Mike Cataruzolo lived, breathed, and loved Perkins School for the Blind from when he arrived at the age of 19 until his death. Over his sixty years at Perkins, he held a wide variety of positions and recruited and trained volunteers who have shared their time with Perkins. Mike seemed to know everyone and remember everything. He always had a story about Perkins to share. Cataruzolo, in a 2017 photograph, is smiling. A white man with short white hair, he stands holding his white cane in one hand and a white fedora in his other. Cataruzolo is wearing a bright yellow vacation-style button-down shirt, the bust of Anne Sullivan is behind him in the background.
Mike arrived at Perkins in 1960. Originally from East Boston, he attended Boston Public Schools and Roslindale High School. However, his visual impairment was not diagnosed until fourth grade and he graduated from high school without being able to read. His father suggested he apply for a job at Perkins, and Mike took a position as an attendant in the Deafblind Program working with two students in Moulton Cottage.
In the following oral history, Mike described his duties helping the boys get ready for school, then coming up with activities for them between the end of school and bedtime. Mike said that by noticing how the boys responded as they got to know him, how they’d laugh and enjoy themselves, “I started to develop a more positive self-image. I would talk more. When I was young, I hardly ever spoke. I just felt very inferior. But that was me. And I think this job really gave me a feeling that I could be successful, I could make a difference.”
Mike spent a lot of time in the gym and became close to the lower school physical education teacher and wrestling coach, Dick Kamis. Mike credited Dick as one of his greatest mentors, inspiring and encouraging him to seek out ways to learn more and convincing him he could make a real difference in with students.
When Mike was not accepted into college because of his poor reading and writing skills, he kept looking for help. A chance meeting at the Mass Eye and Ear clinic brought him into contact with Doctor Sloane who introduced him to a Keeler Magnifier, a device that allowed Mike to read print reliably for the first time.
From there, Mike began taking courses, first at Newman Prep, then at Quincy Junior College. All through this time, he continued working at Perkins as an attendant in the cottages. He took a brief leave in the mid-60s to finish his education at Boston University’s Metropolitan College, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education and Health along with a teaching certificate.
Mike began working as a Physical Education instructor in 1967. The next summer, Mike married his wife Patti in the Perkins chapel. In the next years, he became the Housemaster in Moulton Cottage and worked closely with students in the physical education classes, particularly focusing on adaptive physical education techniques and methods for children with visual impairments. By the 1972-73 school year he had become the Head of the Physical Education department. Later in the 70s he also served as the Coordinator of Social and Recreational Activity and began working with the Adult Services program.
Mike never stopped learning. He earned a Master’s degree in Education from Boston University. He attended Boston State College to earn a certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies in Education and Law. He also wrote or co-wrote a number of pamphlets and other teaching materials during his time at Perkins, focused on physical education topics.
However, Mike is best known these days for his work as the Manager of Volunteer Services. When he started this role in 1984, they had perhaps 15 volunteers. Mike grew the program to include more than a thousand volunteers with about 350 people regularly volunteering on campus in 2019.
Mike took his work building the program incredibly seriously, not only by becoming one of only a few people in the country nationally certified in volunteer administration, but also by building personal relationships with many of the volunteers who came through Perkins. Anyone in the Howe building might wander by Mike (and his long time assistant and friend Linda Oleson) talking to volunteers or giving a tour.
Mike not only found his career at Perkins, but also met his wife Patti here. She was part of the teacher trainee program and then a teacher. They raised two children – Amy and David – in a home on Charles River Road, right down the street from the school.
Mike was also deeply involved in the community. He served as Vice President and a member of the Board of the Commission on Disabilities, as a Little League coach and as President of Watertown Youth Hockey.
Mike was also honored throughout his life. He was named a “Hero Among Us” by the Boston Celtics (as an avid sports fan, Mike was delighted). In 2003, he was inducted into the Carroll Society as a Blind Employee of the Year in 2003. In 2014 he was named the Thomas J. Caroll Blind Employee of the Year, the highest honor the Carroll Center and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind can bestow on any blind employee in the Commonwealth.
In 2011, a gift from Bill Schawbel (a member of the Perkins Board of Trustees) and his wife Judy A. Samelson made the Patti & Mike Cataruzolo Independent Living Apartments possible. These apartments tucked into a corner of the Lower School buildings allow students who are blind a chance to live on their own and practice life skills such as food preparation, household chores, and paying bills. They also are a chance for everyone at Perkins to remember the power of possibility that Mike demonstrated every day.
Written by Jennifer Arnott, 2020.
This interview is a digitized copy of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Perkins School for the Blind. The interview was conducted on March 4, 2020, by Jen Hale.
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].
Cataruzolo, Mike. “Mike Cataruzolo oral history interview conducted by Jen Hale,” 2020-03-04, Perkins Archives Oral History Project, AG176-2020-03, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.
Jennifer Hale: Today is July 10, 2019. This is Jen Hale. I’m here with Mike Cataruzolo, the manager of volunteer services at Perkins School for the Blind. We are conducting this interview in the archives of Perkins. Mike, are you OK with me recording this conversation?
Mike Cataruzolo: Yes, I am.
Hale: OK. What year did you come to Perkins, and what brought you here?
