Tom's Forty Years as Treasurer

Tom's Forty Years as Treasurer

By Joyce Scanlan, Past President

(Editor’s Note:  Joyce presented this testimonial at the banquet of our Annual Convention on November 1, 2014.  Tom served as treasurer from 1974 to 2014.  Joyce served as president from 1973 to 2007.  Together they led this organization to its current position as Minnesota’s largest, most effective force for improving the lives of blind people.  In recognition of their service, they are Life Members.)

1974 was indeed a banner year for Tom Scanlan and for me.  In May of that year, Tom was elected treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota (NFBMN).  Earlier that same month, we became engaged to be married.  The wedding took place in September, which means we just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary.  Therefore, the year 2014 ends Tom’s 40th year serving as treasurer.  He made the decision not to seek another term.  Yes, he’s stuck with the marriage that also began 40 years ago.

Let me tell you just as briefly as I can some of the outstanding memories of our life together — especially as they relate to our involvement in this fine organization.

Tom wasn’t easy to get to know; I mean that in the very literal sense.  We were both at a birthday party in October 1965.  We did not actually meet.  Nobody even introduced us.  1965 was an extremely dark time in my life; I was struggling with becoming blind, unemployed, and not greatly eager to participate in any celebration whatsoever.  And then in 1968, I again heard of this Tommy Scanlan who worked for the state over at the Highway Building in St. Paul but once more did not meet him.  And yet again in 1970, both of us attended the National Convention of the Federation at the Leamington Hotel in Minneapolis; and yet again, we did not meet.  Finally, in October of 1970 at a Halloween party at the home of a mutual friend, Craig Anderson, we actually did meet.  (Now I know this is contrary to what Braille Monitor readers were told; we did not meet at the National Convention, although Dr. Jernigan said, “that made a better story.”)  The truth remains the truth.  And, of course, as we both became involved in the local NFB affiliate, we kept running into one another time after time after time and again and again — if you get the point.

Tom was first elected president of the newly organized student division.  I was elected secretary.  We both served on the joint legislative committee (jointly with the United Blind or UB);  and the grievance committee which dealt with problems experienced by workers in the sheltered workshop of the Minneapolis Society for the Blind — now Vision Loss Resources (VLR).  We both ran several times for state offices before winning election.  I was elected vice president in 1972 and president in 1973, and Tom was ultimately successful running for treasurer in 1974.

As you can probably guess, Tom and I had a period of adjustment in 1974 as we became accustomed to our married life and to our work together as treasurer and president of an organization we both held in high esteem, but about which neither of us knew a whole lot.  We, together with many other younger members, had come into the outfit because of its vibrant philosophy of blindness that we had picked up at that 1970 National Convention:  Blind people were normal, first-class citizens, competent, independent, and deserving of all the rights and responsibilities of such citizenship.  We had rights equal to those of every other citizen.  Probably most of all, “it is respectable to be blind.”

However, we were now greatly involved in an organization that operated a home for the blind.  Problems with unfair and discriminatory housing practices in the Twin Cities early in the century were the impetus for the establishment of the organization in 1920.  The Home and Center for the Blind was the pride and joy of the group and in the minds of many members in 1970 gave the outfit its reason for existing.  The members had a long record of accomplishment in building and supporting the Home and Center for the Blind.  They had worked hard, were very tough fighters, and had gained great skill in fighting to get what they wanted even if it meant squabbles with one another.  Nevertheless, they had kept the organization going, even when their pet project, the home, had become outdated, losing money, and no longer needed.

Jim Gashel used to tease me after I became president about how I “operated a Home for the Blind in Minnesota.”  He was joking of course, but there was also a kernel of serious intent within all of that.

So, already, as new officers of an organization with a long history of blind people working together and accomplishing many goals very dear to them, Tom and I, together with many other new members, had a serious learning curve as to what we could do.  We had two definite challenges:  first, how to work constructively within our own organization; and second, how to meet the challenges presented us by the problems blind people faced with VLR, all those grievances brought to us by our members and others in the community.

So here we were with a bunch of newer, very vocal members longing for major changes, together with some seasoned fighters determined to maintain a very favored project.  Quite a challenge facing new leadership without experience and lacking a thorough understanding of the best techniques to deal with a difficult situation!

