Man Brought the World to Fingertips of the Blind

By Cecilia Rasmussen
Times Staff Writer

March 12, 2006

There’s eyesight – and then there’s vision. A Montana cowpoke who lost the first, gained the second and founded the Braille Institute of America.

The trailblazing institution that John Robert Atkinson created in his Los Angeles garage in 1919 occupies a campus-like city block on North Vermont Avenue today. It predates even the American Foundation for the Blind, founded in New York in 1921.

The Los Angeles-based institute has helped generations of sightless and sight-impaired people enrich their lives. It has five regional centers, with more than 100 community outreach programs from Santa Barbara to San Diego, and one of the nation’s largest collection of books in Braille and on tape.

The institute has worked on documents, music and books for Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, including "Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones."

Atkinson, a true-life cowboy, lost both his sight and his will to live in a gun accident, but he recovered his spirit.

He retained his love of riding too. Atkinson enjoyed galloping in the hills of Los Angeles on his horse, Sandy, whom he called his "saddle-eyes." On more sedate rides, he took other blind riders along to teach them the ways of the saddle.

Atkinson was a high school dropout who left his family’s Missouri stock farm in 1903 for Montana’s Big Sky country. In 1911, after nearly nine years as a cowpuncher, he headed to California’s Imperial Valley, where his widowed mother and two brothers had gone to try their hand at mining.

In January 1912, he came to Los Angeles to see what a big city looked like. Not wanting to run afoul of the law for packing a gun, he put his six-shooter in a dresser drawer in his hotel room.

After a few days, he’d had enough of Los Angeles’ crowded streets. As he was packing his belongings, he somehow fumbled his gun. It went off and shot him in the face.

A 1964 book, "Beacon in the Night," by Atkinson and his friend, screenwriter Edwin J. Westrate, says that "what actually happened no one knows and never will know, except that he tangled with [the gun] on its way from a dresser drawer to his suitcase on the bed."

Atkinson was unconscious when he was taken to Los Angeles County Hospital, where doctors removed both eyes to prevent infection, according to his book and news accounts of the time.

Several Los Angeles Times news stories fail to make clear what sort of injury he suffered. One story mentions gunpowder burns; others are not specific.

"Right now I’m not fit to do anything except make brooms or baskets or sell cigars," Atkinson bitterly told his brothers, according to his book.

His mother and brothers moved to Los Angeles to be by his side. The brothers opened what Westrate described as one of the city’s first gas stations, at 7th and Grand, where the old J.W. Robinson’s building stands today.

But Atkinson was mired in depression. He tried to kill himself with natural gas in the family home, but his mother returned earlier than he expected and rescued him.

"As a cowboy I had ridden many a long trail without so much as a hoofprint to indicate that any rider had taken that trail previously," Atkinson told Westrate for the book. But after he lost his eyes, "the longest trail I ever witnessed was the distance between my plate and mouth…."

Listening to a hymn at a Christian Science church service helped him find refuge in prayer and restored his interest in life, he wrote. Through a friendship with a blind neighborhood vegetable peddler, and with the help of one of his sisters, Atkinson learned to read two raised-dot systems.

A blind teacher named Kate Foley introduced him to a third: the Braille system, invented by Frenchman Louis Braille in the 1820s.

(Years later, in 1925, Foley became one of the state’s first two teachers paid to instruct the blind.)

After mastering Braille, Atkinson discovered the paucity of available literature. With the help of a Braille typewriter and family members who read to him, he transcribed more than 250 books – including the Bible, which took 21 volumes and stood more than 5 feet high.

In 1919, with a $25,000 donation and the help of a mechanical engineer, he converted a standard printing press to print Braille books in his garage. That same year he married his secretary, Alberta Blada.

Together they printed hundreds of books, including such classics as "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

He launched the Braille Mirror magazine in 1926, a compilation of current articles from periodicals. The magazine is still published, with a nationwide circulation of about 5,000.

Atkinson and others lobbied for a new law that, in 1931, began funding the printing and distribution of Braille materials through the Library of Congress.

In 1933, after more than a decade of speechmaking and fundraising, Atkinson moved his operation to a new Mission-style headquarters on Vermont Avenue. That building has since been replaced with the campus.

At the time, there were 750 blind people living in Los Angeles, according to a Times story. Atkinson began helping many of them find jobs as stenographers, typists and factory workers.

The next year, decades before talking computers and books on tape, Atkinson recorded books on phonograph records. He also opened Braille branch libraries in federal buildings.

The former cowboy cut a striking figure, confidently riding the electric trolleys from one end of Los Angeles to another. As he strode down the street, his thin white cane tapped out a path in front of him.

In the mornings, he rode his beloved Sandy in the forested oasis of Griffith Park and through the canyons of Baldwin Hills. Sometimes he went alone; other times, with Hollywood movers and shakers, including Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky, Harold Lloyd, Sid Grauman and Leo Carrillo. They called themselves the Breakfast Club.

In a letter to Atkinson later quoted in The Times, cowboy actor William S. Hart wrote, "Gee! What a thrill it gives me, every time I see you burning up the trail on that white-stockinged sorrel – with the blaze face … and you sit [on] him like a centaur."

Sandy had doubled for cowboy actor Tom Mix’s horse, Tony, before ending up as Atkinson’s mount. The two were a seamless match. Sandy "would always pick the smoothest trails, frequently stop and size up the situation and turn decidedly to the right or the left to dodge rough places," Atkinson told a Times reporter in 1950, after he had to euthanize his beloved 30-year-old steed.

He got another horse – in fact, after the 1950 interview he rode off on a black one. But Sandy remained his favorite.

Atkinson died in 1964 at age 76.

The Braille Institute continues to change the lives of thousands of sightless people through such projects as track and field Olympics for youths. Over the years, the institute has offered the film industry technical advice on portraying blind characters and has tutored the likes of Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman and Cameron Diaz. Jamie Foxx received training there for his Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray Charles.

Montana honors his legacy too. In 1967, the town of Cascade named a park for Atkinson and erected a larger-than-life bronze of him astride Sandy. A plaque reads: "Montana cowboy who, deprived of his sight, founded the Braille Institute of America and with God-given vision brought light to the blind of the world."

Reprinted by permission of Les Stocker, President, Braille Institute of America

Return to J. Robert Atkinson’s Biography