Cataruzolo: I came to Perkins in– my first time being at Perkins was June 17, 1960. I came for an interview for a position that my dad had seen in the paper. They were looking for someone to work with deafblind children as an attendant. And at that time, prior to that, I was not working. I was kind of flip flopping around, and I didn’t have really a focus.
And I didn’t know too much about Perkins at the time. My father said, gee, this looks like something you might be interested in, is working with two deafblind boys. And it said Perkins, so I said, yeah. So he said, you can go. So I did call and I said, I’d like to come in and find out about the position. They said, why don’t you come in. And it happened to be the Monday after alumni weekend. I don’t think they called it alumni weekend, they just called it– the alumni had a day on Sunday.
And I came in on the Monday, and I remember walking on campus. I walked up on campus, and I was by myself. I had come by public transportation from East Boston. And I walked on to the campus and I said– I was very insecure, very self-conscious.
And I walked on to this campus and I said, oh, what am I doing here? And I looked to my left as I walked in the driveway. There was a college, and I said, gee, that’s beautiful. And there were trees– and I looked to the right, there were a cluster of trees and all that. Well, I kept walking and I said, I don’t think I want to be here. I was kind of toying with the idea, no, this is something I can’t do.
But I don’t know. I just walked on campus, I just got this feeling, I should follow through on it. And I walked along and I saw it in front of me to the right a pond. And before I got to passing the pond, there was a big boulder. And I sat down and I thought– I said, gee, I don’t know if I want to do this. But I said, yes.
So I continued to walk, and I walked up to the front of the Howe Building. I walked in the Howe Building, and I said to the woman who was at the switchboard, I’m here to see Mr. Smith, my name’s Mike Cataruzolo. She said, oh, go through those doors, take a left, and on the left, you’ll see an office and you’ll see Mr. Smith. So I walked in and I saw Mr. Smith, who at that time was the principal of the school.
He was interviewing for someone to be an attendant for these two deafblind children. So he questioned me, and I didn’t tell him that I had poor vision, but I think he just knew that I did. And so he said, well, he said, Mike, let me show you where you’ll be living with these boys. So he took me out of the building, and he did something which was kind of– I look back at it and it was very, very, I think, interesting what he did. He walked very fast in front of me, about 10 steps. I think he wanted to see the amount of vision I had.
So I followed him along right to the lower school and I went into the quadrangle. He took me into Potter Cottage, and I went into Potter Cottage. And one of the things that always reminds me of the lower school is mothballs because in Potter Cottage, they had covered all the furniture and they put mothballs there because the school was going to be closed for the summer.
And he took me up on the third floor, and he walked me down the length of this corridor in the third floor. And he said, these are your rooms, and he showed me the two rooms. This is where the two students will live and you’ll live in this other room. And they had a bathroom. Then he started telling me what my responsibilities were, and I felt that I was hired. And he says, the school starts September, whatever it was, the last of August. So I left, and that was my first.
Why did I come to Perkins? I didn’t have a job. I was floundering. I had graduated from high school, and unfortunately, I graduated and I couldn’t read or write. One of those situations where I was illiterate at that time. They pushed me through school, and I kind of helped them along. I maneuvered to get out of doing things. I probably was reading on a first, second grade level, but I couldn’t read or write.
And then I was getting into a lot of trouble when I lived at home in East Boston. I think this was the saving thing for me, to come to Perkins. No, I know it was. It turned my life completely around, and it was just like a fish jumping into water.
Hale: So you are an attendant when you started.
Cataruzolo: Yes, I was.
Hale: Can you describe some of your job responsibilities or activities?
Cataruzolo: My responsibility was two deafblind boys. One boy was named Joe and the other boy was named Robert. And they were totally blind, and they both had hardly any hearing at all. They couldn’t hear at all. And my responsibility was to participate in activities with them, help them get ready for classes in the morning, walk them off to school, drop them off with their teachers, come back, and then this was at 9 o’clock. And then I’d be off until 11:30, when I’d have to go back to the classroom, pick them both up, and bring them back for lunch. And we’d sit down and have lunch.
And then I’d take them out in the back of Potter and we’d do fun things. There was a swing there, there was a rocking boat, there was a seesaw. So I took them up there. And then at 1:30, quarter to 2:00, I’d start walking back to their classroom, which was located at the Keller Sullivan Building. That’s where the Deafblind Department classrooms were, in Keller Sullivan. Then I’d bring them to the teachers, and the teachers would have them until about 4 o’clock. And then I’d pick them up at 4:00, I’d bring them back to Potter.
We would do some activities outside, play some games and stuff. Supper, I think, was 5:30 or 6 o’clock, and we’d go in and have supper. And all these times it’s a teaching process of telling them how to use a spoon, how to use a fork, put your napkin down on your lap, and those types of things, teaching them proper techniques in eating. And then after that, we’d do some activities in the cottage or go outside for a walk. And then they’d start getting ready for bed about 7:30, 8 o’clock, and they’d be in bed by 8:30.
