Mary (Youngblood) Coffey (1922-2012), attended public school before entering Perkins in 1932. She would leave before graduating but returned and received a certificate in ediphone proficiency in 1949. Coffey has many memories of staff and life on campus.
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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 11, 2004, by Kevin Hartigan. 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 The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind.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]
Coffey, Mary Youngblood. “Mary Youngblood Coffey oral history interview conducted by Kevin Hartigan,” 2004-06-11, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG195-2004-05, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Recording of the oral history of Mary Youngblood Coffey
Kevin Hartigan: This is an oral history for Perkins School for the Blind. The date is June 11, 2004. The interviewer is Kevin Hartigan. The interviewee is Mary Youngblood Coffey. Could you state your name and spell it, please?
Mary Youngblood Coffey: Mary Jane Youngblood Coffey. Do you want it spelled?
Hartigan: Just spell the last name, I think would be fine.
Coffey: Oh. Y-O-U-N-G-B-L-O-O-D C-O-F-F-E-Y.
Hartigan: Tell me about when you first came to Perkins and any expectations you had of Perkins before you came here.
Coffey: Well, it all seems a little hazy to me. But I remember I think I was about 10. And I thought Perkins would have all pretty little blonde blue-eyed girls, very delicate. And they wouldn’t be able to see, but they’d just be delicate and just kind of nice. I found out when I got here that wasn’t true.
Coffey: They were very human.
Hartigan: Had you been in public school before you came to Perkins?
Coffey: Yes. I’d been in public school for about three or four years. It was not a happy experience.
Hartigan: What was unhappy about it?
Coffey: In those days, the public schools paid no attention to– there were no special services for handicapped children. So to me, at that time, I spent most of my time going from my desk to the board, and go back and write three or four words. Of course, the teacher had everything written on the board.
Coffey: And nobody ever– in there was no question of anybody writing it down for me. And of course, I was made fun of because I was tall, and I was blind. And it was just– well, even now, when I think about mainstreaming blind children, I think it’s very negative, even though I know that there have been many changes.
Hartigan: Did you have friends in public school?
Coffey: No. [Inaudible]. If there was a child who was ostracized for some reason, I would usually be attached to them. But it just was not a good experience.
Hartigan: So tell me about your first day at Perkins.
Coffey: The first day–
Hartigan: You found out that those–
Coffey: That they weren’t–
Hartigan: Little blond girls weren’t all here.
Coffey: They were not.
Hartigan: What else did you find?
Coffey: They were all shapes and sizes. I was in the Lower School. I believe the one thing I remember is that there was a little black girl. And I had never seen many black people. And well, I think I stared at her and stared at her. She couldn’t see at all, so it didn’t matter. But that’s what I remember about the first day.
Hartigan: What classes do you remember that you liked, or favorite classes?
Coffey: I think reading was about the class I liked the best. I think I liked some English, but I didn’t stay here for my full high school years. I was here– let’s see. I think I was in the eighth grade.
Hartigan: Do you remember what year it was that you left?
Coffey: Oh dear. Well, I should have graduated in 1940, which I didn’t. So it must have been, what, about ’36.
Coffey: Something like that. I’m not good on figures.
Hartigan: That’s OK. Any special memories of favorite teachers or staff that you, you know?
Coffey: Well, yes. I think we had a Miss Stewart, who was a librarian in the Lower School. And she was a favorite. And unfortunately, she died young. She was a Christian Scientist. She got sick, and she would not have a doctor. And she died. But I remember her in particular because she was associated with the library, and I liked reading.
Hartigan: Now, was her death while you were a student here, or did you hear about that after you left?
Coffey: I think I heard about it a little later. But she was very memorable. She wore a smock that had fairy tale pictures on it. And she was a tiny woman, and very lively, and full of fun, and related wonderfully to students.
Hartigan: That’s great. What about cottage life? What do you remember about the cottages? What did you do for fun or relaxation?
Coffey: Well, as I told you, my experiences weren’t typical. So I was homesick by the time I came here until the time I left. And a lot of the time seemed sort of a blur to me. I think I just was very immature.
Hartigan: Did you have hobbies, or did you belong to any clubs?
Coffey: No, I don’t think so.
Hartigan: And how about the music? Everybody seems to have musical memories. Do you have any?
Coffey: The chorus.
Hartigan: The chorus.
Coffey: And listening to them rehearse. And I think that’s a memory I still have.
Hartigan: Were you in the chorus, or you just–
Coffey: –were in the audience listening?
Coffey: I wasn’t. I wish I could have been, but I just didn’t have a voice.
Hartigan: Do you remember any special historical event that happened during your years at Perkins?
Coffey: No, I think I do remember the centennial. And I remember the concert that they–- I don’t know whether it was Symphony Hall or Jordan Hall. But I remember being there and [Inaudible].
Hartigan: If you were to give Perkins a grade– you’re the teacher. Does Perkins get an A, a B, or something lower?
Coffey: I think Perkins gets an A-plus in its efforts to give us everything we needed. It was extraordinary. It wasn’t just the classes. It was that the teachers were dedicated. Now, they had to be dedicated because they couldn’t get any other job. In those days, women couldn’t get other jobs. And they were stuck. And Perkins could more or less treat them the way they wanted to, I mean, salary-wise. And they had to live a pretty restricted life. Should I not be saying this?
