The unexpected discovery of a blind ancestor named George

A guest post about the author's second great-uncle, George Roukey, who she learned more about in the Perkins Archives.

Portrait of George Roukey, a white man, wearing a suit and tie. He is wearing dark glasses.

Christine holds a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing communications and her career has been based in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. She was an active participant in her employer’s disability awareness and inclusion business resource group and was the communications lead for a time. After moving back to her home state of New Hampshire, she began expanding on genealogical research done about 20 years ago in conjunction with a couple other projects.

It turned out my second great-uncle George E. Roukey had a fascinating life story in which he played a part in blind inclusion. A few months before turning four years old, he lost his sight due to “an accident.” The type of incident has not been discovered yet, but details of his life which have, however, are beyond what I could have imagined. 

What emerged was a story of perseverance and accomplishment – all thanks to archives.

Meet George

George was born in 1877 as Georges Ellsworth Routhier into a French-Canadian farming family in the Lake Champlain Valley. His parents were François Routhier and Louise Amlaw (anglicized from Hamelin with a silent “h”), who became known as simply Frank and Louisa. They lived in Clinton County, New York which is the most northeastern county in the state. It has Québec, Canada on its northern border and the state of Vermont to the east.

Not much is known about George’s childhood, though his father died at age 38 in 1886 when George was a boy of about nine years old. George had six brothers and one sister. His youngest sibling was born about six months after Frank passed away.

The “s” at the end of the French spelling of George was eventually dropped. Routhier was Anglicized in Clinton County with various spellings, some of which carried on. Today Roukey is pronounced like the word “rookie.” In the 1800s, there may have been a long “u” sound, like Routhier has, because the name showed up in records as Rukey, Rukie, Rucky, Ruky, Rookey, Roukey, and even Ruka. My second great-uncle became George E. Roukey.

Farmland to cityscape

George attended the New York Institution for the Blind at Batavia, as it was named then, in Genesee County. The location is seven counties west of Clinton, situated inland between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. No records of his enrollment have survived.

Between 1891-1892, George’s mother, Louisa, relocated her family to Manchester, New Hampshire which had a thriving mill industry in the manufacture of shoes and textiles. We know approximately when they arrived from a city directory and length of residency from Louisa’s death record. One of her paternal uncles was a resident there so she was not without family following the move.

Because of their popularity and presence in popular culture, Louisa was likely aware of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. News of their story was known across the country with regular updates on Helen’s progress. 

Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, today known as Perkins School for the Blind, was successfully giving pupils an opportunity for independence through skills for self-sufficiency. At that point in time, the perception of blindness still predominantly equated to dependence on others physically and financially.

In the late 19th century, the school was able to accommodate students only from New England. This may have been the driving factor behind the relocation to New Hampshire. It is a New England state and Manchester was a city where some relatives already were.

Off to Boston

George started attending Perkins in October of 1895, a bit late in the school year and possibly too late for inclusion in the annual list of pupils. Incredibly, Perkins’ archives contain correspondence between then director, Mr. Michael Anagnos, and Louisa Roukey which confirms the enrollment time period.

In addition to the core curriculum offered by Perkins, George chose to learn practical skills of piano tuning and chair caning, applicable trades for that time period. Later he would show up in Manchester city directories with his occupation listed as piano tuner. Hillsborough County in New Hampshire hired him to cane chairs. His work was itemized in the expenditures of county reports from at least 1917 and 1919 (appropriations and expenditures).

One of the Perkins scrapbooks contains the program outlining the schedule of events for George’s graduation . There are commencement tickets which show the Boston Line Type developed by the school. The style is also legible to the sighted without color or shade blindness. I was able to read that the ceremony was scheduled to be held at Boston Theatre on Tuesday, June 7, 1898 at 3:00 p.m.

Newspaper clippings announcing the specifics of graduation along with its programming list were published in several area newspapers including the Somerville Journal, Boston Daily Globe, Boston Post, Boston Daily Advertiser, and Boston Herald just to name a handful.

The list of graduates was printed in the Boston Daily Globe on June 8, 1898. A list was also printed in the Perkins 1898 Annual Report of the Trustees, further confirming George’s attendance and completion of his education. It is safe to assume, at minimum, he earned passing grades. As a relative of George, it was fun to see his name in the news and other publications. Articles explained graduation was open to the public by purchasing tickets, that non-ticket holders could watch from the upper gallery, and Tommy Stringer’s botany presentation was to be the main attraction.