I’d have to give them a bath and a shower– I think it was a shower. I don’t think Potter, up on the third floor, the tub had a shower. I think it was a bathtub. So they had a bath, then they’d get into bed. Then they were off to sleep, and I’d get up in the morning with them. So my job was kind of split, really. It was fun. In my job, I was doing more recreational type of activities, teaching them independent living skills, also socialization skills. So it was kind of fun. I’d always walk over to the gym here because I like the gym. I like doing things around the gym area, and they liked rolling around and stuff. So it was an interest that I had, and that was the area that made me feel more like I wanted to find out more and more.
I became friendly with my mentor. One of my greatest mentors, his name was Dick Kamis He was the lower school physical education teacher and he was the wrestling coach. He was a big guy. He was about 220 pounds, about 6’2″. And I became friends with him. He put me under his wing. And every free time that I had during the day I would go to the gym and observe and maybe help and stuff. I think that was my– he inspired me to go off to school. But that’s a whole different story, also.
Hale: You mentioned playing games or activities. Do you remember any of the games that you played? Were they board games? Were they physical activity kind of games?
Cataruzolo: We tried some board games with them, and they was simple type of games– putting a block over here in this corner, and then moving over here, putting a block over here. Remember, these young gentlemen were cognitively at a lower level, so you had to do a lot of simple type of activities. When I say games, you’d play simple games. I’d sit them on the floor and we’d roll a ball. We had a ball that had bells in it, and we’d roll it. Not that they could hear it, but we had a ball that rolled. And then I showed them to roll it back to me. And I’d have them sit there with their arms, and they’d roll it back and forth.
So we played some type of ball games. Teaching them some other high skill games– I’d have them run on the track, do activities of that type. I tried to teach them how to play a certain type of checkers, but a simple type of checkers. We had a board, and it didn’t have all the checkers that you had, but it had some. Some were round, some were square, some were triangles, and you’d try to match them. So they were simple type of games that we played with them, really.
Hale: Do you have any particular memory from that time that really stands out from the beginning at Perkins in that position?
Cataruzolo: I don’t know. I guess down deep, I started to feel– well, let me try to explain it. Myself, I came from a very, very poor situation where I lived, and I never really felt that I could be successful. It was very difficult for me to have a self-image that was positive. But when I was working with these kids, I’d catch that they’d laugh every so often. They seemed to be having fun. And I started to realize that what I was doing was making a difference in them. They were starting to be a little more quality of life. And I think that was the thing that I really felt was happening with them.
Now, the first couple of months that I worked with them, it was kind of resistant. They found me, who’s this guy coming in? I’d get them up in the morning and want them to put on their own socks. Rather than me putting them on, I’d give them the socks. I’d show them, and sometimes they resented and they didn’t want to. But after a while, they started to pick up the skill and realized that they could do things, too. And it made me feel good because I could see that they were showing improvement in areas.
At that time I didn’t have any college degree. It was just some basic things that I realized are necessary– how to dress yourself properly and how to do that type of stuff. And I think that I started to see a change in myself. I started to become a little more comfortable about who I was. I started to develop a more positive self-image. I would talk more. When I was young, I hardly ever spoke. I just felt very inferior. But that was me. And I think this job really gave me a feeling that I could be successful, I could make a difference.
And that was the most encouraging– and I was talking about this gentleman, Dick Camus. He said, you know, Mike, you’re doing a good job with these kids. They like what you’re doing, they seem to be much happier and stuff. It made me feel a little like this was something that I wanted. And it was motivating me to think, jeez, maybe I want to get into this field, I want to get into this field. And that’s a whole other story because it was really a challenge to– now I had to learn how to read and write, which was another step I had to take. But with these kids, I saw a change in them. I felt and I realized that what I was doing with them had an effect on them, a positive effect, which is good for me and good for them.
Hale: So what other positions did you have at Perkins?
Cataruzolo: Well, I stayed at that position as an attendant for a couple of years, in 1960, I think, until about ’62. And I moved from lower school, elementary school deafblind, to upper school, which was the junior high school setting in the cottage. And I was working with teenagers who were deafblind and doing similar types of things. But they were more independent, and I would do more activities with them. And at that time, Dick Camus, said, jeez, you know, Mike, I could use assistance down at the gym with the kids. He was doing things. He says, maybe I’ll speak to Mr. Smith.
So I worked with Dick and came up with a schedule. He presented it to the school, and I was part-time gym aide. I was doing some of the things, like I’d have to organize the equipment and the uniforms. But I also got into the gym to do activities and stuff like that. And I think that was the beginning stages of me feeling this was the start of what I wanted to do in life.
Hale: So that’s how you got into the athletics at Perkins. But were you athletic before that?
CataruzoloWell, if you want to call it athletic. When I was young, like I said, I came from a very tough section of East Boston. And I don’t mean me to survive, you had to fight, but my self-image was very, very low when I was young because I couldn’t do a lot of things visually. And I became very negative towards myself, and I started to blame everybody else for my inability to, say, participate in things. So the only way that I felt that I could be accepted, I would fight.
I was somewhat angry, and I’d fight kids. And I felt this would bring me closer to peers and they’d look at me in a different fashion. I look back and I’d say, they didn’t care what– you could stand on your head. But I was one that I felt that I had to fight to be accepted. But I look back and say it was just a waste of my time doing that, and I felt badly. But I didn’t know any other way to get out of who I was because I was angry with myself, I was angry with my parents, I was angry with the environment that I was brought up in, all those types of things.