Hartigan: Not at all. Go right ahead. It’s fine.
Coffey: And so the teachers were sort of in the same boat. For instance, when they put the lights out at night, I think the generators went out at 10:00 or something. The teachers were in the dark too. They had what they call courting parlors for the teachers, which were very small, very stiff. They had several stiff-backed chairs. And that’s what the teachers were allowed to, quote, “court,” unquote. I doubt any of them did.
Coffey: But they gave us such memories. And I know several of them that are– well, one was Miss. Haven. She taught literature. And we had a Miss Woodworth. Each one of them has left me with a memory. And so Perkins, I could not speak more highly though, even though they kicked me out.
Hartigan: Would you like to tell us about that story?
Coffey: Well, it’s not too good. I was homesick. And several times, I ran away from school and went home. And I was immature. And I’m sure there was sort of a pathology involved with it. They did everything they could to keep me.
Coffey: And I guess once, I sort of– well, I don’t know whether it was a serious attempt at suicide, but it was an attempt. Once I got– when I ran home, and they didn’t know where I was, they combed the grounds. They thought maybe I had got drowned in the pond.
Coffey: But all of it shows that they had a great deal of care. They cared a great– then, later on, when I took some courses, commercial courses, and Dr. Farrell, the director, hired me. And I came back to Perkins, and I worked for a couple years, sort of in the principal’s office. And that, of course, some very good memories.
Coffey: So my experiences are not typical.
Hartigan: I don’t think anybody’s is typical. I think everybody has their own experience, which is what we want to hear. Tell me a little bit about– you came back to Perkins and worked. What else have you done since Perkins?
Coffey: Well, I left Perkins. I worked in the shelter workshop, where Grace Toth worked several years. And then I got restless. And I came back to Perkins to study for a year. I went back and forth from home every day. And I studied here, and it was then that Dr. Farrell hired me in the principal’s office. And I think I worked there for about two years.
Coffey: Then I got a job at Red Cross. It was the time of the war. And Red Cross was doing a great deal of work with servicemen. So I got a job in what they call home service, transcribing interviews. And then from there, I got married, had a child. Then I looked for work again. And I worked for Harvard Medical School. And then I retired from there and haven’t worked since.
Hartigan: Any advice for the graduating class of 2004?
Coffey: That’s very difficult. It’s easy to say, well, do you best. I don’t know what advice I would give them. I feel that their expectations are high. And I think they’re in for a lot of disappointment when life hits them, because this is a protected environment. And suddenly, they’re out in the world. They do have one advantage– that nowadays, there are counselors who will help them get jobs, which wasn’t true when I was young. And another thing– I can say anything?
Hartigan: They might erase the tape later, but you can say it.
Coffey: All right. All right. They can erase it. In fact, I’ll ask you if you notice it. An awful lot of the women– well, men too– have put on an awful lot of weight. And I wonder if Perkins has ever thought of doing anything about that sort of thing, about helping the students to recognize the fact that this will happen and that they must exercise. Because when you’re blind, you can’t run fast. You have to have structured exercise, like a gym or somewhere. And if you can’t see, it’s hard to realize that you’ve put on 50 pounds.
Coffey: You can erase it.
Hartigan: No, not at all. We want that on there. Anything I didn’t ask you’d like to tell us about your memories of Perkins?
Coffey: That’s hard to say. I think that what the main impression really was– for instance, in the Lower School, I was very thin. And there were two of us that were thin. Now, they made a special effort to give us extra milk twice a day. They started us on cod liver oil. They only did it for a month or so, and then they immediately went to cod liver oil pills. They did so many things for us.
Coffey: There was a change in how the medical profession felt about blindness. When we came here, you were supposed to not use your eyes to save your sight. And we were given at one time, believe it or not, goggles that had opaque things so you couldn’t see and so that you would be sure not to use your eyes if you were doing any work. This was for partially sighted.
Coffey: Gunderson. And immediately, the rule was changed. It was decided that your eyes were muscles, and they needed to be used. And so as each one of us went to see Dr. Gunderson, I can remember in particular, each one said to him, can I use my sight? And his answer was, yes, of course. And that was a great big wonderful thing. It just changed the whole picture.
Hartigan: Sure. It’s a great big wonderful memory. Thank you.
Coffey: It is. It is wonderful. I have wonderful memories of Perkins. One more? [WHISPERS] Then I’ll shut up.
Hartigan: Go right ahead.
Coffey: When I was in Lower School, the room, my bedroom, looked out on the tower, the small tower. And I was reading books about England and about kings and so forth. And I’d lie in bed reading a braille book and look out at that tower. And all my fantasies surrounded that tower. And of course, the Perkins plan, of course, it’s like a monastery, in a sense. It lends itself to fantasy.
Coffey: Am I making sense to you?
Hartigan: Oh sure, no. It’s very much like a monastery, with the cloaks in the middle–
Coffey: Yeah, the cloaks
Hartigan: –and the covered corridors.
Coffey: And I can remember in the spring when it would be light quite late at night. And you could read. And it was very quiet. And I’d see that tower out there. All the different stories I read were fantasized in the tower.
Hartigan: Thank you very much.