He didn’t have a gavel so Christopher Cerone rapped his knuckles loudly on the wooden table to bring the meeting to order. It was tough to get the attention of the room. The 25 or so blind people were much too busy joking and chatting to hear the sightless, bald, 56-year-old try his hardest to get attention. But eventually, the talk died down enough for Cerone to conduct the business of the tough but jolly little Wheeling organization he presided over.
It was a little club with a big union-sounding name—The Wheeling Sightless Workers Guild. It not only gave the blind people of Wheeling a social platform and a vehicle to fight ignorance and discrimination, it also helped restore civic purpose to a weary and challenged Mabel Griffith in the late 1950s.
The Guild was a very tight bunch who couldn’t see, but pooled their talents, skills and interests together to maintain a fun-loving social organization that had a big voice.
Widows Mabel and her blind mother, Lizzie Minns, were independent women by circumstance. They spent the biggest part of the decade adjusting to the loss of their husbands—Lizzie’s Tom in 1951 and Mabel’s George in 1954. They used a team approach to parenting Mabel’s two small boys, Terry and Gerry, and took on all the roles that men traditionally did in that era. Mabel learned how to drive and maintain the family automobile and keep their little Elm Grove house operating while Lizzie learned to call the shots on the family’s business decisions from insurance coverage and banking to taxes. They also grew the little telemarketing business that required inventory control and prompt efficient product delivery.
But by 1956, the women were ready to seek greater involvement in civic and political causes. It was a pair of old friends—Wheeling’s Cerone and Charlie Monfradi—who reintroduced them to the Guild. They knew it was time to reach out to Mabel and Lizzie right after Lizzie found her voice in a bold appearance on local television program when she spoke out to enlighten sighted viewers about some of the problems they create for their blind neighbors. It wasn’t the first time Cerone and Monfradi enlisted Lizzie and Mabel to work for the Guild.
Cerone, in addition to tuning pianos in the parlors of Wheeling’s well-to-do, was also the proprietor of the snack stand at the Ohio County Courthouse. He was the longtime friend who Tom and Lizzie first met at the West Virginia School for the Blind at Romney. He appeared at the Minns’ family home most every Saturday going back to the 1930s when he played a mean boogie woogie piano for the entertainment of the young people who visited Tom’s little South Wheeling stores.
When Cerone knocked on the Minns’ Wood Street front door on a cold rainy Saturday evening in the early days of 1948, he brought a guest. Together, they were on a mission to recruit Tom and Lizzie to help create an advocacy and social organization of blind people focused on improving the lives of the sightless on a local, state and even national basis. The guest was Monfradi. He was a young man of average height with short dark hair and a confident stride and manner. A heavy smoker, Charlie often sent streams of inhaled smoke out his nostrils or pumped it out of his mouth as he spoke sentences in a choppy machine-gun delivery.
He lost his sight in the Battle of The Bulge. A flash of light and an ear-splitting explosion was the last thing the soldier from Wheeling remembered from the battlefield. He spent the remainder of the war in a series of army hospitals before entering a rehab system in Avon, Connecticut created to teach blinded veterans new skills for a new and unexpected life. It was a tough transition for Charlie. With a wife and children heavy on his mind back in Wheeling, he fought to overcome the bitterness and depression that came with his blindness, a difficult medical recovery, and the frustration of mastering once easy tasks under challenging new conditions. He also bristled over the indignities that blind people sometimes suffered. Now, back in Wheeling and preparing to train for a new career in radio repair, he was joining forces with Cerone and other blind people to create an organization to advocate for societal improvements in the way blind people were treated.
Tom and Lizzie didn’t take much convincing. They were fierce advocates for helping blind people reach their full potential while battling prejudice. Tom often told of Wheeling landlords who would not rent to his little family over fears that “they might burn the place down.” They despised attitudes that blind people were capabile of little more than begging on the street and laws that prohibited helpful friends and family from accompanying blind voters into the voting booth. So, Tom and Lizzie, along with Chris, Charlie, and about 20 other prominent sightless people including Wheeling’s George Daniels became charter members of the Guild, which was officially formalized February, 1948 in a meeting room of St Matthews Episcopal Church on Chapline Street.
Mabel, Tom, Lizzie, and George were active members until Tom’s death. Then, their participation faded as they struggled under their new circumstances. Cerone kept up his usual Saturday night visits to Mabel and Lizzie, but he kept silent on their return to the Guild. When Lizzie delivered her effective and unplanned mini-sermon on the treatment of blind people on local television, he knew the time was right to call them back into action. Cerone and Monfradi reached out to beckon the widows back to the Guild.
Mabel and Chris had a particularly close relationship. When she was in high school, Chris served as Mabel’s tutor, calling on his extensive knowledge of history, civics, and music to help the young girl navigate the academic world of Wheeling High School. They worked well together, so now Mabel became the official secretary for the Guild, pecking out Chris’ correspondence to state lawmakers and the organization’s meeting minutes on a big grey portable Underwood typewriter at the family’s dining room table.
