By Cecile Mazzucco-Than, Ph.D. Mazzucco-Than is an independent scholar and author of “A Form Foredoomed to Looseness”: Henry James’s Preoccupation with the Gender of Fiction. Since her 2004 articles on Emilie Poulsson published in The Hopkinton Crier, she has spent happy years researching and writing the as yet unpublished “To Make My Fingers Serve”: Emilie Poulsson and the Kindergarten Cause.
When Lenna Swinerton retired after forty years in the Physical Training Department at Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, the Class of 1883 alumna was celebrated not only as an “outstanding graduate,” but also as someone who “had a remarkable influence over the lives of the pupils” (“Physiotherapy” 36). Thirteen years earlier, Swinerton eulogized her classmate Jennie M. Colby as “exert[ing] a most precious and much needed influence” on her own life (Swinerton “In Loving Memory” 7). Swinerton dedicated her life to helping and mentoring others because she had been helped and mentored.
Lenna Swinerton was born on February 24, 1863 in Danvers, Massachusetts, the third in John and Augusta Swinerton’s close knit family of six children (U. S. Census 1880). Her father was a farmer whose sons worked with him and after some years developed a milk and cattle business. Swinerton enrolled as a Perkins student on September 22, 1877. She worked so hard at being a good student that during a school break her mother informed Perkins Director Michael Anagnos she was keeping her daughter home for a few more days to rest (Augusta Swinerton to Anagnos, 1912). Some years later, when her mother was ill, Lenna stayed home from school until her mother recovered (John Swinerton to Anagnos 1881).
In 1879, Jennie Colby, four years older than Swinerton, enrolled as a pupil at Perkins and Emilie Poulsson as a teacher. Swinerton felt the new arrivals brought “a new zest of life, a new spirit of comradeship” to the school as well as activities, such as the mysterious I.S.M. club, and the Howe Reading Club (Swinerton “In Loving Memory” 7). Swinerton joined in the fun, and the three women became good friends. Swinerton remained a life-long member of the reading club, and at a meeting forty years after she graduated, she introduced the club’s discussion of J. M. Barrie’s Margaret Ogilvy (“An Evening” 39).
A year after graduation, Swinerton, Colby, and fellow 1883 graduates Julia Burnham and Mary McCaffery created the Alumnae Association for Perkins’ female graduates to maintain friendships and help each other and their alma mater. Swinerton was a very active member. In 1894, the Association decided to establish a salesroom for handiwork made by adult blind women similar to the salesroom for products made by the adult blind men established years earlier (“Report of the Committee” p 94-95). Swinerton took charge as part of “a committee of three” along with Cora Gleason, a manual training teacher, and Laura Poulsson, Emilie’s sister, “an interested friend who represents the general public” (“Wise Aid for the Blind” 53). The committee organized a fair to raise money and introduce the products to the public (Burnam 17). In 1895, the salesroom paid a total of $85.50 to nine blind consignors covering six months of sales for handmade items such as fancy shirts, socks, blankets, bed slippers, and iron holders, and by 1901 $564 was distributed to thirty consignors (“Meeting” 67). The salesroom remained successful until it was taken over by the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind in 1907 (“Report” Seventy-sixth 22).
Colby and Swinerton were two of the first Perkins graduates to study and practice physiotherapy. They studied massage therapy, and later, medical and educational gymnastics under Baron Posse in Boston (“Report” Ninety-sixth 20 and Swinerton “In Loving Memory” 10-11). Nils Posse, trained in his native Sweden, emigrated to America in 1885 and became director of the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics the next year. The teacher-training school drew on the science of kinesiology where the study of human physiology and movement helps people improve their lives through exercises that focus on improving breathing, balance, coordination, and strength (“Boston Normal” 8).
In 1894, Anagnos hired Swinerton for Perkins’ Department of Physical Training as an Assistant in Corrective Gymnastics for the Kindergarten (“Report” Ninety-sixth 20). As part of the Alumnae Association and on her own, Swinerton had also been helping to raise money to build the kindergarten. In 1885, she sent Anagnos one dollar donated by a “gentleman that loves little children,” and wrote that her church Sunday School in Danvers would contribute (Lenna Swinerton to Anagnos 1885). By 1900, in addition to working at the Kindergarten, she was also practicing and studying at Colby’s own business, the Colby Gymnasium and Training School on Boylston Street. at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue. The school offered a three-year program to train teachers in medical and educational gymnastics.
In 1906, Swinerton’s sighted sister, Martha P. Swinerton, became an assistant librarian at Perkins and kept the position for nearly ten years. She lived on campus at South Boston while Lenna lived on campus at the kindergarten in Jamaica Plain.
By 1907, Swinerton was president of the Alumnae Association, and she rallied the group to raise seventy-five percent of the cost of a memorial plaque for Anagnos mounted in Howe Hall just one year after his death. In her speech at the dedication, she explained their motive “to pledge in bronze our gratitude and loyalty to him and to the school” (“Memorial” 44).
Swinerton made the move to Watertown when the Kindergarten and the upper school consolidated on a new campus, and she continued to live on campus. By 1924, she had been promoted to Teacher of Corrective Gymnastics and employed an assistant. Three years later, she received a letter from Nella Braddy asking her to write down her memories of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, as a student at Perkins. Swinerton typed more than a full page of recollections. In the introduction to Anne Sullivan Macy: The Story Behind Helen Keller, Braddy thanked everyone from Perkins who responded, including Swinerton. She also quoted parts of Swinerton’s response as those of an unnamed classmate who would “neither forgive nor forget” and seemed to look down on Sullivan as a person who was “’unkempt and badly clothed…with strong prejudices and a narrow point of view’” (Braddy 88).
Swinerton did use those words to describe the partially sighted Sullivan in her early years at Perkins as a difficult person who even “disliked to act as my guide on our daily walks.” However, as the letter progressed, Swinerton became less judgmental as she looked back at Sullivan with whom she had not been in contact for more than thirty years. Braddy did not quote the part of Swinerton’s letter where she acknowledged Sullivan “had much to overcome personally, and yet, with her eager mind and natural vivacity, soon became an excellent student and a companionable comrade” (Swinerton to Braddy 1927).
In 1930 at sixty-seven years old, Swinerton was the oldest resident of Glover Cottage whose youngest resident was twelve-year-old Marion Foley (U.S. Census 1930). When she retired three years later, she didn’t move too far from the school. She and Gleason rented rooms in a small house on Fifield Street near the Perkins Library (U. S. Census 1940). Anna Gardner Fish, who had known them both from the years she was secretary to Anagnos, reported that the two “honored associates” visited Perkins often along with Burnham who was also a “near neighbor” (“Report of the Registrar” 56).
In 1945, the two women passed away within six months of each other: eighty-five-year-old Gleason on June 17 and eighty-three-year-old Swinerton on December 7 (“Losses” 41). Swinerton was buried in a family plot in Walnut Grove Cemetery, Danvers. Her sister Martha predeceased her in 1923 (“Swinerton” Find-a-Grave). Swinerton bequeathed $500 to Perkins in her will (“Extramural” 2).
Lenna Swinerton took to heart her Alumnae Association pledge to dedicate to Perkins the “zeal” and “perseverance” with which she approached life as a “token” of “the reverence, the love, and the gratitude” she felt for her school and its students (Alumni 4).
Mazzucco-Than, Cecile. “Lenna Swinerton, an Alumna Who Paid It Forward” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA, September 14, 2022.