Distinguished Staff Alumni » Thomas Lister

Thomas Lister

From “Pelham Progress: The News and Activities of
The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind”
(Volume 3, No. 1, September 27, 1940, page 2)

Thomas Lister, With Institute 44 Years,
Recalls Pre-telephone, Pre-electric and Pre-gas Years
Engineer Emeritus Reviews Progress in Light of 1833 Pronouncement:
“To the Blind the Book of Nature Is Sealed”
By Thomas W. Lister 
Engineer Emeritus
With Institute 44 Years, Recalls Pre-telephone, Pre-electric and Pre-gas Years (1940)
As many of you know, I have had somewhat long-standing connection with The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, and naturally I have seen many changes occur in the routine of school affairs, none of which have altered the original principle and foundation on which the school was built. Its aims are the same today as they were in the year 1831. The school of today stands out boldly as a glorious memorial to those honorable gentlemen who did so much during their long terms of service looking ever toward the great future of the school. They have now passed beyond recall. It was in the year 1896 when I first became a part of the working staff of The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, at 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, 'William B Wait, the principal, at the time was deeply engrossed with the problem of completing the New York Point system for stereographing, printing and binding this into book form. It was my privilege and pleasure to be able to design and build the necessary machinery whereby two-side page printing was accomplished, along with several other devices for the benefit of the blind all over the world and to the honor and glory of William B. Wait. Mr. Wait served the Institute as teacher, superintendent, principal, and principal emeritus from 1860 to 1916-a remarkable record. He was loved and honored by all who knew him. There were many other problems to solve during the eighteen years we worked on the New York Point System.
The building at 412 Ninth Avenue was very old, yet very substantially built (a part of it as early as 1838), and in need of a general overhauling, It was my assignment to modernize the old building and to do so within budget requirements, we were confronted with clogged gas and water pipes everywhere. The heating system was very poor and bathing facilities were also in need of repair. We did not have electricity until 1898 when we installed our home-made air pumping outfit to relieve the blind boys from the arduous duty of pumping the organ. Oh, how the boys did
miss the few cents they received for their labor, and how much more practice the pupil could get at the organ after the automatic pump was put into service! It was indeed helpful and successful. After this the principal's apartment was wired for lights.
In those days such a step was looked upon as a great advance toward improvement. About the same time the first telephone was installed. Telephones around that early period were few and far between and often we would have to resort to the old-fashioned postcard or walk several blocks in order to obtain the use of a telephone. However, it wasn't long  afterwards that the gas pipes refused to convey the gas so necessary. The only step that could next be taken was to wire the entire building and this was done about 1900. Those days were busy for all of us, especially for Mr. Wait.
He had to be away so much of the time on educational matters which were of vital interest to the blind. The foremost of these, I think, was the granting of the certificate by the University of the State of New York With this came a change -of title from the New York Institution for the Blind to "that of The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind. Mr. Wait also succeeded in securing admission to Columbia University for several blind students. Five boys were admitted the first year. The change of title was appreciated by all interested in the school.
People had persisted in addressing the school as the New York Blind Asylum or similar names. Over and above all these little chores time had to be found to work out a scheme of new buildings. This was nothing new for Mr. Wait for, as he used to say, "when anyone becomes inquisitive I simply reply that the Managers talked of a new school in 1860 and that we might get one in 1960.” A great deal of time was given to the making of models of a group of buildings to occupy the site where the Medical Center is now located. Drawings and plans were completed but never filed, due to the fact that the property had become too valuable a parcel for us to occupy. Mr. Wait was then commissioned to find another site. He found one at Bronxville and again after a survey we went back to our plaster modeling. We had just gotten well under way when we were informed that The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind was not wanted in Bronxville. An exchange was arranged for property at Tuckahoe. A great deal of work had to be done on this new site and at last everything seemed to be satisfactory when all at once a halt was called and matters in this line lay dormant for the rest of Mr. Wait’s time with the school. 
