The AIDB Story

In 2008, the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB) celebrated its 150th anniversary.  AIDB has a rich and diverse history as described below.  Please read how a brother’s love helped to forever change the lives of Alabama’s children and adults with vision and hearing loss:

Nearly 150 years have passed since a young deaf boy so touched the heart of his older brother that a dream emerged of a school for children like him in Alabama. It began in a small way. The enrollment of two students grew to 22 by the end of the first year. Today, AIDB is the nation's most comprehensive education and service program for individuals with vision or hearing loss, serving thousands and their families each year.

How did this enduring legacy evolve, surviving years of unparalleled growth, financial struggles and political strains? There are common bonds, passed from one generation to another. A clear vision for the future. Strong leadership. Successful role models. And a passion for service.

A Passion for Service

Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson's dream of a school for deaf children in Alabama was barely three years old when Civil War broke out in the land. But the strength and perseverance of the Johnson family dream to serve others prevailed during tenuous times. It was a dream that called for personal sacrifice, dedication and passionate commitment.

The story begins with the birth of William Seaborn Johnson in 1845 near Cave Spring, Georgia. He was the only deaf child in a family of 10 children. His older brother, Joseph Henry, was particularly devoted to his brother and spent a great deal of time working with deaf children at the Georgia School for the Deaf. Joseph graduated from medical school but decided instead to pursue a career in education that would enable him to help his young brother.

In 1858, after his cousin, O.P. Fannin, resigned as superintendent of the Georgia school, Johnson approached Alabama Governor A.B. Moore and the first superintendent of education, William F. Perry, about opening a school for deaf children in Alabama. They first considered a site at Auburn, but no suitable building could be found. Instead, Johnson settled his family and students in an unoccupied school building which had been built by Masons in Talladega in 1850. Johnson's passionate commitment of service to the deaf is best captured in his 1861 AIDB annual report:

"What is the condition of the uneducated deaf mute, and to what extent does this misfortune go? Imagine if we can their condition. Emphatically children of silence, they are cut off from the charms and improvement of social intercourse. The gleeful songs of childhood echo not a feeling in their imprisoned minds. The thunder's voice awakes no echo in their dead ears."

"But these minds are not hopelessly imprisoned. The grand object of our Institution is to effect a transformation in the lives of uneducated deaf in our state, and we would appeal to every philanthropic heart to aid us in our purpose. We are sure our appeal will not be made in vain."

The Johnson family invested heavily in AIDB through their passion for service. Joseph Henry Johnson was the school's first president; his wife, Emily, the matron. His sister was the school's first teacher, and his son, Seaborn, a teacher. His daughter, Annie, also taught, and his son, Joseph Henry Jr., succeeded him as president.

His brother-in-law, Reuben R. Asbury, is credited with founding the Alabama School for the Blind after Civil War imprisonment left him visually impaired and deeply concerned with helping those "who are trapped in perpetual darkness."

And of course, his brother Seaborn:  The school's first student. He was the source of Johnson's inspiration. Seaborn attended what would become Gallaudet University and returned to Alabama School for the Deaf (ASD) to inspire many other students. He is reported to have worked magic on homesick youngsters. He is known as the "Father of Athletics" and organized the school's first baseball team in 1870. He taught academics and industrial arts and was a friend and advisor to staff and students alike for 43 years. He embodied everything that his brother, Joseph Henry, knew he could become when he created the school for the deaf.

That same passionate belief prevails today. ASD Principal Paul Millard says, "I've been given opportunities and I think everybody here is given opportunities to show people that these students, these individuals, can do anything anybody else can do. They can compete in the world and be satisfied and happy and be contributors like anybody else."

ASD High School Department Director Dennis Gilliam emphasizes that employees share "a commitment to a child, not just a commitment to a job, but a commitment to a child's well-being. We're always wondering as we go home, 'Is there something we can do better?'"

A Vision for the Future

AIDB's early leaders knew they were building something unique and enduring for future generations. Board President Dr. William Taylor wrote of this vision in the October 31, 1870, annual report:

"This institution was not established for the present generation alone. It was intended to be permanent and to transmit its human and beneficent influence to the prosperity of future ages. We would wish to see it increase in beauty and usefulness and become as imperishable as the mountains whose blue waiving outlines encircle the beautiful and salubrious valley in which it is situated."

