Marjorie (Doyen) Awalt of Maine entered Perkins in September of 1939 as a Kindergarten student. She graduated from Perkins in 1954, winning the Director’s Character Award, which is chosen by staff and students. In the portrait of the graduating class of 1954, Awalt, a light skin woman with dark hair is located in the first row, the fourth person from the left. She wears a light-colored outfit and a pearl necklace. Awalt is holding a large bouquet of flowers and has a broad smile. Her eyes are closed. Awalt attended Junior college in Vermont, then Gordon College in Massachusetts. After taking graduate courses through the University of Pennsylvania and the Overbrook School for the Blind, she became a rehabilitation teacher. After working at the Industrial Home for the Blind in New York, Awalt returned to Maine in 1966, where she taught rehabilitation for over 30 years.
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This interview is a digitized copy of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Perkins School for the Blind. The interview was conducted on June 12, 2004, by Susan Summersby. The audio and transcript provided have been edited to protect the privacy of the interviewee.
This oral history transcript may be quoted if cited. A preferred citation is provided. The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind. For permission please contact [email protected].
Awalt, Marjorie. “Marjorie Awalt oral history interview conducted by Susan Summersby,” 2004-06-12, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG195-2004-01, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Susan Summersby: This is Susan Summersby, and I’m here on alumni weekend June 12th, 2004 doing an oral history interview with Marjorie Awalt.
Marjorie Awalt: Hello. Awalt.
Summersby: Awalt. Sorry.
Awalt: That’s all right.
Summersby: Looking back, what did you value the most about your education at Perkins?
Awalt: I value its well-roundedness. I was exposed to the academics, to music. And I’m still very much involved with music. It does a lot for my disposition to this day, starting back in lower school here.
And I learned some skills, like my typing. I learned to knit when I was five– just so much I value. But the well-rounded education that I had and the caring that went on, so even though I was here so much and away from home, I never felt bereft of love here or from my parents who wrote and supported in many, many other ways.
Summersby: What would you say brought you the greatest joy as a student here at Perkins?
Awalt: Being part of music. I took lessons– piano and occasionally some trumpet and organ, but mostly piano and some voice. And being part of the upper school chorus, under Paul [inaudible], whom we all loved so much.
Summersby: And what did you do after you left Perkins?
Awalt: In one word? Well, I went on to junior college in Vermont– Vermont Junior in Montpelier– and then to Gordon College. And then I came back to Portland, Maine to where my family were to be a typist for nearly three years for the then health and welfare. And then after graduate courses through University of Pennsylvania and the Overbrook School for the Blind, I became a rehabilitation teacher. And I was in New York– Brooklyn– for two years working for an agency for the blind in the capacity as a teacher. And then came back to Maine in ’66 and worked– picked up where I had left off in state employment and worked as a rehabilitation teacher for another 30 plus years.
Summersby: I’m curious– you mentioned how important music was while you hear at Perkins. Did you continue to pursue music outside of Perkins?
Awalt: Oh yeah. Oh my, yes. Since I’ve been home, where both of my husband and I are both in our own church choir, and we’re in Kennebec Performing Arts Choral Group, which was part of our Augusta Symphony, but chorus– and then a couple of other musical groups as well.
Summersby: I’m curious about the cottage experience here back when you were here. What could you describe cottage life being like? I think it was separate boarding room?
Awalt: Yes it was, separate. That’s right. In the upper school it was. In the lower school, we were a coed. And Anagnos and Bradlee being the youngest– kindergarten through second grade, I guess. And then we moved to Potter and Glover, depending on who was who, we girls to Glover, the boys to Potter.
Then in seventh grade, we came to upper school. And we girls were on the May Fisher Side of the big house– big building. Oliver and Brooks also– we were all girls. And then the boys were on the other end of the building in the Tompkins, Elliot, Moulton, and whatever the other one was, I’ve forgotten. The deafblind was an existing but very small program. And I think it was made most majorly housed in what was the old director’s house before the new one had been built.
Summersby: And at the end of the school day, what kind of activities occurred on campus for a free time?
Awalt: Well, we didn’t get through classes until almost 4:30. And then we’d have some quiet time just to read and do whatever– just to read a book you might have taken from the library. This is, again, in the upper school. And then after supper we had study hall for a little over an hour.
We had classes on Saturday mornings, so that wasn’t hard to fill up. But evenings, there really wasn’t a whole lot I guess. We would go back, just to listen to the radio or whatever kids like to do– but pretty much on campus. And when we were younger, we would have different teachers, whoever was on duty, read. We read a book together in the evening as just a fun book– a relaxing kind of thing to do.
Summersby: Did the school have hobbies and clubs organized to participate in?
Awalt: Well, in my younger years– I was just telling somebody a few minutes ago– I belonged to a poetry club that we were encouraged to write our own poetries. And this particular group, we would read them. And I just discovered within the last two weeks, a poetry book that our club leader at that time had helped each of us put together of our own poems.
And we each had flower names for ourselves. I was Dahlia. That was my chosen name during those years. And that was when we were real, real young. But it was just kind of exciting to find that book again. And Scouts– well, we did have Girl Scouts. I was involved with that quite a few years.
Summersby: Now when you were coming to Perkins for the first time, could you think back and describe the expectations you had before you came here? And was it filled when you got here?
Awalt: I’m sure at five years old, nothing like that would have occurred to me. And the first big hurdle was, I don’t want my folks to leave. I was always homesick. I always cried when they left, never thinking what it must have done to them until I was thinking back on it now. But at the same time, life became back in the routine again. And you were very busy once you got back here. And so after the first day or two, I was fine, didn’t disturb me anymore.
Summersby: And did you go home on weekends or did they come down here?
