The first blind man to use a guide dog was a Tennessee.
Posted 12:06 pm Monday, May 8, 2023
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When you see a blind person with a guide dog, remember that this practice began with a young man from Nashville.
In 1927, Morris Frank was a 20-year-old student at Vanderbilt University and was unhappy with his dependence on others to get around. Frank’s father read him an article in the Saturday Evening Post by Dorothy Eustis, an American woman living in Switzerland. In the article, Eustis talked about how the shepherds there were training dogs to help blind people. She speculated that this practice could be perfected to help blind people full-time.
Excited about the idea, Frank wrote a letter to Eustis and received a receptive reply 30 days after Eustis. Frank then took a ship to Europe, where he trained extensively with a German Shepherd named Buddy. The training was hard. But after weeks with the dog, Frank was able to get around a nearby Swiss town holding on tight to a harness Buddy was attached to.
Frank returned to the United States with the goal of spreading the word about guide dogs. From the day he got off the boat, he was in the news. At one point, in front of a group of stunned reporters, Buddy carried Frank to safety through a busy New York street. “She (Buddy) started toward the deafening roar, stopped, backed up, and started again,” Frank wrote in a 1957 book called First Lady of the Seeing Eye, a book I recommend to every fifth grader in Tennessee. “I lost all sense of direction and gave myself completely to the dog. I’ll never forget the next three minutes, ten-ton trucks rocketing past, taxis honking in our ears, drivers yelling at us. . . When we finally got to the other side and I realized what a magnificent job he had done, I leaned over and gave Buddy a big hug.”
When Frank returned to Nashville, people were amazed to see the blind man and his dog walking down the busy sidewalks. “Now strangers spoke to me freely,” Frank wrote. “In the old days, at a tram stop, for example, he would often envy two sighted people, who obviously didn’t know each other, their facility to strike up a conversation. . . However, with Buddy there, it was the easiest and most natural thing in the world for them to say, ‘What a lovely dog you have!’”
What astonished people the most was that Buddy had an ability better known as “intelligent disobedience”, which meant that he would obey Frank, except when executing that command would result in harm to his master. For example: if there was a low branch hanging on the sidewalk, Buddy knew how to get around it.
Frank co-founded The Seeing Eye, an institution created to train guide dogs and their blind owners. He operated out of Nashville for two years and then moved to Morristown, NJ (partly for weather reasons; they found out he was too hot in Tennessee to train German Shepherds year-round).
As Frank and Buddy traveled the nation, they opened doors for future generations of blind people. At that time there were no laws requiring trains, hotels and restaurants to allow guide dogs inside. Almost daily, Frank would walk into an establishment and be told that he couldn’t take his dog. His canned response: “I’m not going to take it; she is bringing me!” Once a railroad porter followed Frank and Buddy to their seats and tried to drag Buddy out. However, in Frank’s words, Buddy showed the janitor his “beautiful teeth”, convincing him that the dog was better left alone.
When Buddy died in May 1938, he received an obituary in The New York Times. “Buddy appeared on hundreds of conference platforms and barked in response to the applause; she had been received by Presidents Coolidge and Hoover and other notables; and she had been taken to the homes of the poor among the blind and given hope as she was patted and fingered in her harness,” the obituary reads.
Today, The Seeing Eye reports on its website (www.seeingeye.org) that it has trained 17,000 dogs in its 94-year history. If you go to Morristown, New Jersey, you will find a statue of Tennesseans Morris Frank and Buddy, probably the only statue of a blind man and a guide dog in the world.
Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.