Names like Taylor, Johnson, Asbury and Graves introduced many innovative and challenging ideas into the 19th century institution. In addition to well-rounded academic and literary studies, vocational training was of prime interest in preparing students to earn their own way. Broom-making, sewing, basket-weaving, carpentry and printing were leading trades. It is reported that in 1891, seven deaf printers who were deaf were employed in Alabama including three deaf printers at The Montgomery Advertiser.  In 1870, Johnson noted, "I have a communication from a lady in Philadelphia. She states that blind girls can be taught the use of sewing machines.  We propose to try this experiment."

As early as 1867, the first deaf-blind student had enrolled and Johnson spoke of another student who could hear but couldn't speak. There was an art class, and the first class of oral students was created in 1885. The staff was bold in its attempt to try new instruction methods and traveled to learn from the best of the day - Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell. By the turn of the century, a single school for the deaf had grown to three campuses including the Alabama School for the Blind (ASB) and the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind (ASNDB).

Today the vision remains strong and clear -- to become the premier program in the country serving individuals who are deaf and blind.

Strong Leadership

Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson, Jr., known as "Hal," was literally born into his work on the ASD campus. He was described as "a worthy replacement for his father as president of the Institute." He was active in national organizations for the deaf and blind. He was skilled in politics and public relations. When a reporter appeared unexpectedly on campus in 1903, he made a new friend and a full-page story in The Birmingham News which marveled at the Institute's programs and accomplishments.

During his 20-year tenure as president, the Institute's enrollment increased from 200 to 301 and legislative appropriations rose from $40,000 to $72,402. He also generated a quarter of a million dollars for program and building improvements. Another AIDB president described him as a "man of profound integrity and great wisdom who truly cared."

Fourteen presidents have followed in Johnson's footsteps - increasing AIDB's reach to more than 20,000 deaf and blind children, adults and their families in statewide programs and managing an annual budget in excess of $75 million. And the AIDB Foundation has raised more than $50 million since 1980 for endowment, program and capital improvements.

Unparalleled Growth

The AIDB Trustees chose wisely when they elected F.H. Manning as Hal Johnson's successor. As the principal of ASB for 18 years, he was well-liked among students and faculty. Their confidence in his leadership was needed.  Seaborn J. Johnson had retired two years earlier. Hal Johnson died unexpectedly at age 49 in 1913. For the first time since its founding, there were no Johnsons on the faculty or staff.

Manning set to work acquiring property for the expansion of the schools, creating a more formal class structure and overseeing the Institute's emergence into the 20th century. In 1915, young Reese Farnell arrived at the Institute by train -- and was so covered in cinders he had to be bathed and scrubbed head to toe before sitting down to his first meal. In 1916, Sarah Brown Carmack arrived from Shelby County by wagon, as did most AIDB students. She marveled at the innovations of the age: electric lights and indoor plumbing.

Innovations are standard practice at AIDB now at the beginning of the 21st century.  The Woods Centers for Excellence are the country's first buildings dedicated to teaching language and science to deaf and blind children. Students who are blind have a unique opportunity to learn science hands-on, and young students who are deaf are immersed in a bright, language-rich environment at an early age.

Dr. Josiah Graves, ASNDB Principal, died in 1923. His wife, Olla Graves, who had served as matron, took over duties as Principal, becoming the first woman at AIDB to achieve such a high position. Without Dr. Graves' leadership, however, the school's needs were frequently overlooked. After Mrs. Graves' death in 1925, the school suffered further neglect. It was 1928 when the school received a new building, and a new principal was named in 1929.

Between 1913 and 1928, enrollment jumped from 321 to 520. This unprecedented growth in enrollment enjoyed by AIDB exacted a heavy price. Dormitories were overcrowded. A devastating flu epidemic swept through ASB in 1925, and at one point, 90 of the 110 students were ill. All but four of the teachers were struck down, and these four struggled to nurse their students through the epidemic. In the end, five students and one teacher died.

Financial Struggles

Dr. Manning stepped down after 16 years of service as superintendent of AIDB. Nearly 70, he had spent most of his adult life serving people with vision and hearing loss. It was with some reluctance that he left. But the future held only hard times in store for his beloved Institute. Four months after his retirement, the stock market plummeted, and Black Friday, October 29, 1929, marked the beginning of the Great Depression.

State appropriations fell. In 1931-32, AIDB had to borrow heavily just to stay afloat.    At one point, the budget gave a meager allotment of 30 cents per day per pupil for food. Faculty and staff salaries were cut, from seven to 20 percent. Appropriations for insurance, maintenance and land acquisition were eliminated.

The Institute's trustees made another fateful choice in Dr. Manning's replacement. Dr. Daniel Archibald McNeill was a proven administrator, although he had no prior experience in teaching students who were deaf and blind. He saw that financial circumstances demanded that the Institute be as self-sufficient as possible. Under his administration, the Institute bought a farm, and vocational training in agriculture, trades and homemaking became more important than ever.

The farm helped feed the children with its produce rounding out the sparse food allotment given by the legislature. By the 1940s, the farm was producing 10,000 pounds of beef and pork every year. The children drank milk from the dairy, and potatoes, tomatoes, eggs and peaches were in ample supply.

Dr. McNeill was also skilled at maintaining political ties. Senator D. Hardy Riddle, an Institute trustee, sponsored a law that made education for Alabama's deaf and blind children compulsory, which raised enrollment to 681 by 1934. Dr. McNeill began the adult blind department for women in 1932.  Mrs. Mattie Gilbert Smith headed this sewing project, which eventually grew into the Alabama Industries for the Blind, the nation's second-largest employer of blind people with annual sales of more than $26 million.

Alabama Industries for the Blind employs more than 200 blind and deaf adults in a diverse manufacturing facility that produces a variety of goods including:  flight bags, helmet covers, paper products and all military neckties for the U.S. Armed Forces.

Sara Chamblee was one of the first employees of that little sewing project. "I often wondered if that little beginning would grow and grow," she said recently. "That was my dream, because there was so little work for blind people then....I never dreamed it would reach this proportion. No, it is not the end of my dream, for I am wishing that work opportunities would become so great that all blind adults could work."

Dr. McNeill tragically and suddenly died at the age of 55 in 1933. His replacement was D. Hardy Riddle, a former senator and Institute trustee. The Institute's athletic programs had suffered during the Great Depression. Riddle worked to correct this, using depression recovery funds to achieve his goals. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) had crews working to improve playgrounds and athletic fields on the campuses. The ASD basketball team participated in the first Gulf Coast basketball tournament in 1934.

The Institute bought a bus, which helped transport athletes to tournaments and students on field trips. Riddle believed a great team deserved a great band, so he formed a band at ASB. Athletics, a band, and the increasing visibility of the students as they traveled on their bus helped increase public awareness of the school, and perhaps even more important, emphasized to the public how similar AIDB students were -- and are -- to their seeing and hearing peers.

Under Riddle's leadership, the Institute added two new trades, improved eye care, organized its first Boy Scout troop, expanded the Institute farm and opened a bakery, which former students still remember fondly. But his most important addition was the hospital, a dream of every administrator since J.H. Johnson. The WPA started the two-story building, but work stopped when funds ran out. Institute funds were used to complete the project, which opened in September 1938. There were 75 beds, full-time nursing care and space for visiting physicians.

Riddle managed well. In 1935, the Institute even realized a year-end surplus of $176.65. But political ambition overtook him, and he decided to run for governor. Although he did not win, he was appointed probate judge of Talladega County, where he served until September 6, 1938. For the rest of his life, he maintained an interest in the Institute, even serving again on the Board of Trustees.

The War Years

Dr. Joseph S. Ganey succeeded Riddle as Superintendent of AIDB, and successfully navigated the end of the depression. But the war years brought a new set of challenges to the Institute. Enrollment reached an all-time high of 628 in 1940, and exceeded 700 in 1942. But the per-student allotment from the state was below the national average, teacher salaries ranged from $810 to $1,650 annually, far below the national average, and the state legislature could not find the funds for needed campus improvements. Some new buildings were supposed to be constructed by the WPA, but the war brought labor shortages, so this badly-needed help never materialized.

The farm continued to prosper, and its success allowed Ganey to save $40,000 on the Institute's food bill. An annual budget surplus became the standard, and the Institute enjoyed the security of a contingency fund for the first time in its history.

The Adult Blind Department began to flourish as war shortages made labor a valuable commodity. The women's program was so successful that the Adult Blind Department for Men was established in 1945. From these two programs grew the prosperous Alabama Industries for the Blind (AIB) and E.H. Gentry Facility (EHG).

High-paying wartime jobs attracted Institute employees and prospective students, and enrollment fell to 598 in 1945. State appropriations shrank, inflation wreaked havoc on the Institute's budget, and teachers demanded higher salaries. Ganey did his best, accomplishing a 10 percent pay raise for teachers in 1945 and securing funds for two new dormitories. His tenure as Superintendent ended a year later.

Dr. Herndon Glenn Dowling became the next leader of AIDB. During his term, the title changed from Superintendent to President. Many other things changed at AIDB from 1946 to1948, when Dr. Dowling died. He achieved a 50 percent increase in state appropriations and the support of Governor Jim Folsom.

New attitudes toward healthcare and society made further changes possible. Dowling established a Sight Saving Program in cooperation with the Talladega City Schools, which was designed to help partially-sighted children attend school with their sighted peers. He oversaw the construction of a new ASNDB campus and built a cooperative relationship with the Alabama Medical College in Birmingham to provide care for Institute children, a relationship which flourishes to this day.

Dr. Rod Nowakowski of the UAB School of Optometry frequently supervised optometry students at AIDB's low vision clinics. "My perception of AIDB is very positive, based on 25 years experience working there," he states.  "I've had a chance to compare it to other programs around the country, and I feel like it's an outstanding program, one I feel very comfortable about recommending to parents."

As we reached the 21st century, AIDB’s continued to change and grow to meet new challenges. From the beginning in 1858, our mission has been to serve people with sensory loss and enrich their lives.  While the means to accomplish that mission never remains the same, our commitment to service never wavers.

Building upon the Johnson Tradition

 John E. Bryan became the eighth president of AIDB in 1948. Under his leadership, the Adult Departments reached a landmark agreement with the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. The state would pay AIDB for training and other rehabilitation services provided to adults. This allowed the Institute to use the funds allotted to Adult Services for building and expansion projects, and also helped channel clients to the Institute. Today, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services and AIDB still enjoy a close relationship.

In 1955, Dr. Bryan resigned from AIDB to accept a position with the American Foundation for Overseas Blind, and Eugene Anderson McBride assumed the role of president at AIDB.

John Bryan’s home on the ASB campus became the home of the Institute’s first program for deaf-blind children in 1955.  This program was later named the Helen Keller School of Alabama, and is nationally-recognized as a leader in education for the multidisabled.

E.A. McBride became known as the Institute’s greatest builder since its founder, Dr. Joseph Johnson. In 1956, he secured a $50,000 appropriation to begin his building program.  Knowing this was not enough, he managed to include the Institute on a bond issue being promoted by the University of Alabama and Auburn University. He was certain they would only get half the money they requested, so he asked for $3 million.  When the amendment passed, the Institute received the full allotment, and the building process began.

Facilities were completed on all campuses, including dormitories, gymnasiums and vocational centers. Thanks to Mr. McBride’s energy and determination, AIDB’s physical presence in Talladega began to take on the shape of the years to come.

An Enduring Legacy

After E.A. McBride retired in 1962, another skilled and talented leader took his place. Euel Howard Gentry had been Mr. McBride’s assistant, so he knew well the issues facing the Institute. One of his first acts as president was to work to get the Institute debt-free -- a goal accomplished in 1965.  Other achievements of his presidency were the construction of a new Helen Keller Cottage for the deaf-blind students, a new vocational building at ASB and a new library at ASD.

But his greatest accomplishment was his emphasis on vocational education. During his tenure, AIDB made more progress in helping its clients and graduates find meaningful work.  E. H. Gentry Facility (EHG) was the result, named in his honor. When he retired in 1968, many projects were still underway, and he spent his own time as a volunteer on campus, seeing that tasks were carried out to his satisfaction.

His successor was Woodrow Wilson Elliott, an educator from Tuscaloosa. E.H. Gentry had started the process of integration, but it became Dr. Elliott’s task to see it to completion. Elliott had been in charge of integration for Tuscaloosa County Schools and used that experience to ensure a smooth transition.

Dr. Elliott was especially concerned with improving conditions for students.  Four new classrooms were added to ASD's Johnson Hall in 1971, and Oliver Hall on ASB's campus was remodeled. Another project near to his heart was the formal establishment of a program for students who were multidisabled and deaf-blind. This goal was accomplished in 1974.

There was a great increase in the number of these students due to the rubella epidemic of the 1960s.  AIDB responded by providing services that are still recognized as one of the finest educational programs of its kind in the country.

Due to a 1972 court ruling, student labor could no longer be used at the bakery or on the farm, so it became the task of Dr. Elliott to close the bakery, which had operated for 37 years, and phase out the farm operation.  He retired in 1978.

Matthew Hall, an experienced administrator who had served with the state Department of Education, became AIDB’s president for a brief and stormy 14 months. His skills and the needs of the Institute were not well-matched and the Board of Trustees was soon looking for a replacement.

Responding to the World around Us

Throughout its history, AIDB has always worked to respond to the needs of the people it served. In the late 1800s, Reuben Asbury rode around the state on horseback, canvassing for potential students and determining their needs. When the state of Alabama couldn’t provide enough financial support, the Institute began to grow the food it needed. When jobs were scare for blind graduates during the depression, the Institute created them.