At the time, Commencements were  more than awarding diplomas, recognizing graduate achievements, and offering well wishes for future successes. There was an element of demonstrating the potential of what blind students could learn and do out in the world while also garnering continued support from the community. Hosting a program of presentations by students of various ages allowed the public to understand the work being done at the school. Attendees could experience a wide spectrum of possibilities and benefits of earlier entry into a blind- and deafblind-specific education.

Another interesting find was an article with a sketch of Perkins students performing an original play (Progress in America) in 1898. Contained in the text are names of students and the roles they portrayed. Several had more than one part, but George only had one as “France.” Fitting for a French-Canadian young man. With only one role, maybe acting was not his forté. He was destined for other things.

Opportunity knocked, he answered

George found it challenging to get hired for piano tuning because people in Manchester were afraid George would damage their pianos. He received additional training in Portland, Maine to learn broom making. At that time, blind individuals often had to be sent out-of-state in order to be educated in a trade.

About nineteen years after his time at Perkins, George’s career took an interesting turn when he became a representative in the House of Representatives. He served three terms in the New Hampshire Legislature for Manchester Ward 11. This role is one his youngest sibling, Elmer, and nephew, Joseph (my grandfather), would also go on to hold. 

A feature write-up, along with George’s photo, appeared in Outlook for the Blind’s December 1923 issue. He was named as one of nine blind Senators and Representatives. Each of the individuals had a summary and George’s contained the following:

“When Mr. Roukey’s name was proposed for election as representative in the New Hampshire Legislature in 1917, he accepted the nomination, as he saw in it the opportunity of performing a double duty – to the state and to the work of the blind. His popularity was so great and his success in this so apparent, that he was re-elected in 1923.

…Work for the blind has always maintained an enthusiastic and intelligent friend in Mr. Roukey. He is manager of the New Hampshire State Workshop for the Blind, which position he has held for the past six years.”

One of the Perkins clippings scrapbooks has a news article about George’s career in the House of Representatives which was printed in the Union Leader newspaper from Manchester. The piece is titled: “Blind Local Legislator Finds Loss of Sight No Reason for Abandoning Self to Despair: George Roukey Follows Proceedings in the House Easily, Manages State Workshop and Finds Each Day Has 24 Happy Hours,” published on January 10, 1925. 

During an interview, my second great-uncle talked about how he took notes using a “pocket slate” with a stylus to punch braille letters into heavy stock paper. He would create reports from his notes using a braille writer and would then type those reports on a traditional typewriter to be the copy provided to Concord, the state’s capital.

George mentioned being asked if he needed to count steps and how he avoided obstacles and approaching people. He explained about the keenness of hearing and sounding one’s way using a cane. “I have heard stationary objects, such as an opening in a fence,” he stated.

In 1917, he and Henry Van Vliet teamed up to establish a workshop for the blind in New Hampshire based in Manchester. This allowed for blind adults in the state to learn a trade without leaving the state. If desired, they were also given an opportunity, along with machinery and equipment, to start up workshops closer to their hometowns.

George contributed to inclusion by serving in the House for multiple terms and working to establish workshops aimed at providing job opportunities in New Hampshire communities.

In conclusion

Learning about George made me feel proud. Between his father passing away young, a complete change in environment, and making a path for himself as a man who was blind in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Roukey faced quite a few challenges. His is a story of perseverance and accomplishment, and one I now have the pleasure and honor of passing along. George may not have had notoriety but he did make a difference. That is something worth sharing.

A special thank-you to the staff in the Research Library and Archives at Perkins for locating materials and transcribing letters. They found more than I ever thought possible – from over 120 years ago. 

My hope was to confirm George’s attendance, and I figured that might be a long shot, but their research and Perkins’ wealth of archives helped bring his story to life. It gave me a sense of what his world was like then. 

What I was able to discover exemplifies how valuable archiving and digitizing is so we can find our history and keep it alive long after. I would not be aware of this tale about one of my ancestors otherwise.

Work cited

Suggested citation

Roukey, Christine T. “The unexpected discovery of a blind ancestor named George.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. November 6, 2023.