Avon Commemoration to Honor BVA Pioneers

by Terri Wilson, Avon Historical Society

The Avon Historical Society and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3272 of Avon, Connecticut, will celebrate the 65th anniversary of the opening of Old Farms Convalescent Hospital, the only rehabilitation program for visually impaired veterans returning from combat during World War II.

The hospital stood on the grounds of what is now an exclusive, residential academic prep school for boys on Old Farms Road.

A formal, invitation-only ceremony will occur in the early morning of November 11. More than 400 students from Avon Old Farms schools, veterans, former employees, former volunteers, and the media have been invited.

In 1944, Avon Old Farms School Founder Mrs. Theodate Pope Riddle closed the school and loaned it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II. The purpose of the loan was to provide a rehabilitation facility for veterans who had lost all or part of their vision while fighting overseas. Riddle charged the U.S. Army a rent of $1.00 per year.

The hospital opened on July 1, 1944 and served more than 800 veterans over a three-year period. For the vast majority of the veterans who were able to benefit, results were nothing short of miraculous. No expense was spared, and recently recorded interviews with veterans and employees of the hospital establish that veterans were offered an array of career options leading to productive lives. As one of BVA’s early leaders and VA’s first Chief of Blind Rehabilitation at Hines, Illinois, Russell C. Williams used his personal experience to support the notion that Old Farms was a transforming experience that led many to accomplish academically what they had not even considered before the War.

“Each blinded soldier was free to express his choice of interests,” he said. “There were courses to enable him to live as a blind person and to live as a full human being.”

BVA was established at the facility on March 28, 1945. To date, no minutes of the meeting have ever been located, but a list of some 75 in attendance was compiled from the memories of those who were there and published in a special issue of the Bulletin as part of the Association’s 50th anniversary in 1995. Records indicate that only a handful of the original 75 are still living.

The United States Blind Golf Association credits Old Farms Convalescent Hospital with promoting golf as a possible recreational pursuit for visually impaired veterans.

The success of the hospital may well be credited also to the overwhelming support received from the Avon and other Farmington Valley communities. Many of the residents were either employed or volunteered there. Young women came to dance with the veterans every Friday evening and also took them into Hartford, thus helping them to strengthen their confidence in the newly acquired independence they had achieved during their convalescence. The community adopted the veterans as their own.

Because the seating capacity in the Avon Old Farms school auditorium is limited, the Historical Society and VFW will hold a community-wide celebration on November 22 from 2 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. at the Avon Senior Center on Avon Road.

All blinded veterans and their families are invited to attend the celebration and share their thoughts with others in attendance.