divisions with the Toronto branch the supervising body.

Wood declares, “In all the sticky problems we faced, I’ve never had a cross word with Eddie Baker.”

One of the stickiest early problems the CNIB faced was the near-destitute condition of many sightless Canadians. The Institute tried to pay out modest allowances to the most needy but it became evident that if they were to continue, another and possibly more important work—prevention of blindness—would suffer. So in 1924 the CNIB approached the committee of the House of Commons investigating oldage pensions and put in a bid for blind pensions. Ottawa, however, brought I in pensions for the aged but not for the blind. The CNIB continued to press for them. Finally in 1937 an amendment to the Old Age Pensions

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Act opened the way for allowances for the blind between the age of forty and seventy, on a means test basis. The Institute pressed for an age reduction and in 1947 the minimum age of blind pensioners was reduced to twenty-one. Over the years the monthly rate has been gradually increased to its present amount of forty dollars, which is shared by the federal and provincial governments. The CNIB under Baker’s spirited leadership is presently fighting for the abolition of the means test, and asking that the federal government assume entire responsibility for pensions to the blind, as it does for old-age pensions.

Baker’s achievements have won him many honors. King George V made him an OBE in the 1935 New Year Honors list; in 1939 he received the honorary rank of lieutenant colonel for his services on the Council of National Defense; and Queen’s University and the University of Toronto have made him an honorary Doctor of Laws. Two years ago Helen Keller presented him with the Migel Medal for outstanding service to the blind, and last year he won the Shotwell Memorial Award from the American Association of Workers for the Blind in Louisville for “outstanding service in the field of work for the blind.”

“Outstanding War Veteran”

Baker was once invited to an international conference in Oxford before it became evident that if one Commonwealth country was invited, all would have to be—something that had not been contemplated. So a second letter asked that the Canadian representative kindly ignore the invitation. Baker repbed that he understood perfectly and sent good wishes and there the matter would have dropped if the American Foundation for the Blind had not heard about it. The Foundation promptly wroteto England, asking that Col. Baker be permitted to attend the proposed conference as a member of its delegation because he represented not only Canada but all of North America.

John Counsell, president of the Canadian Paraplegic Association, calls Baker “Canada’s outstanding war veteran,” knowing not only the problems of the blind, but the problems of ell veterans. “We all call on Col. Baker for help whenever we’re stuck on some point,” he says. Baker has worked hard for close co-operation among veterans’ groups, believing that in union there is strength. He is currently chairman of the National Council of Veterans’ Associations representing every major veterans’ service organization in Canada with the exception of the Canadian Legion.

Being kingpin in so many organizations, Baker has little time for recreation or social life. He lives quietly with his wife in their charming but unpretentious home, relaxing in his easy chair of an evening, and listening to the radio, or building something in his workshop, or listening to a talking book (usually a biography) borrowed from the Institute library and played on a small phonograph in his bedroom. Three of the four Baker children are grown up and married now: Judith

is Mrs. Terence Sheard of Montreal, Philip is a lawyer and John is the engineer his father wanted to be. David was killed in World War II.

Col. Baker sees the work of the CNIB going on and on in the years to come but he confides every so often that he’s planning to retire. Mrs. Baker, hearing this, smiles. “He’ll never retire,” she says. “Why, he could think of things to do until he was a hundred years old!” ★