As Chair of the Board of Trustees, Frederic Clifford oversaw the beginning of a new era for Perkins School for the Blind.
By Rebecca Fater
Perkins School for the Blind has been a part of Frederic M. Clifford’s life for as long as he can remember.
Some of his earliest memories date back to the 1940s, when his family would pile into the car and head to the Exeter Street Theater in Boston for the Sunday movie. His father, one of the country’s first pediatricians, frequently had an important errand to run along the way.
“We would stop at Perkins and he would see patients,” recalled Clifford, who was about 10 years old at the time. “In those days they called them house calls. I just sat in the car and waited until he was done.”
Clifford didn’t know it then, but those weekly trips were just the beginning of what was destined to become a lifelong commute to Perkins’ campus. Last spring marked 29 years of membership on Perkins’ Board of Trustees for Clifford – nearly three decades of stewardship, decisions and change that have molded the nation’s first school for the blind into an internationally respected organization serving people in 67 countries around the world.
“I love doing it,” he said. “I’ve (volunteered on) other boards, chaired other boards, but there’s nothing like Perkins.”
Clifford’s father, Dr. Stewart H. Clifford, had a vested interest in the children at Perkins.
In 1941, the Boston pediatrician visited the home of a premature infant. The baby was generally healthy, but Clifford was shocked to observe indications of blindness. Within two months he found a second baby with similar symptoms. His diagnosis ultimately proved correct – and was the first recorded case of a mysterious condition that went on to afflict nearly 13,000 children around the world, according to the book “Perkins School for the Blind” by Kimberly French. Research eventually concluded that retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) was caused by treating premature babies with high levels of oxygen. “My father was the first to recognize the connection,” said Clifford. “That was the beginning of the discovery.”
It took the medical profession about 10 years to definitively prove the connection and alter treatment. But the impact on the population of children with blindness would last much longer. Demand for special education services soared, and enrollment at Perkins jumped from the low 200s to more than 300 students.
With his school well beyond capacity, then-Director Edward Waterhouse offered to support neighboring states by helping train teachers, screen students, provide braille materials and more. Those partnerships formed the basis of the community programs still in operation at Perkins today.
Compassion and friendship brought the doctor’s son back to Perkins 30 years later.
Harry Schmidt was a fellow student at Williams College in the 1950s, though the two students did not know each other well. Schmidt, Clifford recalled, was an intelligent youth with plans to go on to Harvard Business School. His life took a dramatic turn when he was seriously injured in a car accident the week before graduation, resulting in brain damage and impairment of his motor skills and memory.
The two were reacquainted in 1978, when Clifford was organizing his 20th college reunion. He discovered that Schmidt lived nearby, receiving care at a Cape Cod nursing home. Clifford accompanied Schmidt to the reunion, and they became friends. It was then that Clifford, who had heard about a new head injury unit at Perkins, realized Schmidt could benefit from care in Watertown. Clifford shared his idea with their mutual acquaintances, and support poured forth.
“We solicited our classmates from Williams and The Pingry (prep) School and created a foundation to raise money for Harry’s unmet needs,” said Clifford. “We made it work.”
During the five years that Schmidt lived at Perkins, Clifford drove to the Watertown campus at least once a week to visit his friend.
The foundation Clifford helped start eventually raised enough money over 23 years to allow Schmidt to live more independently. By that time, Clifford had become well acquainted with the Perkins community and its mission. And Clifford’s car was destined to continue driving those miles.
The call came from Dick Carlson, then-chairman of Perkins’ Board of Trustees. Clifford had worked alongside Carlson as a vice president at the brokerage firm Kidder Peabody & Co., and Carlson knew Clifford was well versed on Perkins’ mission. Clifford accepted the invitation to take a leadership role at Perkins, and was appointed to the Board by then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in 1986. He quickly realized that he and the 11 other members were conducting business that went well beyond the traditional advisory role.
“We did everything but sign checks, and you stayed until you died,” he joked.
Clifford decided it was time for change. He and other members, including Trustee Bill Lowell who chaired the effort, pushed to change the Board’s charter. They successfully petitioned for legislative approval to expand the size of the Board to 24, insert term limits and move toward a more visionary role, leaving the day-to-day business in the hands of the administration. The Board began holding executive sessions dedicated to strategic planning and discussion.
“I really credit Fred for having the vision and recommending that we take a look at our governance,” said Lowell, whose tenure dates back to Clifford’s earliest days on the Board. “It led to a major restructuring that was key to increasing the visibility of Perkins externally, and it’s been a key factor in our success in philanthropy.”
Those changes marked the beginning of a new era for Perkins. Before the end of the decade, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation endorsed Perkins’ fledgling international activities with a five-year, $15 million grant. Hilton ultimately extended that support for a period of 25 years and a total of $65 million, permanently expanding the school’s impact overseas and building a foundation for what is today a model for working with local partners to create sustainable services for children with visual impairment, deafblindness and multiple disabilities all over the world.
On campus, Clifford saw the construction of the Thomas and Bessie Pappas Horticulture Center in 2003 and the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology eight years later. He witnessed the creation of the SMART Brailler®, and saw Perkins take on promoting and co-managing the FCC’s National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, popularly known as iCanConnect, that provides communications technology to individuals nationwide who are deafblind.
In particular, colleagues connect Clifford with the construction of the new Lower School, which opened in 2011. His enthusiasm for the project was typical of the energy and perspective he brought to every opportunity to move Perkins forward, remembered Board Chair Corinne Grousbeck, who served as a fellow trustee when the Board endorsed the project.
“The previous Lower School was 100 years old and was built for a completely different population,” said Grousbeck, referring to students whose only disability was blindness, as opposed to the current population, which includes many students with multiple disabilities. “Instead of saying, ‘We should shoehorn them into this (old building),’ he said, ‘No, no, we need to create this wonderful new space for them, just like 100 years ago when the current space was wonderful and new.”
The changes in Board governance that Clifford set in motion paved the way for new members, new energy and eventually new leadership. It redefined the role of the president, delegating supervision of the school to a superintendent of educational programs, and changing the top leadership position into one that acknowledged Perkins’ evolution into a diverse enterprise: president and chief executive officer.
“We were looking not for an educator, but for a business person,” said Clifford. “We made the decision to give that person a lot more independence.”
The Board found that business-minded leader in Dave Power, an executive with a background in marketing and technology whose son had attended Perkins’ Deafblind Program. Power accepted the position of president and CEO in May 2014. The evolution of Perkins’ leadership continued, Clifford said, with the succession of Corinne Grousbeck – a visionary, passionate trustee who is a parent to a Perkins alum – as Board chair that November.
“Perkins is moving into new territory,” said Clifford. “Turnover brings in fresh blood, fresh ideas. The modus operandi changes. We are the oldest and strongest (school for the blind in the U.S.), and with that comes a responsibility. You can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over. And really, this maturing and modernization is epitomized in David and Corinne. We’ve got a team of really competent people. We’re positioned well with their leadership.”
As Clifford prepares to retire from the Board, that’s the most important thing any leader could hope to accomplish. He will step down this fall, following the appointment of a replacement by the governor’s office. And when the moment comes, he will do so with optimism for Perkins’ future.
“We’re doing the right things. We’re not there yet – and I’ll be watching carefully – but I’m very encouraged,” he said. “As chairman, you want to leave knowing that, to the best of your ability, you left things in the right hands.
“Not the right place – but the right hands.”