I lived in a very poor section. And I’m not saying– I love my parents, and I guess my parents love me. But my mother was an addicted gambler. We lived in a house in the ’40s, and they would– if you didn’t pay your bills, they’d turn off the electricity. You didn’t pay bills, they’d turn off the gas. And that’s why mother would gamble all the time. My father was a wonderful guy. He was a wonderful guy. But he was a– he drank on weekends– Thursday, Friday, Saturday. He was kind of a weekend alcoholic, and that was the type of situation I grew– not that they were abusive to me in some ways. They were just– we lived in a very poor house.
The house I lived in was– there were four rooms. There was a bedroom for my mother and father, there was a kitchen, and then there was two other bedrooms. My sister had one bedroom. And my grandmother lived with us, and my grandmother was an invalid. She couldn’t walk, and I had to sleep with her. So that was kind of a challenge for me to deal with something like that. And unfortunately, my grandma was incontinent, too, so it was really tough.
We lived in a house. In our apartment, we didn’t have a shower or a bathtub. So if I was going to wash, I’d have to have a sponge bath in the kitchen sink because we didn’t have a living room. It was a cold flat. We had a stove, and the range heated the stove and that was supposed to heat the whole house.
Hale: And where was this in Boston?
Cataruzolo: East Boston. It was in East Boston. I look back and I– it’s kind of strange to think back of things that stick out in your mind. I went over to this kid’s house. His name was Jimmy. He lived down the street. He was a nice kid. And he says, come on– he used to call me Migue’. Instead of Mike, they’d call me Migue’ Mike, little Migue’ they used to call me. Little Migue’ because I was small. He said, come on over to my house, come on, he says, then we’ll go out or something.
So I go over to his house, Jimmy, and I climb up the stairs to go to the second floor. I walk into his house, he says, here, have a seat in the parlor. That’s what they used to call it before, parlor. They didn’t call it a living room, they called it a parlor. And I walked in the room and I saw this big chair, I saw this other big chair, and I saw this big, big, big couch. And I said, jeez, this is crazy. Because I’d never seen those things. So I got my first experience sitting in a living room. Then it was called a parlor.
And it was kind of an eye opener. There was a lot of things that were an eye opener because my parents did an expose, maybe because they were– my mother had to quit school when she was in the seventh grade to help support the family. My father had to quit school when he was in the ninth grade. He had to help support his family. So it was a whole different type of thing. And my sister– well, my sister and I, we survived. My sister was dynamic. We fought, but there was a deep love between us. She was my best friend.
I remember– it’s a funny thing. When I worked at Perkins, I couldn’t read or write it. And we used to have meetings about students– every Monday they would have a meeting to go on about the students and what’s going to happen at the week. They’d hand out these memos. And I’d be sitting in Potter in the room and they’d be having the meeting. I’d be sitting there and they’d be talking about students and stuff, and they’d hand out all these memos and stuff. I didn’t know what the heck they were.
And I remember, I used to have Tuesdays off. I used to have every Tuesday and every other weekend off. So I had every Tuesday off. So Monday I did my thing, and Monday night came along. I’d put the kids to bed. So I decided to go home to East Boston. I jumped on the subway, and I went home. And the first person I ran home to see was my sister. My sister’s name was Dee. I said, Dee, I got these, can you read these to me? She used to read me my memos so I felt like I knew what was going on and stuff like that.
Hale: So do you feel like your inability to read was due to visual impairment, due to the educational system?
Cataruzolo: I think it was a combination. I think the problem is I went to a Catholic school, but my parents didn’t realize– see, one of the problems in the ’40s, people did not understand– they understood you were blind. If you were blind, they understood that. And if you had sight, they’d understand some have sight. But they didn’t realize that individuals that may have poor vision– they have some sight but poor vision, they need some social accommodations. They didn’t make any. They might have given you large print, but that didn’t mean anything to me, really.
And I remember I went to Catholic school. And in the first or second grade, I’m sitting there– when you’re in elementary lower school, like kindergarten, pre-school, everything is large. They’d give you large blocks, they’d give you large letters. Everything is large. As you get into the first, second grade, things get small. Print gets small. And they started handing me this stuff. So what they did was, the nun handed our books. Open up your book. Well, I couldn’t see the print. It was small print. So I put my head down.
I hear this–
I hear her walking up the aisle. Mike, lift up your head. No sleeping here! I said, oh, jeez. So she said, get your head up. I don’t want you keep your head down. I don’t want you to fall asleep. And I’d hear her walking away. And she’s asking kids to read. OK, you read the first sentence, Johnny, I’ll read the second sentence. And I got my head down. And I hear–
This time it was louder and a little slap behind the head. You lift up your head! And I said, I can’t see it. You can see it! You can see it! She just wasn’t sensitive to that. And there were some kids sitting next to me. Years ago in classrooms, chairs were locked in. They didn’t move. Not like today, kids can put them anyplace you want to. Desks were locked in. You go to a desk, they were in a row. And I’m sitting there at my desk, and there’s a kid sitting over here laughing, another kid beside him laughing.
You know what that did for me? Turned me completely off towards education. Now I started to rebel. I started to do things that were crazy because of that. I can remember, it stuck out of my brain. All she had to do was accommodate me some way, and it would’ve turned everything around. But it didn’t. I had that negative experience. And I was having negative experiences because I started to realize you go insane, and it turned me off. So that was my start of not learning. And I learned how to get out of things.
