Minnesota's Midhusband to the NFB
By Jonathan Ice
(Editor's Note: Jonathan wrote this article last October. Joe DeBeer suffered a stroke the day after Christmas and died on January 3, 1996. This article remains a tribute to Joe, his devotion to the National Federation of the Blind, and the work he did over the years.)
Over the past year I have had the distinct pleasure of taping two interviews with Joe DeBeer, our longtime Federationist from Rochester. Among other things, I found that Joe was in the thick of actions that led to the formation of the NFB in 1940.
At age 16 Joe immigrated to the U.S. from his native Holland. When he was 21 he lost all of his sight to a water-borne illness that he got while swimming. After a three‑month training program at the school for the blind in Faribault--where he learned the trades of piano tuning, chair caning, broom making, and weaving of fly nets and doll hammocks--he set out on his own as a traveling salesman.
His wares were the very products that had been made by him and his fellow blind students. The brooms, fly nets, etc. had been gathering dust in an attic at the school for the blind, and Joe bought them for a pittance and sold them.
At one point in his sales career, Joe and a teenaged sidekick were selling brooms door to door in Fargo, ND. The police hauled them into court for violating the "green law," which forbade direct door-to-door solicitation. Joe asked the judge to explain the law, and found that it allowed the taking of orders for merchandise. Upon release, Joe and his companion returned to the very place of their arrest, with Joe going to the door with his sample broom, giving his sales pitch, then returning to his partner (who had remained out on the sidewalk with the goods for sale), getting the broom, and presenting it to the customer.
Seeing the idiocy of the law, the customers bought more brooms than ever before!
Joe also made money from tuning pianos. Once, after a tuning job in Morris, he had to go on to Grey Eagle for his next job. Lacking a car, he did the next best thing, hopping a freight train. A train official caught him and, seeing the white cane, gasped, "You're blind, and hopping a freight?" He was going to take a collection for Joe to take the passenger train, but Joe would have none of that. He paid for it himself.
By the late 1920's Joe had moved to Minneapolis. In 1932 he and a group of other blind people organized the United Blind of Minnesota, which, along with the Minnesota Organization of the Blind (MOB), was one of the predecessor groups to our NFB affiliate.
By the late '30's Harold Stassen was the "Boy Wonder" governor of Minnesota, and he had plans to reduce blind persons' pension from $17 a month to $10. Joe felt this action unfair, and he called upon all the blind people he knew to march on the state Capitol. Carrying signs printed by his friends in the labor movement, 70 blind people picketed for three days, protesting the governor's action. The media were notified, and pictures of the blind protesters were found in all the local dailies.
The governor's first reaction was to ignore this blind rabble. However, some of his counselors advised him that, if he had any ambitions for higher office, it would be very embarrassing to have the record of putting the blind people of his state out on the streets. In the end, it was the governor who gave in. Blind Minnesotans not only did not have their pension cut, but it was increased to $24.
By 1940 there was a smattering of local organizations of the blind, spread all over the country, but no national organization. Joe sent letters to as many leaders of these groups as he could find (he remembers the number as 140), inviting them to convene at Wilkes-Barre, PA, to form a national organization.
When the time came he was unable to attend, because his son had just taken ill with polio. He sent his right‑hand man, Frank Hall, in his place to the meeting, with the exhortation: "Coming together is a beginning, working together is progress, staying together is success." They heeded his word and formed an organization at that meeting--an organization that now has over 50,000 members. It is known as the National Federation of the Blind.
Joe and that other Dutchman, Jacobus tenBroek, were close friends, but Joe did not have a leadership position on the national level for very long. He was too busy here in Minnesota at the "Potter's Field."
In those days landlords were reluctant to rent to blind people, whom they saw as living fire hazards. Joe DeBeer and Frank Hall joined forces to push for a home for the blind in Minneapolis. After appeals to the Odd Fellows, Kiwanis, and the Minneapolis Society for the Blind (the fractious relationship had not yet been developed), they had secured enough funds to buy the old Field Hotel at 510 South Eighth street. Joe and his friend William Potter (brother of Stanley Potter, longtime director of State Services for the Blind) managed the place, which soon came to be called "Joe DeBeer's and Potter's Field."
In the early days of this home for the blind, the Minneapolis Fire Department was concerned about their safety, so they had frequent fire drills. At one of those fire drills the residents--who had all been organized for fire drills--all got out within three minutes. The firemen said that they did better than most of the sighted people.
By the 1960's more apartments were available and--more importantly--the public had discovered that blind people were no more fire hazards than anyone else. Since there no longer was a burning need for such a place, Potter's Field was closed as a home for the blind in 1964, the same year that Joe retired from managing it.
Since then he has gone into semiretirement, moving to Rochester in 1971, where he continues his activity in the local Federation chapter. He remains vigorous, if a tad deaf, at the age of 93.