In 1915 when Mr. Van Cleve was well settled as principal of the school, the "new building" topic was again the point of conversation. But it seemed as though nothing was to come out of it until 1918 when it was thought that the federal government wanted the 412 Ninth Avenue property for hospital purposes. This sent Mr. Van Cleve on the mission of seeking a temporary home for the school. Only one could be found, and that was good only as a make-shift. However this temporary haven did help to hasten the purchase of the present property site at 999 Pelham Parkway, The government did not pass on the purchase of the old school building and we old timers had the pleasure of living there until 1924 when we moved bag and baggage to the Bronx.
This was not relished by many of us at the time, but after we were settled we realized that it was a long felt want supplied. There is no comparison between the old and the new buildings. The new buildings were equipped with all those necessary things in which the old buildings were lacking. Everything was newly installed for the comfort of pupils and staff. The buildings were built in such a way as to meet the progressive steps of modern educational methods for blind boys and girls. Today, to the edification of all concerned, our blind children meet all the requirements of the State Board of Education as laid down for all schools. 
The school today stands second to none for achievement and appointment. This was the universal opinion of all who attended the World Conference on Work for the Blind at the Institute in 1931. During Mr. Wait’s time at the school it was thought inexpedient to permit sharp edge tools to get into the hands of the pupils, but in 1913, a short time before Mr. Van Cleve came to the school, an attempt was made to teach woodwork without any machinery. Small if any success was the result of the experiment, but it paved the way for the future when a spacious room with plenty of air and light and with electricity for power could be provided. (The room that was used for this experiment was dark and dismal, very low ceiling, and looked out on a courtyard. It had been used for many years as a mattress making shop.) However, when the boys-yes, and the girls if you please-got into the present woodworking classroom, with its varied pieces of machinery, success was assured from the start. I have seen some highly commendable work turned out in this particular department in the few years it has been in operation by boys and by girls who have proven their ability in this course of education for the blind. In fact, I have in my possession a revolving fruit tray made by one of the girls and which I prize dearly. 
In 1935 this department progressed to such an extent that Dr. M. E. Frampton thought it would be good and proper to extend its scope and create a general workshop for manual training, embracing modern mechanical science. He at once got in touch with good friends of the Institute and received gifts of models of airplane, automobile and marine engines which were mounted on trundle trucks to provide easy manipulation.These were placed at the disposal of the new classes in the subjects of internal combustion and the complicated system of electric ignition. A most modern radio system was also installed in the school. All of these new developments have proven to the satisfaction of all concerned that blind pupils can hold their own along with the sighted pupils of public schools throughout the nation. 
Recently I had occasion to look over some of the old year books in search of information regarding one of the teachers in the literary department. There I came across the following sentence which was embodied in a sketch, printed in the year 1833 which I think will be interesting to all readers of the Pelham Progress: "Who has not had His admiration excited, His heart warmed, and His Faith strengthened by the contemplation of the Works of Nature, to us, each tree, each plant each flower proclaims God. Earth, Sea and Air, a glorious Sun, the countless Stars the varied year are full of Divinity.-But to the Blind the Book of Nature is forever scaled,"  I wonder what those honorable gentlemen, who at that time constituted the Board of Managers, would say if it were in their power to look down upon the school of today and see the classes in session with boys and girls studying agriculture, botany and horticulture I fancy they would agree that the impossible had been made possible. Such has been the progress of our school particularly during the past few years. The hot-house has provided the means for a great deal of enthusiastic interest and diffusion of knowledge to boys and girls during the autumn and winter months; likewise the trees and shrubs on the campus, many of which have identification plates in Braille at the foot of each have introduced the students with the elm, maple, oak, etc. The agricultural section is especially interesting to all, the success of which was realized the first year it was put into operation, There are between twenty-five and thirty individual plots or gardens and worked by both girls and boys with gratifying returns of the best vegetables obtainable,
Yet another rung of the "ladder of progress" is the summer camp at Hardwick. Vt.-Camp Wapanacki. This is something of a brand new departure, taking the place of the summer school, and it gives the students an opportunity to catch up with studies in which they might be lagging. It also has opened up another avenue to the possibility of teaching animal husbandry, to the blind. However that may be, “Book of Nature” is certainly wide open to all the students of The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind.