The First 50 Years

The First 50 Years (Part One: The Call)

by B. T. Kimbrough

Mission Improbable

Don Nold was not the kind of man who kept his opinions, hopes and dreams to himself. He was the sort of guy who would stand up at meetings and hold forth for as long as he could keep the floor about the urgent need for a “talking” magazine that blind people could publish for the particular benefit of blind listeners.

As a small business operator and a member of the Berwyn, Illinois, Lions Club, Don went to a lot of meetings during the late 1950s and early 60s. His listeners knew when they saw him at the local, state or district Lions meetings that they could pretty well count on hearing yet again about his dream, even though everyone understood the many reasons that the dream could never come true. “It would be too expensive. There weren’t that many blind persons with enough writing talent and experience to produce the volume of material needed. Raising sufficient funds to support it would be difficult, if not impossible. You couldn’t expect blind readers to pay for it …” On and on went the discouraging words, but the dreamer himself was undeterred.

At his own expense, Don paid a visit to the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) to find out how to prepare manuscripts for their Talking Book narrators and how many minutes would fit on each side of a disc. He persuaded Cliff Johnson, a Chicago broadcaster, to record some sample narrations and paid to have them pressed onto sample discs he could hand out at meetings and conventions. He figured out what sections his imaginary magazine for the blind should contain–a news section, separate sections for men and women, a fiction and poetry section, and a section for editorials and opinions–for about an hour of spoken content.

Don continued to talk about the project that was so real in his mind every time he got the chance, but he seemed to be getting nowhere. Without any tangible encouragement, he went on sharing his dream and ignoring those perfectly courteous but insistent objections for close to three years. And it wasn’t as if he was talking to just any group of business and professional men. Members of the Lions Clubs International Association had dedicated themselves to serving as “knights for the blind” since Helen Keller’s famous challenge in the 1920s.

One day in 1961, Don was in his Berwyn print shop, Litho Copy Service, cutting a large stack of paper when he got the phone call. It was the president of Chicago’s Central Lions Club with a piece of news that would transform Don Nold’s life. The Central Lions had voted to issue a challenge grant of $1,000. “Now,” the challenge read, “let’s see what you can do with it.”

“What have I got myself in for?” Nold later recalled whispering to himself as he sank into a chair, his knees shaking. “My bluff was called. Now I had to produce. Talk about mixed emotions–I was overjoyed at the news, but frightened at the prospects. Could I do it? Well, I had to give it a try.”

Inventing As They Went

He soon answered the Central Lions Club’s challenge by obtaining matching contributions from his own and several other clubs. Since all of the action was coming from Lions, he put together a board consisting of interested Lions and had the project incorporated as THE TALKING LION. Soon he had a full staff of part-time editors meeting each Saturday morning at his shop.

As the owner of a print shop, Nold had ready access to clerical help who could master the manuscript side of the newborn project, and he had gained some journalistic experience before losing his sight some 20 years earlier. He expected members of his first editorial staff to bring at least one thread of practical experience. Ray Dickinson, superintendent of a large Chicago agency for the blind, signed on as Associate Editor. Annette Victorin, a partially sighted teacher of creative writing, became the first Fiction and Poetry Editor. Two rehabilitation teachers, Wells Mori and Lillian Rosenbom, served respectively as the first Men’s and Women’s Editors. Bill Wetendorf, a blind Lion from the Chicago area and popular motivational speaker and raconteur, served as the first Humor Editor and later became DIALOGUE’s first Director of Development.

It is no exaggeration to say that those first DIALOGUE editors were inventing a type of media which didn’t exist at the time–journalism by and for the blind. They were encouraged to use relevant reprints from newsletters and mainstream magazines and newspapers when possible, but each editor was also assigned to write an original column for every DIALOGUE issue that was expected to resonate with a blind reader, who was looking for hints, encouragement, solutions, and answers to questions which had not been even been asked yet. Those first DIALOGUE editors had few examples for guidance. Most of the material furnished to blind readers in the early 1960s came from mainstream sources such as READER’S DIGEST. There were a few agency-sponsored publications for professionals in the blindness field, and there were a couple of organization-sponsored publications primarily intended to communicate with members of the group. But in the early 1960s when Don Nold’s vision was coming to life, the only general interest publication serving blind readers while remaining independent of organizational affiliation was MATILDA ZIEGLER MAGAZINE FOR THE BLIND, which specialized in reprinting material from mainstream publications. It made no effort to interview leaders in the blindness community or offer “how-to” articles about sports, hobbies, or career training for people with little or no vision. These were the information gaps Nold thought his ambitious little project might be able to fill, but it all had to be done by trial and error at the start.