That’s one of the things about a blind or visually impaired person, they have a knack of knowing how to manipulate, to get out of things. And I say this because I was sitting down– I had a friend who is a professor at BC who was partially sighted. And we were just chatting and I said, one of the biggest problems for me, I said, I’d get out of things. He said, Mike, you think you were the only person? I was visually impaired. What do you think I did? I’d get out of doing things. It was easy to get out of doing things sometimes rather than doing them, and you could use your vision that way.
He said, Mike, you want to know something? I still do once in a while. I started laughing. That’s that type of thing. And for me, in the second grade, it just completely turned my life around.
Hale: Did you end up learning to read print?
Cataruzolo: Well, what happened was I got out of– I went to several schools. In the fourth grade, they took me out of the Catholic school and put me in a public school. And I stayed there. Then I went to another public school in the West End. Then I went to another school in Roxbury. Then I went to another school in Roslindale, and I finally graduated. Here I am with a diploma, couldn’t read the stupid thing. Well, when I was here at Perkins, I had this great desire to– I wanted to get a degree.
My friend Dick Camus had a degree from Springfield. It was just– and I thought, this is the field I want to be in, physical education. I want to do that because I like kids and stuff. So he said to me, Mike, why don’t you take a course, and stuff like that. He said, you could get a degree, you could take a course at BU. So he came with me to sign up for this course, and it was called freshman English. And it was in the CLA– I’ll never forget, the CLA. So I went there and I’m sitting at the table.
This professor comes in, this woman. It’s a rectangular table. She says, OK, this is the book that I’d like you to buy, and all this. She gave me the name of the book. And she said, please, she says, would you just mind writing a little autobiography, so next time when we meet I have some background and know who you are and stuff like that. I said, oh. So I ended up scribbling something down. I was so enthusiastic about writing. I didn’t know what the hell I’m writing. But I wrote it and handed it in. And she says, OK, we’ll see you next week, and don’t forget to get the book and stuff.
I went all around getting the book. I finally found the book. I said, great, I got the book! So the next week comes and I go up to the classroom. Everyone’s in the classroom. She comes walking in. She says, who is Mike Cava– Cavar– she couldn’t even pronounce my name because she couldn’t understand my writing. But I knew she was talking– I said, yeah. She says, oh, Mr. Cata– I said, MC. She says, can I talk with you? So she takes me out of the classroom. She said, Mr. MC, I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but, she said, downstairs there’s a class, English as a second language. She said, I think you should take that course rather than this one.
And I got on the train– I got on the trolley. And I sat in the back by myself, and I literally was crying, tears rushing down my eyes. And I felt I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do anything. And, what am I going to do? What am I going to do? There’s this other gentleman here at Perkins, and he since passed away. His name was Leo Queenan and Leo Queenan was a teacher of the deafblind. He had a little bit of sight, but he lost most of his sight. And he lived in Moutlon [cottage] and I was living in Moutlon still taking care of deafblind kids.
He said, come on, let’s talk, Mike, let’s talk. So I went in. And he said, Mike, he says, maybe what you got to do is think about going to a school that can gear their subject to your level. He said, there’s a prep school in Boston, and he says, a prep school is great, he said, you can take courses for, like, three months, and they’re concentrated and stuff. They got them in writing and developing grammar and all these types of things. I said, yeah, I’ll do it. So I called up. It was Newman Prep located in Boston.
So I signed up for a couple of classes. One was English, another one was writing. They fell in that category. Now, at the same time, I always went to the Mass General Eye and Ear Clinic to have my eyes checked. And I remember, I’m sitting– now, you realize that these days, they didn’t have much for devices to assist you. So I’m in there and I said, how am I going to do this work? I can’t see the book, I can’t see the print. How am I going to do this?
So when I was in there, I’m sitting there and this intern– doctor– resident says, oh, Mike. He comes in and he’s checking my eyes. And, what’s the matter? Why are you crying? I’m literally crying. I said, I want to learn. I said, I’m not dumb, I’m not retarded. I want to learn. But I don’t know how to do that. I don’t have anything to help me. I can’t read the print that’s too small. I can’t see. Now, if you’ve ever been in the clinic, you know there are curtains that separate each of the clinics. I was in one.
And standing at this curtain is this doctor. Hey, Doctor! He’s talking to my doctor. Can I see you for a moment? He pulls him out and he says– and he’s talking to him. So the doctor comes in and he gives him my folder– gives this doctor my folder. He says, Mike, this doctor would like you to go with him. So I said, OK. So I get up. He says, come with me, come with me, Mr. MC, come with me. So I went with him into his office. He had this beautiful office. He had all kinds of books, mahogany desk, and he had all these glasses up there and stuff.
He says, ah, Mr. MC, I may have something for you. I said, oh, jeez, great. So he gives me this rectangular box and he says, open it up. And I open up this rectangular box and inside is a pair of glasses. Now, the glasses are the strangest glasses I’ve ever seen because the left lens was blocked. It was a cloudy type of lens. And the right one had a protrusion out about an inch and a half, and it had a plastic type of coating that went around it. And then there was this wire that came out of it and it went down, and the wire went into a tube.