Now, both Tom and Joyce were very determined, strong-willed people, to say the least.  So our always-very-public discussions about strategy and tactics (but not personal issues) were viewed as “fights” and we were, at least according to our friends, definitely headed for the divorce court.  Our friends seemed to think that we must have had even more heated discussions after the meetings ended and we were in private.  Other couples may do that.  Not so Tom and Joyce.  Or at least Tom, as I would say.  What people didn’t realize was that they had already seen it all.  The discussion, or argument as they saw it, was over.  Throughout our years together, Tom and I had far more serious discussions over Federation matters than we did over any personal disagreements.  I’ve tried without success to change Tom’s insistence on public disagreements.  They persist to this day, but so has our very happy and successful marriage.

Closing the home for the blind and selling the property required the vote of a majority of the membership, which took place only after several failed attempts.  It did finally occur in 1980.

After 1970 when Minnesota had a great upswing in membership, the organization began pressing for a greater voice in the operation of both public and private agencies serving blind people.  VLR was a definite target, because at that time it had no blind people on its board of directors.  Also, Federationists learned that we could pay $5 to become members of VLR and have a vote for board members at its annual meetings.  A number of us joined, including Tom Scanlan.  When we attended the next annual meeting and indicated interest in changing the agenda to make nominations, etc., the president abruptly adjourned the meeting.  In a very courteous, business-like manner, Tom challenged the president, to no avail.  Next, the VLR’s board voted to throw out its blind members they could identify, which led to the filing of the lawsuit against VLR for discriminating against its blind members and violating its own bylaws.  There were six or seven plaintiffs including Tom.  Preparation for trial took five years with two more years for the state supreme court to render a final decision.  So it was 1979 before we saw meaningful results from the lawsuit.  The court decision ordered that VLR follow its original bylaws, which it had violated by expelling the blind members.  According to its bylaws, the court-ordered election would be nationwide.  I can tell you truly that we worked hard on that campaign.  Our national president, Dr. Jernigan, was of great support and help as we fought for proxy votes from throughout the country.  He called us every day to encourage and bolster us, to keep our spirits up, and to check our progress.  It was a very exciting but scary time for our entire Federation family.  We had threatening phone calls, IRS audits of our personal income tax returns, expensive newspaper ads prepared and paid for by VLR’s big bucks, and the bosses of our employed members approached by VLR officials pleading that they fire their blind employees.  Tom Scanlan was included in that group.  His boss just laughed when he told Tom about it.  So, you see that Tom is a very fine educator.  He had already taken care of the matter of helping his boss to understand what was really going on.  His employer was well prepared to deal with the VLR approach.  It was a very intense time.

Besides that, at this time, Minnesota had the dubious distinction of being the only state in the union with two separate affiliates of the NFB.  The United Blind (UB) and NFB of Minnesota did work cooperatively on legislation, and we were definitely members of the same national organization.  By 1976 when the VLR lawsuit was in full swing, VLR was pressuring the UB to give its support to VLR.  The UB bowed to the pressure and dropped its affiliation with the Federation.  The NFB of Minnesota was now the only Federation affiliate in this state.  YEA!!!

Remember that we had originally asked for just three blind people to be placed on the VLR board.  Yet, in 1979 with this court-ordered election, we had won eight seats on the VLR board.  Today that might not sound like much, but for us then, that was a crucial victory.  We had eight fine people to send to two years of VLR board membership, including Tom Scanlan, Nadine Jacobson, Mary Hartle, and Curtis Chong, (some of you may know Curtis).  They served valiantly on that board for two long years until it became clear that VLR was definitely not interested in making necessary changes in its views and in its treatment of blind people.  Our guys resigned and publicly circulated an extensive position paper outlining the problems VLR needed to address before worthy blind people could participate on its board.

At this point in our review of Tom’s Federation history, we were able to celebrate three major accomplishments:  We were the sole Minnesota NFB affiliate; we had won an unprecedented victory over a very custodial institution holding great mis-placed public acclaim; and we had sold the home for the blind and now had $533,000 (equivalent to $1,518,000 today, as Tom would point out) available to help us move forward.  So, what could we do to improve opportunities for blind people?

We knew we had several possibilities.  The board and our membership held countless meetings at which we considered our options.  For the next 4-6 years, our primary focus was educating the public.  From our offices on the seventh floor of the Chamber of Commerce building on Fifth Street in downtown Minneapolis, we circulated a little newsletter called “Blindside,” which took rather a softer approach to our struggles with public attitudes toward blindness; we used a public relations firm to make sure we made the proper appearance, etc.