Thinking Outside The Lions

“Trial and error” would also describe the early issues with circulation–what would the cost be for a club to sponsor a reader? How much would it be fair to ask a reader to pay to keep a copy permanently? How many readers could realistically share a single copy considering that the discs had to be mailed several times in the process? These were just some of the policies the new board and editorial staff were wrestling with as the first issue deadline came hurtling toward them at the end of 1961.

THE TALKING LION magazine was launched in the Spring of 1962, with support from Lions clubs throughout Illinois, and scattered club participation in several other states. By the time the enterprise approached its second anniversary, word had come from Lions International headquarters that the magazine’s name would have to be changed. Only organizations with official Lions International sponsorship could directly associate their names with Lions. It was decided to hold a naming contest in which the magazine’s readers would compete for a $50 US savings bond and the privilege of choosing THE TALKING LION’S permanent name.

Accordingly, contest rules were established, and four judges were selected to screen the more than 100 entries. The judges included a local school superintendent, a representative reader of the magazine, a Lion and a Section Editor. In the end, the first prize went to Mrs. John Hanke of Des Plaines, Illinois, who explained her suggested name of DIALOGUE this way: “The purpose of the magazine is to take information from sighted people and put it into a form which a blind person can use, particularly in his relationship with the sighted world–a two-way exchange of ideas.” Mrs. Hanke donated her prize back to the magazine hoping it would be used to start a trust that would help fund the project for years to come.

The new name was announced, and the name change transacted in the Summer issue of 1964. Now that DIALOGUE was no longer officially a creature of Lionism, it was free to add board members with other connections. It was also free to seek funding from other sources, which led, in about four years, to the most prosperous chapter in its history.

Early Limitations

As Nold conceived it, the new magazine would exist only in recorded form. The idea was that the spoken word was a medium open to blind readers whether or not they knew braille. This, of course, inadvertently excluded deaf-blind readers. The omission was corrected near the end of 1968, the year of Helen Keller’s death. Conceived as a tribute to Miss Keller, the braille edition of DIALOGUE was at first furnished only to deaf-blind readers, but was later made available to anyone who preferred to read braille.

In the beginning, there was no money to pay freelance writers, which meant that the new editors had to write all of the original material themselves. In the late 60s, expanded funding allowed Nold to prepare a schedule of small fees which would be paid to blind writers of fiction and poetry as well as “how-to” articles on a variety of topics from work and hobbies to housework and gardening. Nold often said that encouraging the careers of blind writers by publishing their work was one of his proudest accomplishments.

Speaking of limited finances, numbers of copies for the earliest issues were quite small, and readers were routinely expected to share a disc with several others. About the only way to get a copy to keep was to have a Lions Club sponsor it directly. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) improved this situation by purchasing copies to be distributed by regional libraries for the blind. Former NLS Director Kurt Cylke would reverse this policy and suspend the NLS purchasing of DIALOGUE copies after DIALOGUE closed its Berwyn office in 1990 and transferred all publishing activities to Blindskills.

The Greatest Need

In the early 1960s, there was no technology which would allow a blind person to edit copy without at least two types of sighted intervention–reading and revision. A blind editor could listen to text as it was read aloud and decide exactly what to add, modify or delete, but sight was required in the process of marking up a document by hand and retyping it into a final draft.

During DIALOGUE’s first five years, recording technology was so limited that most submissions would be read to the editor by a live reader. It required many volunteer hours to permit staff editors and the editor-in-chief to “look” through periodicals and newsletters to find possible reprints. In later years, volunteers could, at their convenience, read such material onto audiocassettes, including the articles submitted by freelance writers.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of volunteer readers on the editorial side of DIALOGUE during Nold’s tenure. Without them, there would have been no way for DIALOGUE to function as a medium by (as well as for) people with little or no sight. The blind writer or editor who had access to this kind of volunteer power relied upon it in ways that would be incomprehensible to someone born after accessible computers and reading machines became commonplace.

This need for constant participation of sighted volunteer and paid staff collaboration may help to explain the following philosophical quote from art scholar Allen Eaton which used to appear at the front of each DIALOGUE issue: “The greatest need of those who cannot see is and always will be communication on all levels of human interest with those who can see.”

As the next section of this history will show in the Summer issue, the technology of production, and the philosophy of the magazine itself, evolved far from this starting point over its first fifty years.