And he said, put on those glasses. I said, OK. So I put on the glasses. And he says, see that tube? He says, there’s a switch there, turn the switch on. I turn the switch on and the right lens illuminated, it became bright. So he says, here. He gives me a piece of paper. He says, here, take a look at it. So I put the paper out like this. He said, no, no, no. Put it up against the lens, he said. So I put it up against the lens, and I almost fell on the floor. I could see words, letters, clear.
I could see the whole word. I could see a second word. It enlarged the print 14 times the size. It was called the Keeler Magnifier, which was made in England. And the name was Dr. Sloane. He’s since passed on. I said, Doctor, I got to have this. This was my life. He says, well, he says, I can get you one. He says, it’ll cost you a hundred and something dollars. I think he said $180. Well, I said, I want one. So I did buy one. I bought one.
I got this Keeler Magnifier. And the first place I went, I went to a bookstore. I took a book of English, I took a book of reading, spelling. And one of the things I always wanted to do– this may be strange to you– I wanted to read a novel. I always wanted to read a novel. So I went in there and I said, do you have a book that would be interesting to read? And the guy said to me, yeah, he says, I got a great book, he says, by Michener. I said, Michener? He says, yeah. I said, what’s the name of it? He says, Caravans.
So I bought Caravans, and I went home. I was like a crazy man. 20 hours a day, I’m reading. I got batteries– buying batteries. I’m learning how to read– taught myself to read. I taught myself how to read. And I read and I read and I read and I read and I read. I was like a crazy man. And then I continued, and I got to Newman Prep. I took courses at Newman Prep, and I got some pretty good marks because I really was dedicated to learning. I did that, then I applied to several colleges.
But you know what happened? Nobody would take me because I had– unbelievable. My marks were brutal. Life is a strange thing. You come across people, like– you meet people that are just dynamic and they just match. Somebody said to me, you know, there’s a junior college. And I said, yeah? Where? He says, Quincy– Quincy Junior College. I said, what the heck? So I called and I got the dean of students. He was an Italian guy. But you know how you hit it off with someone? We hit it off.
He says, oh, yeah, why don’t you come out and we’ll talk, Mike. I go out there, and he says– and I had to bring my transcripts with me. He said, I can’t put you in a program, he said, but because you’re very determined and you got a lot of motivation and you’re an older person now, he says, I’ll put you in three classes. You pass these three classes, I’ll put you in the program. I said, OK. I worked my petunias off. I took freshman English, and I’ll never forget the English teacher.
His name was Lyford, L-Y-F-O-R-D. He was a teacher that came to the Boston area to do some sort of sabbatical, I guess. And he did some stuff at Quincy Junior College, taught an English class. Mr. Lyford– excuse me, Dr. Lyford. He was very good. And then I took a history course, then I took a biology course. And I passed the three of them. He says, yeah, you’ll get into it. So I get into a program and I start taking some courses. And I passed the courses, and I said, jeez, I want to transfer. So I transferred– I looked at the schools, and I said, BU. I transferred to BU. And they took 90% of my courses, but not– so I went to BU.
Hale: What did you study at BU?
Cataruzolo: got a bachelor’s degree in science physical education in elementary school, secondary and stuff. But I continued to work at Perkins.
Hale: So you were working at Perkins this whole time?
Cataruzolo: was working at Perkins and I taking classes at BU, and I was also the wrestling coach. That was interesting. I’m like a crazy man.
Hale: So how did you transition from working with students to working with volunteers? How did that come about?
Cataruzolo: Years ago– Perkins went through a transition many, many years ago. They went from elementary school, junior high school, high school, and deafblind department. That’s what they had years ago. The director at that time, Kevin Lessard in the late ’70s, wanted to change the whole system of departments. Instead of having a department head, like, say, in physical education, there were five people in the department of physical education. Each one of them worked in a different place. One worked with deafblind, one worked in the lower school, one worked in secondary, junior high school, that type of thing.
Instead of them having their own department head, the supervisor of that program that he or she worked in was the head. So we eliminated department heads. I was the department head of physical education. So they eliminated that, and they didn’t have one. So now they had five programs. They added a new program, which was called adult services. And I like working with adults. I like working with adults. And there were people already working in the elementary school and others. So I took over the adult physical education adaptive program. And I also worked with traumatic head injured in that program. So it was kind of interesting. I enjoyed it.
And I always had people from BU to come in and help. I used volunteers, and I know how valuable they were. So I’d have that. And I talked to– I said, jeez, I’d like to do this. So I would work– teach all day from 8:30 until 3:00, and I’d run the wrestling and all that. But I also became part-time volunteer coordinator. So I started to do volunteers, and I liked it very much. I did all this stuff. Then it became important that I thought that the needs of the students increased and the needs for volunteers increased.
I talked to Kevin, I said, I’d like to do this full-time. He says, well– he wasn’t too sure. I said, look, I know I can handle it. And I said, I don’t want the job just because you’re going to push me over there for the job. I said, I will get certified in volunteer administration. So it took a year of studies, and I became nationally certified as a volunteer administrator. There’s very few in the– I don’t mean to say this in bragging, but there’s very few in the country.