The 1980s would provide many more opportunities to respond. It was a critical time for AIDB. The Board of Trustees selected a young assistant dean from the University of Alabama at Birmingham to head the Institute in 1979.  Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr. was from outside the Institute as so many past presidents had been. But his fresh approach to the many issues facing AIDB provided the impetus needed.

Money was, as always, in short supply. Students and faculty were unhappy with the previous administration. Dr. Hawkins reorganized the Institute’s management structure, trimmed costs and made other changes to bring AIDB’s administration up to date. To generate new funds, he created the Office of Institutional Development, and later the AIDB Foundation, which included the support services of public relations.

During his tenure as president, AIDB was awarded a grant of $935,000 from the Kellogg Foundation to establish a statewide network of Regional Centers. Although the Institute had always used field representatives to recruit students and educate the public about AIDB, this concept was new. It proved to be extraordinarily successful.  Still today, from Regional Centers across the state, trained and experienced staff members help parents, children and adults find the resources they need to overcome the obstacles of sensory deprivation.

The issue of mainstreaming also faced Dr. Hawkins. Federal law proclaimed that children must be educated in the least restrictive environment, which was often interpreted to be the local public school. Dr. Hawkins understood that no public school could compete with the 100-plus years of experience found at the Institute, and made it his goal to help the public see that as well.

Dr. Hawkins was eager to improve and maintain classrooms and dorms, and students were provided with new recreational opportunities for after-school hours. In-service training for staff members was made possible through another grant, and those employees trained were rewarded with higher salaries and a career ladder to encourage continued professional growth.

Jack Hawkins left AIDB in 1989, leaving behind an institute well-suited to thrive into the next century. Thomas Bannister was selected as his replacement. Mr. Bannister was a veteran educator, with experience as a teacher and administrator at the South Carolina School for Deaf and Blind and as president of the Utah School for Deaf and Blind.

Mr. Bannister successfully completed the capital campaign begun by Dr. Hawkins. Four and half million dollars were raised and used to renovate Dowling Health Services Building and add independent living centers at EHG.  Mr. Bannister also oversaw the expansion of regional programs in Mobile and Birmingham, reaching an even greater number of the state’s citizens with sensory loss.  During his tenure, the Special Equestrians program was established.

Joseph F. Busta, Jr. assumed the AIDB presidency in 1993.  Under his guidance, AIDB focused on securing a strong financial future.  AIDB’s endowment doubled with an Alabama Power challenge grant.  With the single largest private gift in AIDB history, from AmSouth Bank, the nation’s first Center of Excellence in Language and Communication Arts was built at ASD, and the Center of Excellence in Science was constructed at ASB.

Dr. Busta’s leadership led to the completion of long-range strategic planning and campus master plans. AIDB is home to the country’s first collection of outdoor sculptures specifically-designed for people who are deaf and blind.

Employment opportunities for people who are blind/low vision also grew during Dr. Busta’s tenure.  AIB began a new venture, exploring service-sector jobs by operating military base supply stores. AIB currently operates base supply stores in Alabama and Georgia.  Dr. Busta left AIDB in the summer of 2002 for a position at the University of South Alabama.

It has occurred five times in AIDB’s 149-year history. Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson, Jr., in 1893; Mr. Frederick H. Manning in 1913; Dr. Joseph Samuel Ganey in 1938; Mr. Euel Howard Gentry in 1962 and in 2003, Dr. Terry Graham, an accomplished AIDB administrator, was promoted to the Institute’s president.

Dr. Graham is a 30-plus-year veteran of the Institute and previously served as Executive Director of AIDB's Office of Health, Evaluation and Outreach (now Health and Clinical Services), from 1992 to 2003. He came to AIDB in 1977 as Principal of the Helen Keller School of Alabama and then in 1983 became director of the Institute’s statewide network of Regional Centers.

Under Graham’s leadership AIDB has experienced tremendous growth. AIDB has expanded its outreach programs in Alabama's Black Belt region while constructing a new ASB Independent Living Center, a new ASD residential facility and a new HKS student center (named by the Board of Trustee's in Dr. Graham's honor).  Multiple buildings are continually updated with ASD's McFarlane Auditorium and ASB's Oliver Hall Auditorium recently remodeled.  All were components of The Living with Pride Campaign with focuses on providing a safe, nurturing and comfortable environment for the children and adults AIDB serves.

AIDB sesquicentennial was celebrated fiscally strong, with AIDB and offering a wider-array of programs and services than Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson could have possibly imagined on that day in 1858 when he reached out a helping-hand to his younger brother. No doubt he would approve of all AIDB has become.  

Updated from 2003 Sights and Sounds