Awalt: Well in those days, back in the early ’40s, once I was here in September, I didn’t go back home until December, until Christmas vacation. And even most Thanksgivings, I would stay either here or go to somebody’s house who lived nearby. Then when my folks moved back to Portland area from the small town where I lived in Farmington and Bethel– especially Bethel– before that, once I moved to Portland, I could take the train for their vacations.
And my folks could come and get me occasionally for a long weekend. So it was easier then. But it’s just interesting these days. I tell families, parents who worry about their kids going to camp for a week at 10 or 12 years old, I don’t have any sympathy for those kids. I mean, we had to do it from day one.
Summersby: Very young, yeah. Thinking back, could you think of what might have been the most significant historical event that happened during your time here at Perkins?
Awalt: Wow. Well, I don’t know any one in particular. But I remember we celebrated Perkins founding– the Founders Day on the 7th of November. And Samuel Gridley Howe was one of our first founders here at school. But the significant thing to me, especially in later years, about that is I remember when some of his wife’s descendants– and his wife was Julia Ward Howe who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic– and some of her descendants came from Maine to be here for said proceedings.
And I knew that although I didn’t really talk with them or meet them much, but many years later once my husband and I were married and we settled in the Augusta area, we were attending church in Gardner, and that our church was the same church that these descendants belong to. And at that point, they were both still living, namely a John Richards and a Betty Wiggin, who would come up here faithful. And they were old elderly then. So they’ve both gone now. But I always think of that every time we sing at church. And we sing it at least once a year, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It was very meaningful because it went back to here.
Summersby: This will put you on the spot. If you had to grade the quality of life at Perkins, what grade would that be and why?
Awalt: I would grade it, in those days, very high. Because I know many people have, I think, perhaps resented having to be here rather than anywhere else– or rather than being with their peers. In our day, we didn’t have the itinerant teachers to help parents and schools to deal with us. But I felt there was a lot of caring that went on, a lot of individual help from the staff, house mothers were house mothers who cared. So I don’t know how to express it, but I would grade my time here very high.
Summersby: Do you stay in touch with any teachers, staff, or childhood friends from Perkins?
Awalt: One particular friend who was my roommate for a couple of years. And while I was in high school, we continue to tape back and forth. And actually, she’s here today. We see each other now and then anyway over the years. And then one of my own classmates who I was trying to convince she ought to come, I keep in touch with maybe once or twice a year.
But there aren’t many because after about so much of your life, there’s one or two from every phase of it that you keep– that I keep in touch with, anyway. But you can’t begin to keep in touch with, even though it’s wonderful to be here and see a lot of these same folks now. I won’t probably be in touch with them until I come back.
Summersby: Do you pretty much come every year?
Awalt: Oh no, oh no. I came five years ago. And I’ve been a few times over the last 50, but not a lot.
Summersby: We just had a class graduate from here yesterday. And I was wondering what advice would you give to that graduating class?
Awalt: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Just be yourselves and don’t give up on what it is you’re trying to do. I guess that’s about the best I can–
Summersby: And I guess we were talking about earlier about staying here sometimes on holidays like Thanksgiving. And obviously we’re here many holidays, and wondering if there’s any particular holiday memory that stands out for you while you were here at Perkins, if you could talk about that.
Awalt: That’s a very interesting question. I don’t know. You’ve got me on that one. I do remember, and maybe they still do it, it wasn’t a holiday, but for Lincoln’s birthday there had been a Blaisdell fund here. Maybe it still is.
Summersby: Still do have Blaisdell dollars.
Awalt: That’s right. So everybody still gets their dollar?
Summersby: Yes I think I’d heard it’s two dollars now, but I’m not certain about that.
Awalt: But that was kind of a– you knew it wasn’t a lot, but just the significance of having that happened. And they always read your name off at assembly. So they just didn’t hand them out without any– we had a regular little ceremony. It was kind of nice.
Summersby: I don’t think they do that now. I don’t believe, at least.
Awalt: Because they ought to know that it came from said fund. And it was at Lincoln’s birthday. I don’t know why it was even on his birthday. But I thought it was pretty significant. And it’s one of those things that stand out.
Summersby: Well, I think that’s about all I have. Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you would like to add and include in the history from your experience?
Awalt: I don’t know, but I am ever thankful that I had the time here with everybody– and the teacher trainees that come and all the students that come from everywhere. And of course, I think my first real romances were here. And I think that in those days, they didn’t encourage kids to. You didn’t do– you had classes together. But any of the dances and the social life were separated.
Summersby: Oh, is that right? They didn’t have the two sides – closes, meet up?
Awalt: They would bring in young men from Boston University or other private schools nearby for us girls for the dances. And the guys– I guess they would bring in girls from I’m not just sure where.
Summersby: But that’s very interesting.
Awalt: Well back before us– before me, a long time before that– the only time that folks were together was during chapel when they knew that they would be in opposite sides of the room. Dr. Allen, who was another– before Dr. Farrelll– Director here, used to always say that, gee there’s got to be windows on one side of the house. So back then, folks used to meet in the tunnels.
I’ve heard stories about that. But people wanted to know who the couples were who were down there sometimes, because they knew how to sneak down and get back without folks knowing it. So flour was spread on the floor unbeknown to them. Then they could track the flour to wherever they went afterwards, so that they would know when they went back to their own cottages, who had been there.
Summersby: It’s just an interesting thing.
Awalt: And I remember the air-raid shelters, which were down there in the tunnels somewhere when we used to have to plan for those kinds of things.
Summersby: Well, thank you very much Majorie. It’s been a pleasure to be with you. And I appreciate your time. And I’m sure the school is indebted for your recollections of your experiences here. It will certainly help in the whole project. Thank you very much.
Awalt: You’re welcome very much.