Mabel also became a kind of unofficial chauffer for Guild members. Along with Lizzie and her boys, she would often drive Chris and other Guild members to statewide meetings and conventions of the West Virginia Federation of the Blind. Cerone became the state Federation’s president and Mabel was elected secretary.
The little family’s long participation in activities of the Federation and the Wheeling Guild paraded a cast of sightless characters through the lives of the Griffith boys. There was the gigantic older man from downstate who loudly waddled into meetings announcing his arrival in full voice while using a thick heavy white cane with a worn little wooden wheel on the end; there was the blind dignified history professor from a private West Virginia college who fought the system for equality in promotion and the right to adopt two children; there was the nearly sightless firebrand militant writer and speaker who was also the mayor of his Harrison County, West Virginia home town; there were the two old blind buddies from Beckley who liked to adjourn for a “wee nip” between meetings; and, of course, there was the calm, steady, articulate leader, Chris Cerone, who was often escorted around meeting sites by the Griffith boys because of his close friendship with the family.
By attending the annual conventions around the state with Mabel, Lizzie, Cerone and the others, the Griffith boys became West Virginia hotel aficionados. They explored the backrooms and hallways of the Blennerhassett in Parkersburg, the Stonewall Jackson in Clarksburg, the Pritchard in Huntington, the Daniel Boone in Charleston and, of course, the Windsor and McLure in Wheeling.
The work of the Guild and the State Federation allowed Mabel and her boys to rub elbows with generations of West Virginia politicians at the state organization’s annual conventions. Governors Cecil Underwood, Wally Baron, Hulett Smith, Arch Moore, and Jay Rockefeller; U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph; and Congressmen Cleve Benedict, Robert Mollohan, and Alan Mollohan were all frequent visitors to Federation events. Mabel loved it. She inherited a life-long fascination with politics from her father and passed it on to her children by working for the improved conditions for blind people.
Cerone, Monfradi, and a talented team of other mostly sightless people from around West Virginia became effective in advancing important causes related to blind people with Mabel’s support and assistance. For example, in 1958, Governor Cecil Underwood asked the Federation to conduct a detailed survey of the conditions of the blind in West Virginia and offer recommendations to improve conditions, made the report public, and encouraged Mountain State companies and organizations to follow the document’s recommendations; also in 1958, representatives of the Federation appeared before key committees of the West Virginia Legislature to offer recommendations to improve the conditions for blind people; in 1961, the Federation was successful in encouraging the West Virginia Legislature to enact a law permitting blind people to have a person of his or her choice help them mark their ballots on election days; the Federation helped establish and fund a camping program for blind children of the state and improvement programs at the West Virginia School for the Blind at Romney; and the organization supported legislation mandating that all blind children in West Virginia public schools be taught qualified Braille.
And, these blind people knew how to have fun. They held weekly bowling sessions and participated in a statewide tournament in Parkersburg using special rails to guide their play; they held annual picnics at Oglebay’s Children’s Center that was the highlight of their summers; and their annual conventions were mischievous blowouts with a banquet, raffles, dancing and post-event parties.
The Sightless Workers Guild and its affiliation with the Federation of the Blind-West Virginia provided a much-needed civic and social outlet for Mabel and Lizzie and exposed the Griffith boys to uncommon lessons in politics, empathy, respect, and the important process of helping people help themselves.
Today, the old leadership of the Guild is long gone, but generations of new members continue their work in service to the blind people of Wheeling and West Virginia. For more information about the Federation, visit http://www.nfbwv.org/ .
Courtesy Rules of Blindness from the National Federation of the Blind-WV
Now, as then, the National Federation of the Blind, West Virginia and the Wheeling Sightless Workers Guild promote “The Courtesy Rules of Blindness”:
- When you meet me, don’t be ill at ease. I’m an ordinary person, just blind. You don’t need to raise your voice or address me as if I were a child.
- Don’t ask my spouse what I want — “Cream in the coffee??”– ask me.
- I may use a long white cane or a guide dog to walk independently; or I may ask to take your arm. Let me decide, and please don’t grab my arm; let me take yours. I’ll keep a half-step behind to anticipate curbs and steps.
- I want to know who’s in the room with me. Speak when you enter. Introduce me to the others. Include children and tell me if there’s a cat or dog.
- The door to a room or cabinet or to a car left partially open is a hazard to me.
- I will not have trouble with ordinary table skills.
- Don’t avoid words like “see”. I use them, too. I’m always glad to see you.
- I don’t want pity. Don’t talk about the “wonderful compensations” of blindness. My sense of smell, touch, or hearing did not improve when I became blind. I rely on them more and, therefore, may get more information through those senses than you do.
- I’ll discuss blindness with you if you’re curious, but it’s an old story to me. I have just as many other interests as you do.
- Don’t think of me as just a blind person. I’m just a person who happens to be blind.