Richard Chapman oral history (2004)

Richard Chapman attended Perkins for both lower and upper school and graduated with the class of 1964. After graduating college he taught then worked for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind.

Campus of Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown in 1913

Biographical information

Richard attended Perkins for both lower and upper school. He was part of the chorus and he served for four years on the wrestling team. In his senior year, Chapman served as track captain and president of the Perkins Athletic Association. Chapman graduated in 1964 and after a year of postgraduate study at Perkins, Richard got a B.A. from American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts before doing graduate work in Spanish literature at Syracuse University. He taught at CETA, the Comprehensive Employment Training Act program in the Milton High School, and in 1987, he began working at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. His roles included consumer advocate out of the Office of Information and before that, he ran the nursing home program.

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Notice and permissions

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 Sue 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 The interview may not be published in full except with the permission of the Perkins School for the Blind.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].

Preferred citation

Chapman, Richard. “Richard Chapman oral history interview conducted by Sue Summersby,” 2004-06-12, Perkins Oral History Project, AG195-2004-04, Perkins School for the Blind Archives.

Audio recording

Recording of the oral history of Richard Chapman.


Sue Summersby: Sue Summersby, part of the oral history project for Perkins School for the Blind. I’m here on Alumni Weekend. It’s June 12th, 2004 and with me is Richard Chapman, and I’m going to ask him to introduce himself and we’ll get started. Thank you, Richard. 

Richard Chapman: I’m Richard Chapman, class of 1964 Perkins, but I attended one more year as a lot of students did over the years as a postgraduate before going on to college. 

Chapman: My dad was a lieutenant in the Army, Air Force, and I was one of these premature children born blind and was blind from infancy. I’m very proud to admit that because of that my dad became an ophthalmologist. 

Summersby: That’s great. And you came here in 1950 and you were here to 1964. 

Chapman: Yes, but that was my year of graduation. But I came back for postgraduate year. 

Summersby: So you were another year. Looking back at your time here at Perkins, what things had the greatest influence on your life would you say? 

Chapman: Well, to be very honest with you, I think from almost from my fourth, fifth-grade year on I think the things that had most influence on me were the teachers. I had some– like anywhere else. I think the teachers– and I’ve been a public school teacher. And I have to say, in all fairness, the very best of that you would find in a public school, you would find at Perkins. We had some teachers that were just really gifted as teachers, and I felt I learned a great deal from them. 

Summersby: Did you live on the campus then when you’re here? And would you mind talking about what campus life or living in the cottages was like? 

Chapman: I think it varied from the stage of life that you went. I know for example as a small kid in kindergarten I loved the cottage setting. I mean we were just silly little chattering kids, cute little kids and just learning. And for a couple of years I, for some strange reason, was bewildered by felt lost and cottage life and don’t ask me why. We also, I might add, there were some– more so in the lower school, we had some very wonderful house parents that were called house mothers in my lower school day. And even before then, of course, they were referred to as matrons. 

Summersby: What kind of activities did you do during your free time? 

Chapman: Well as a small boy, I had a very sedentary existence but what a lot of people remember was that from day one, I’ve always wanted to be in broadcasting. I would play radio, and we had a fictitious radio station going. And me and about four or five other kids we did this for a number of years. 

But as I grew older from junior high on, I began to take an interest in athletics, although didn’t have much of an athletic ability. I took wrestling for a few years. Didn’t work out very well. But I had a great love of distance running. I began to love distance running. And though I was never a speed demon, I loved running the two-mile run and then with Albert Claude Ellis. For a number of years in high school we ran together. In fact, I ran in a couple of 10-mile races with him. 

Summersby: Wow. So you mentioned Mr. Ellis, Claude Ellis. What other teachers or staff might have had a big influence on you? 

Chapman: Yes, there were two house mothers or house parents in the lower school. One was Marion Kimball. She was the house mother in Bradley cottage from about 1952 to 1959. Her family ran a dairy farm in Exeter, New Hampshire and she used to invite students if they wished to come up and spend a week or two with her and her family, which I did for three years. 

My father thought the world of Mrs. Kimball as did I. And she was always wanting boys and girls to be active, and she had a fierce pride in her native state of New Hampshire. And she had a great sense of geography. I understand she also taught a number of years before coming to Perkins. 

And she came to Perkins was the best thing, is she told a friend of mine, that ever happened to her six months after her husband died in 1952. She didn’t know what she wanted to do and her son I guess that she should come to Perkins and see if she could work there. Well, she met Mr. Smith, Benjamin Smith, who I guess had become the principal by then. 

And she came and she saw some kids just sitting around doing nothing. She said, oh my god, I’ll take this job. I can’t stand seeing these kids doing nothing. She was almost in a way, like a parent to me for a while because my biological mom died a number of years ago. And in the first summer after her death, I spent two weeks with Mrs. Kimball on her farm and it was great. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. 

Summersby: What would you say brought you your greatest joy as a student here? 

Chapman: I think what brought me my greatest joy I think, there were two things. In the lower school, again, the teachers. The upper school, the teachers. But also trying to mature as a student. I wasn’t the greatest student come along. But again, it was some of the teachers. I think some of the teacher trainees who came from other countries. 

I remember Dr. Waterhouse used to talk about some of the conditions that the teacher trainees and some of the students who came from foreign lands lived under at home. And I thought to myself good god, and I’m just a lazy guy. I’m doing nothing and not getting the best grades. And that taught me a lesson. But in high school as I grew to really be active, not only a little bit athletically, but in academics and just accomplishing and improving, I think, as I was going along was joy one of my greatest joys. 

Summersby: What was the most significant historical event that happened during your time at Perkins? 