So I got certified as a volunteer administrator. They gave me the job full-time. And I was doing tours and I was doing volunteers, and I’d even go talk to schools and stuff. So I liked it. I was like a crazy man. I was busy. And then this lonely person came to the office. I’m the only person. Linda. OK. This is, what, 22 years ago? About 22 years ago. She came and she started to do a little bit part-time stuff. And she was very good. She jumped right into it.
She had a background working with our population. She was a nurse and she worked for Perkins. She started to help with the volunteer program. I hired her part-time, and then there was a need for her to be full-time. It’s been a terrific relationship that we’ve had. And the program is expanding from when I first started to do it 40, 45 years ago. We had about 15 volunteers. And we’d have activities, but nothing like we have now. And today, we’ve expanded. I count up to 1,000 volunteers. We have about 350 that are regular volunteers. It’s become much more of a very, very serious part of our school program. And that’s where we are at this point.
Hale: So I got to meet somebody that’s been volunteering since 1975, I believe. And I’m wondering how many of these volunteers you have close relationships with. What do you find satisfying about working with Perkins volunteers?
Cataruzolo: Well, it’s meeting with someone and getting a very, very good feeling about their personality, who they are, their willing to give, and then them coming in and working with our students, working at Perkins and saying, this has been the most wonderful experience I’ve had. And I would say 95% of the volunteers who volunteer for us, when they leave Perkins, that’s the comments they make. It was a tremendous experience, great learning experience. And the nice thing is that it is a staff– it’s a staff commitment, too.
We have wonderful volunteers because of the staff influence that they. They work with the volunteers, they make the volunteers feel like this is a family type of thing. So it’s a wonderful opportunity for me to see them grow that way. And we’ve had high school students who want to continually come back, who go off to college. Some of them come back and they get employed here. So I think that’s the thing that makes me feel good about it. We’re doing something right.
And I think that I attribute a lot of that to the staff. The staff are just wonderful. They get a volunteer, they really nurture and take care of the volunteer. And it’s just a wonderful experience on both sides.
Hale: So my understanding is that your wife was a teacher here and then a volunteer. Did you meet at Perkins?
Cataruzolo: My wife was a teacher, yeah. She was a trainee. She used to train here in 1963. In those days, they were affiliated with Boston University, our training program. And she would take courses. She got 15 credits, plus she lived on the campus here and she worked with the students and stuff. Then they wanted her to teach, so she ended up teaching here. And that’s how we met. She was a teacher. Matter of fact, I had her kids in class. We got to meet that way. She taught for several years. Matter of fact, my wife worked with one of the few groups at that time that were what they called the developmentally delayed students. She worked on a lot of practical functions skills with them, independent living skills– how to make change, very, very practical skills she worked with. She enjoyed it very much.
Hale: In 2011, Perkins opened the Patti and Mike Cataruzolo Independent Living Apartments, which is named after you and your wife. Can you tell me a bit about the apartments and how it got its name?
Cataruzolo: Patti has a cousin who’s a philanthropist, and he was on the board of trustees here at Perkins. His name is Bill Shawbell, a wonderful guy. And he gives and gives, and he’s just unbelievable. Well, he sees– my wife is blind. We have an apartment. We have two kids. We have four grandchildren. And we live, I think– say, five years ago, maybe, very independent. But today, with the loss of vision that I’ve had and my wife’s loss of vision, we need support. And one of the things that– we have a wonderful, wonderful person who provides us with support who does shopping with me, anything like things around the house that needs to be repaired or fixed visually, they require something like that. Linda.
Linda has been a tremendous support to Patti and I. And I often think, now that I’ve lost most of myself, would I be as independent today if we didn’t have Linda around? And honestly, Linda’s just been– people who are disabled, I think, realize the value of having someone to provide assistance. I’ll tell you, it gives you a sense of being independent. Like, I know that I could not be totally independent. I will always have to have some assistance now for things that I do. Things that I did 10 years ago, I can’t do now. Visually, it’s very, very different. So having someone who’s willing to volunteer and give time and stuff, it’s been terrific. It’s been valuable for me, it’s been valuable for my wife, Patti. It’s kept us, like I say, as independent as possible.
Hale: What do you feel have been the most important changes at Perkins since you’ve been here? And this could be philosophy, it could be programs, it could be buildings.
Cataruzolo: Well, I think one of the major, major biggest changes at Perkins– now, I don’t put any quality. I’m just saying the biggest change, and this is what you’re asking, is in the late ’60s, early ’70s, Chapter 766. At that time, our population at Perkins started to change. Prior to that time, Perkins’ population was made up primarily of academic students, students that would be getting a high school diploma. And many of them would go off to college.
And I don’t know if I’m using the right statistics, but I can say that at that time, say, up to the middle of the ’60s, late ’60s, 95% of the students would get a high school diploma. Probably 60% of them will go off to some college or university. Well, as you know today, Chapter 766 mandated that things change. And Perkins now started to receive more and more children that had other disabilities. And that was the biggest change of all because now we had to start looking at students that had, say, cognitive problems. And that meant that your strategy for teaching these individuals had to change.
What you taught students 10 years prior to that, it was a challenge to teach these students those things. So you had to think about a curriculum that would be more adapted for that level of student, that would be more appropriate. And I think that was the biggest change. Another thing that happened at that time, which I don’t know if people know, many of our teachers– there were several of our teachers that did not have a college degree that taught here at Perkins. Today, teaching, you have to have certification.
