Getting political

Perkins’ research librarian rediscovers six alumni who went on to serve in the Massachusetts State Legislature

A man sews a striped mattress

A former Perkins student elected to the Massachusetts House, William McCarthy, fought for job opportunities for people with blindness. In this undated photo, a man sews a striped mattress at the Perkins workshop in South Boston.

August 10, 2016

After meeting with state legislators on campus in March 2016, students at Perkins School for the Blind might be inspired to pursue a career in politics themselves. They wouldn’t be the first to do so.

Perkins Research Librarian Jennifer Arnott recently rediscovered six Perkins alumni who went on to be elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature. All six served in the state’s House of Representatives, with three serving simultaneously from 1945 to 1952. While most graduated from other schools, each spent at least one year at Perkins.

A piano tuner by trade, William Henry McCarthy was blinded in an accident at 17 and graduated from Perkins at the age of 20 in 1897. McCarthy, a Democrat, served as the representative from Rockland from 1923 to 1924 and again from 1927 to 1932. During his first term, McCarthy spoke out against the planned closure of the Cambridge industrial shops for the blind. A year after their closure in 1923, the House passed a bill to reopen the Cambridge workshops.

Shortly after the end of his final term, McCarthy was appointed as state director of the blind by Governor Joseph Ely. Many challenged the governor’s appointment and questioned “the expediency of naming a man thus handicapped to a position that supervises 4,500 blind persons and is responsible for disbursements amounting to nearly half a million dollars a year.” Despite his detractors, McCarthy served as director until 1943 when Arthur Sullivan, also a Perkins alumnus, succeeded him.

Like McCarthy, Joseph Walton Tuttle, Jr. was blinded as the result of an accident – a gunshot that took his sight at 15. After the accident, Tuttle spent a year at Perkins before going on to graduate from Framingham South High School. Having earned degrees from Bowdoin College and Harvard Law School, Tuttle practiced law in Framingham from 1920 until his death in 1977. He also served as Framingham’s representative in the House from 1931 to 1936.

While McCarthy and Tuttle were the only legislators during their respective terms that were blind, 1945 saw three Perkins alumni serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. That year Republicans Richard L. Hull and George Greene were joined in the House by Democrat James Edward Hannon, who graduated from Perkins in 1929.

Hannon left the House in 1952 and went on to serve as a special justice in Lee District Court. In 1965 Judge Hannon presided over a famous littering case involving singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. Guthrie referenced Hannon in “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” – the classic title track of his 1967 album, “Alice’s Restaurant.” Hannon also played himself in the 1969 movie “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Though they won the September primaries, Greene and Hull failed to win reelection in 1958. A year later fellow Perkins alumnus Gregory Benjamin Khachadoorian joined the legislature where he served until 1970 as the representative from Arlington. A Republican, Khachadoorian was also an active member of the National Federation of the Blind and sponsored a number of bills related to blindness and eye safety.

In 1964 Khachadoorian, who was blinded in an accident as a teenager, authored the Massachusetts School-Eye Safety Law, which provides that “safety eye devices must be worn in all shops and labs in all private, public, parochial schools, and colleges and universities in Massachusetts.” This landmark bill was the first requiring safety glasses in the United States.

Like their predecessors who went on to careers in politics, students at Perkins today are encouraged to advocate for themselves and actively participate in government. From attending Student Government Day at the Massachusetts State House to advocating for state funding of critical services, students at Perkins are demonstrating that they have what it takes to be productive and active members of their communities.

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Read more about: Alumni, Perkins History