Our location gave us good visibility, and our members participated extensively in all decision-making and everything we did.  We hired staff to help coordinate all our many activities and public relations functions.  We had lots of work for everyone.

In order to obtain the list of proxy voters from VLR, we had to return once again to court; when those were available to us, we included all in our mailings.  This gave us an opportunity to educate all these fine folks too.  The response to “Blindside” was excellent.  But, alas, we realized that our treasury had limits — again our worthy treasurer kept us on top of that.  And we eventually had to begin cutting expenses.  However, we really had gained great public support for the Federation and our philosophy of blindness, and we still benefit today from those efforts.

Fundraising was always included in our efforts.  As you may have heard, the person who recently willed our organization a considerable sum of money learned of us through that proxy business, “Blindside,” and all our educational and financial mailings.  Great thanks to her for her continued support of our work.

With all this public education, the blind community and our organization gained visibility and credibility.  Our membership was thriving.  While we seemed to have success reaching out to the public, effective training in blindness-related skills with a positive philosophy remained a serious problem.  Many of our members were great at helping with advocacy that was frequently needed due to struggles with existing training programs.  For a few years, we helped our people receive training in other states such as Idaho, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Louisiana when that center opened in 1985.

When a new SSB director came on the scene in late 1985, we seized upon the opportunity to meet twice with Governor Rudy Perpich.  He asked us to prepare a report for him, which we did.  In that report, we outlined the low level of training available to blind Minnesotans and the need for something much better.  Very soon, the new SSB director announced that an establishment grant would be available for the creation of a new training program.  Prior to that announcement, SSB Director Rick Hokanson and I had a private discussion in which we agreed that the state should not be the provider of these services.  Until late 1986, we had not — as far as I remember — given thought to creating a Federation center.  (If I had the time, I’d tell you why I say that; we must move on here.)  We ultimately decided that not all the kind and gentle advocacy in the world could give our people what they wanted and needed; and so we decided that only we could create the desperately needed, effective training.

So along came BLIND, Incorporated, that is; not ink.  BLIND is an acronym for Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions, all letters capitalized, no ink whatever its color, involved at all.  That’s a lofty name for a very worthy, unique, much-needed training program for learning not only alternative techniques of blindness but also positive attitudes through successful experiences.  I could say more about this; however, you should also hear the true reason for BLIND, Incorporated instead of Minnesota Center for the Blind.  The Federation has always said, “It is respectable to be blind.”  VLR in our state passed through many phases with changing names always avoiding the use of the word blind.  We felt it was important to put the word out that blind, the word and the people dealing with blindness, should not be overshadowed by some obvious bypass to give the impression that there’s something wrong with blindness.  Blindness is absolutely fine; we must be comfortable with it or we’ll sell ourselves short.  Some may regard me as a bit of a crank about all this; for me, it’s a serious matter and we must all regard it so.  Tom has always supported me and been helpful in emphasizing the issue of BLIND Incorporated’s full and proper name.  He helped us with a large personal grant when we were a new, struggling program with little cash reserve.  Many times, it was a cash flow matter.  Only once, when the SSB director cut out two of our major programs did we need to seek funding from our friendly Federation affiliate to do our payroll.  I’m currently quite hopeful about BLIND Incorporated’s future, although I’m no longer involved in its goings-on. 

Poor Tom occasionally tired of the agency talk of BLIND, Incorporated, but he made a worthy comment or sometimes he simply left the room.  Tom and I were a great team.  He was always there as my stalwart support and guide.  I beat on him for being a bureaucrat.  Yet I know that his business experience and basic good sense have given me the capacity to hang in and move on.  He has kept me on the straight and narrow on numerous occasions.  I was very fortunate that Tom was always there to give the solid support I often badly needed.  I valued his counsel, his listening ears, and his undying support.  He steered both organizations with which we worked and me through all the ups and downs of 40 years of very rewarding work and fun.  Both of us were greatly blessed to have found the Federation and our lives have been greatly enriched by the opportunities we have received.  We both leave you with our thanks and good wishes for a successful and fulfilling future.

I feel that today I’m the lucky one.  As Tom ceases to be the treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota that he has so much enjoyed, he is and always will be my treasurer.  We’re still a team of two, partners and best friends.  Tom, for these and many others reasons, I’ll love you forever.