Father Carroll Legacy Still Alive, Still Vibrant

by Stuart Nelson


Late on April 24, 1971, Kathern Gruber received a brief telegram from Warren Bledsoe that informed her that Father Thomas Carroll had died of an embolism earlier that day.

“For me, everything came to a halt,” Kay wrote in the May-June 1971 BVA Bulletin. “I could not make myself believe it, and perhaps this happened to all of us when we first heard that our beloved Chaplain had left us.”

Scores of similar feelings and tributes from the Association membership and blind rehabilitation professionals throughout the country poured into BVA National Headquarters in the ensuing days. Many of them are published in that same issue of the Bulletin.

“Father Carroll’s death left a patch of loneliness in my life which will never leave me,” wrote BVA member Bill Thompson of Virginia. “Thoughts of him are intimately bound up with my earliest awkward, painful attempts to come to grips with my blindness.”

And from BVA’s first National President Ray Frey: “I know of none other whose empathy toward blind people was as flawless as that of Father Carroll. I know how deeply appreciated and invaluable his advice and counsel were to our membership in our early formative years. All who have felt the warmth of his pleasant smile, the understanding of his tender heart, and the sincerity of his resonant voice have responded to the magnitude of that personality.”

Now, 40 years later, references to Father Carroll and his unique character and contributions live on, even for those who never met him personally. Until 2005, the annual Friday national convention Father Carroll Luncheon speakers elaborated exclusively on his life and work. At that point, there were literally no more available veterans or others who had known him and who hadn’t already been a luncheon speaker.

The impact of Father Carroll’s extraordinary contributions to the field of blind rehabilitation, and his earnest passion for helping America’s blinded veterans and their families, spans BVA’s 66-year history.
The impact of Father Carroll’s extraordinary contributions to the field of blind rehabilitation, and his earnest passion for helping America’s blinded veterans and their families, spans BVA’s 66-year history.

“Unfortunately, my involvement with BVA began not long after his death and I was never able to meet him personally,” said Tom Miller. “Notwithstanding that, I feel as though I knew him, having read the amazing insights he expressed about blindness in his book and then listening to all of the stories and speeches about him from our members over the years.”

The book referred to by Tom, Blindness: What It Is, What It Does, and How To Live With It, lists 20 losses suffered by those who become blind during adulthood. Father Carroll described the loss of sight as a death and a destructive blow to an individual’s self-image. Until the loss is admitted and accepted, he believed, the blind person cannot even begin the process of assuming his/her rightful place in the sighted community through blind rehabilitation training.

Blindness: What It Is, What It Does, and How to Live With It, first published in 1961, has now been translated into several languages and is used at many blind rehabilitation facilities throughout the world.

Thomas J. Carroll was born August 6, 1909 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He graduated from Holy Cross College in 1932 and was ordained a priest in 1938 after studies at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. His first assignment was at the Boston Catholic Guild for the Blind as an Assistant Director. During World War II he worked extensively with blinded veterans, serving from 1944 to 1947 as Auxiliary Chaplain of Avon Old Farms Convalescent Hospital, the U.S. Army’s Experimental Rehabilitation Center in Connecticut and also the birthplace of the Blinded Veterans Association.

In 1946, the same year that he became BVA’s National Chaplain, Father Carroll became Director of the Guild. In 1952, he brought the idea of safe cane travel skills to the Center in the form of the first mobility program. The following year he directed the National Mobility Institute to link, for the first time, programs for the war blind with programs for civilians.

In 1954, he established St. Paul’s Rehabilitation Center for newly blinded adults. It was the first civilian facility offering comprehensive rehabilitation for the newly blinded. A year after Father Carroll’s death in 1972, the facility was renamed the Thomas J. Carroll Center. It is located in Newton, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb.

Anxious to apply the latest in research to the needs of the blind, Father Carroll also founded the American Center for Research in Blindness and Rehabilitation in 1963. He convinced the Archdiocese of Boston to close a home for aged blind women and transformed it into a geriatric rehabilitation center that eventually merged with the Carroll Center.

Father Carroll served on many national and international committees, including the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. He received nearly 100 national and international honors in his work for the blind. In 2002, he was inducted into the American Printing House for the Blind’s Hall of Fame.

Many current BVA members still recall a monumental speech given by Dr. Tuck Tinsley III at the Father Carroll Luncheon in Reno, Nevada, on August 13, 2004. The speech, entitled “Father Thomas Carroll: A Leader and a Legend,” resulted from hours of personal research that included a trip to the Carroll Center in which Dr. Tinsley studied 19 speeches Father Carroll gave to BVA members at national conventions from 1946 to 1964. He summarized the themes of Father Carroll’s addresses to BVA with the following remarks:

  • He spoke of lost sight and lost status - but not lost hope.

  • He spoke of blindness and adjustment - and of adjustment to neighbors, to family, and to life.

  • He spoke of fear and of overcoming fear.

  • He spoke of hope and of his own hopes.

  • He spoke of dependence and independence.

  • He spoke of dangers to thought and dangers to truth.

  • He spoke of special privilege versus opportunity.

  • He spoke of sentimentality versus respect.

  • He spoke of segregation as surrender.

  • He spoke of stereotypes that breed the loss of individuality.

  • He praised you, and then he challenged you.

  • He defined your tasks, and he took you to task.

  • He spoke to you when he was calm - and he spoke when he was angry.

  • He spoke to you of peace, and he spoke to you of action.

Father Thomas J. Carroll’s loyalty, passion, guidance, and compassion helped lay the foundation for BVA’s long history, which is now 66 years of continuous work on behalf of blinded veterans and their families. April 24, 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of an overwhelming loss to BVA and its members. May we perpetuate his memory and legacy for still many years and even decades to come.