Chapman: Well, I can remember there was one Friday afternoon, it was in the month of November and I was taking piano with a man named Henry Santos and it was at 1:15 to 2 o’clock. And we were sort of looking past it and that was like looking forward to going home. I was in high school, my senior year and all of a sudden that came this knock on the door. And Mr. Santos stepped out and I heard this mumbling and grumbling. 

Then he tore back into the room and goes Ricky, go practice. I’ll see you next week. And he went tearing down the hall. It was the week before Thanksgiving that particular year and this was really unforgettable. So I studied. I played the practice till 2:00 and I went to my next class which you’ll see why it’s ironic. 

The course was problems in democracy and I walked in and I didn’t hear anything going on in the hallway too much. I don’t remember. Another gentleman walked in, a boy walked in and he said to me quote, “Well there’s another nut in this world.” And that’s when I first heard that President Kennedy had been shot. That was, of course, November 22nd. 

Summersby: What were the after-effects? 

Chapman: The after-effects, I don’t know how the teachers managed to keep on teaching. I remember with the problems of democracy was taught by a man we all liked his name was Calvin Kinard. Sue, I can still hear him now. He came in said well listen I want you all to know, we just finished the thing on robots. Now we don’t know what happened the best mister Kennedy. And I just want you all to be quiet, just relax. 

Well, we started our lesson, and 2:15 because the chimes had just gone off there was a knock on the door, Miss Cambridge another one of my favorite teachers, Molly Cambridge, whom I had the period after that that particular year in geometry came in just loud enough for all to hear she said quote, “President Kennedy is dead.” She then turned and walked out and gently closed the door. I remember the rest of that day I don’t think anyone could concentrate and how the teachers kept teaching it’s to their credit I must admit. 

Summersby: I was wondering how the Perkins community responded. Thank you for sharing that. That’s very significant event that happened during your period. If you had to grade the quality of your educational experience here at Perkins, what would you say? 

Chapman: I think for the most part, I would give it a strong A with an asterisk. This is not tearing down anybody or anything. I think what I would have liked to have seen, Sue, and I’ve talked this over with my parents and with other people I’ve known over the years. I think what I would have liked to have seen, and I think that would have helped me personally, I was very self-conscious as a blind student when I went to college. 

It was really my first thing dealing being in classes with sighted people and for a while I was nervous as all get out. And I feel that was kind of much to my detriment to be honest with you. But I think what I would have liked to have seen is two things. 

I would like to have seen and maybe starting in junior high if we could have maybe had a class or two with Watertown High School in Watertown school system to enact with sighted children and see what was like and see how things were learned. Another thing I loved the music program we had Perkins, the choral things. But if you can believe this or not I really wish from me that we had had less of it and I’ll tell you why. I wish we had less of it because I think a little bit more of time should have been put in maybe courses bringing alumni people in what it’s like to try to get a job and what it’s like when what other blind people did. 

Dr. Waterhouse of course, mentioned a few people but there was very little written or anything about what other blind people were doing. I can remember the only real– and I think this was kind of a weakness that maybe was not considered done at the time I don’t know– but I think that the only job counseling I really had was from my father because he would say you know, son I had somebody in today was blind and he’s getting his law degree and so forth and so on. You get the picture. 

Summersby: Yes. That’s a very valid point. Thanks for sharing that. I guess sort of touches on what my next question is what advice might you give to the graduating class from here today as they step out into the world from Perkins? 

Chapman: I think that there’s a lot of things that I would give to the graduating class. Some of my greatest friends from Perkins are people who have been long gone than graduated long before I did. Two of them were Dorothy Ingersoll and the one who some people eulogize Franny Buckley, with the class of 1937. 

One of the things that I would tell the graduating class if you want to know where you’re going, find out where others have been. This is a personal creed of mind. What was blindness like 40, 50 or so years ago? 

The other thing that I would want them to do is to not accept the fact that you should be sitting around doing nothing. Yes, there is discrimination and yes, there’s a lot of trouble that goes on with blind people who are looking for jobs, but I really think that persons should take an interest in a career and take it upon himself to find out what’s out there and how his or her job can be done by a blind person. 

It’s true that Perkins probably can do some part, yes. But I really think too that in a system for it to work– any system I don’t care if you’re sighted or not– that you’ve got to do your share. You need to know at least from a cursory point of view what’s out, how a blind person can do the job. 

Go on as many interviews as you can and also get business cards when you’re dealing with people who are helping you find jobs. Just go in as many as you can. But find out how others do the job and learn to bring it up in a proper manner in an appropriate moment in an interview. I have about a million other things that I could say but I think those are some– 

Summersby: That’s very wise advice. And we’re running out of time. I was just curious what you’re doing now since you left Perkins, what happened with your life. 

Chapman: I wanted to go into teaching. I got a B.A. from American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts. I was one of the first of six Spanish majors. From then on and went did graduate work in Spanish literature at Syracuse University. 

From then on I did teach and tutor. I taught for a number of years under the CETA, the Comprehensive Employment Training Act program in the Milton High School. I became a computer programmer. Hated it. Went back into teaching briefly. 

Now since 1987, I’ve been working at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Right now for the past year I am what they call a consumer advocate out of the Office of Information and before then I ran the nursing home program. 

Summersby: You’ve done quite a bit. Well thank you so much for your time, Richard. 

Chapman: Oh, my pleasure, my pleasure. 

Summersby: It was a pleasure to meet you and Perkins thanks you for contributing to the oral history project. 

Chapman: Oh, great. Great. 

Summersby: And if there’s more I guess Sandy said that people can send in if you want to write more up to send in, that’s accepted too. Sorry that we’re short on time now. Thank you very much. 

Chapman: You’re welcome.

Richard Chapman and Claude Ellis running in a race.

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