But years ago, there were teachers here that didn’t have a degree that could teach. Private school, that type of thing– now it’s different. And you have to be certified in certain areas to work with students. And then you had to start writing and be accountable for what you taught. And prior to that, you did narrative type of writing, but now you had to be accountable. Everything had to be measured, it had to be readable so someone could understand it. I think that was the biggest, biggest, I found, change at Perkins. And I’ll say this. I think we have a very dynamic staff. No question about it. What gives Perkins its reputation, its legacy is its staff.
We have staff that are flexible, willing to learn new techniques and methods. I think if I could put it in three things, we have knowledgeable staff, we have staff with courage, and we have staff with compassion. And that’s what makes up Perkins, and that’s what makes Perkins so great. I say that because I’ve been here 60 years. I have a love affair with Perkins. I’ve met dynamic people, I’ve met dynamic kids. And it’s just been a wonderful place to be. Now, of course, not everything is ice cream. There are times even I look at some things that I disagree with. But that’s what education is, I think, is looking at something and evaluating and that type of thing.
But I just think that Perkins has just a dynamic approach to what’s going on. Technology scares me, but it is the future, and I believe that strongly. I think that blind people are now given opportunities they never had before because of the advance and accessibility of technology. It’s just unbelievable. This is great. And I think Perkins is trying to accommodate and look at how can they best serve students. I think what I’d like to do is get a person to come and just kind of be a fly on the wall in classes and see what goes on. Go in the deafblind department, go in the lower school and see what’s going on, go in our secondary program and see what’s– go in the cottages and see what happens at the cottages. These are just wonderful situations. And the staff that man these facilities are just wonderful.
Hale: So you talked about Perkins’ reputation, and I know there have been really interesting events and important things that have happened here since you’ve been here. Is there anything that stands out?
Cataruzolo: Yeah, I think one of the things that I liked is what is called open house because I’m a big believer that for our population or the population of blind individuals is awareness– public awareness. And I think we have to do more of that. That’s something I’d really like to see more of, open houses, where we invite the general public to come in and see what we’re doing and to question. Not to just come and look because sometimes maybe they want to question and ask what we’re doing and stuff. I’d like to see more of that.
Awareness is very, very important. If we are going to be accepted in society, the general public is going to have to be sensitive to who we are and the abilities that we have. And we have a responsibility to train our students the best we can so that they can represent the multiply impaired blind population the best they possibly can. We have a responsibility to do that.
Hale: So it would seem like your visual impairment now really is to your advantage because you’re dealing with volunteers and people maybe that– in that regard, do you think? Or do you think it helps you perform your current position?
Cataruzolo: It helps some, but, listen– and I want to say, it’s been very, very challenging for me, too, someone who’s had on sight. I didn’t have a lot, but I had enough sight that I would use it to do things. To have lost that sight and now have to depend on these other senses, which in some cases I’ve talked about, but now I have to live it.
Cataruzolo: And that’s a challenge for me, especially at the stage I’m in. I wouldn’t say I’m old. I’m older, and to change patterns is not that easy. And that’s one of my biggest challenges, is adjusting to the loss of vision that I have and to try to be as positive as possible. And sometimes I think I fall back a little bit because it is frustrating. Things I’ve done in the past rather easily now is quite a struggle for me in some cases.
Hale: Yeah, that’s very understandable.
Cataruzolo: But as an example, a representative of the blind population, I don’t think of myself as being anything exceptional. I just think that I like talking with people. I like to have a positive attitude when I speak to them and that type of thing. I try to share that and let them feel comfortable, especially around a blind person.
Hale: As a staff member, I think my impression of you is you have such a personality and that I think you are such a great representative. And that’s how I see you, really. You’re so much fun, and I like how you do your little bee-bop. And just, being somebody that has worked here for so long, I think you completely forget that you do have any visual impairment. And I don’t know, my impression of you has been as a representative of Perkins.
Cataruzolo: Thank you very much.
Hale: Yeah, I’m going off script here, and it’s not going well. [LAUGHS] But I guess in my question, thinking about the visual impairment, I think it’s really important that you– when I see you giving tours, it makes me very happy, especially with kids because I think that’s such an important interaction. And it’s surprisingly rare, I think, for a lot of people.
Cataruzolo: Well, when we started to do more and more tours, Linda and I sat down and talked about, what would be the most effective thing that we could do with a young group of people? Let’s face it, anyone can talk to history. And I don’t mean degrade anybody that talks about history. It’s how they present it and stuff. I think experiential stuff is so valuable for them, just so that they just get a little exposure to see the challenges. And I hope when they leave a tour they have a better sense of blindness or someone with limited vision. That’s my goal.
And doing these activities, I think, is so valuable. I really enjoy doing it, and they seem to appreciate it also. I think it makes them aware, especially when you explain to them how much vision plays a major part of their lives. Like, 75% of what you get comes through your visual cues. And some of these young– and we do an experiment with them, showing them how vision plays a big part. So I like giving tours. I think it’s great. I think it’s an opportunity to make people aware of the abilities and that blind people are really, basically, just like everybody else.