By Melvin Sheire
After graduating from the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped (WSVH) in June 1962, I came to Milwaukee to look for work. At that time, I was under the care of the state, and my social worker brought me. I was living at the Badger Association of the Blind, now known as Vision Forward Association, but I received social security payments from my father for income. He had died a year earlier. My mother drowned in 1950 when I was six. Dad was an alcoholic and he didn’t care much about what I did. I had about a dozen foster homes, only one of which was good, and it was probably the financially poorest of all of them. I ran with a bad crowd, stole, and did a lot of petty crimes. Since I was in school for nine months, they taught me manners, hygiene, and social graces.
I thought I had the world at my fingertips, so to speak. I set off for Milwaukee, the land of the jobs and good transit. I was looking for work, a home and whatever adventures a young man of 18 years old looks for.
At that time, the Badger Home was a boarding house for blind persons. You got a room, food, room cleaning, and laundry for a flat rate. I shared a room with a 50-year old man named Joe. He was nice, but he also mocked me for wanting a job. Most of the residents thought I was crazy to look for work. Many wanted the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to find a job for them. Few actually went out to look for themselves.
At school, I had taken woodworking, rug weaving, and piano tuning. My hobby was gas model airplanes, and I was quite good with them. I thought, “I know woodworking, metal, and mechanics, what else do I need to learn?” My grades were awful, but that is another subject. I wanted to go to college, but the state said my grades weren’t good enough. The state automatically put me in the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, and they had done all the classic tests on me. Since I was new in the city, virtually self-raised, and really didn’t trust strangers, I answered the way I wanted, and sometimes, I lied on my answers.
When I went looking for work, the older residents mocked me, saying, “What makes you think you’ll find a job? We’ve been looking for 20, 30, or 40 years, and we haven’t got anything. What makes you better than us?” The truth was, I did think I was better. I thought I had learned the important things in life, and they hadn’t! Of course, in hindsight, that was conceited, but at the time, I didn’t think so. So I started working at the Sheltered Workshop. At that time it was similar to Industries for the Blind. The work shop made coco mats and rugs and it did some contract work. Industries for the Blind made pens, brushes, and brooms at that time.
I was employed by the Workshop for the Blind, but we didn’t call that real work. The good workers were sent to the machine shop, which was a branch of it. Since I was young and inexperienced, I was put in the mat department where we made coco mats. Coco mats were made out of hemp on a loom like rugs. They were used for doormats, and they were sold to the navy to put on ships to soften the blows when the ships came in. You might have seen the new version of them made mostly out of plastic and having bristles.
I was very, very good at making these. In fact, I was about the third best out of 20 men, but there was a problem. While I worked, I had to climb a ladder to put the hemp on racks. It was in spools and fed into the loom through water and to the front. Many times when I was on the ladder, I got dizzy. So dizzy that many times I fell. Most times I was vomiting, and we had no idea what it was. Again I was mocked, with the guys saying I was lazy, worthless, a baby, etc. A few guys disagreed, but they were in the minority. Finally I had to quit. I was just too sick. Many years later I learned I was allergic to dust, and the hemp was full of dust, but again, I am way ahead of my story. I probably lasted three to six months on this job. It was piecework, and I guess I was making about $4 per hour.
By then it was 1963 and a bad case of flu was going around. There was no option to vaccinate as we do today. It was so bad they didn’t have enough men to run the machine shop, so they asked me if I would work. They said it was piecework. I felt it was better than nothing, so I agreed, and it was easy. Again, I thought I was as good as or better than most of the guys who worked there. I ran drill presses, lathes and anything they requested of me. Being piecework, I was making a lot of money for that time–about $8 per hour–so when they came to me and asked me to go on their training program, I turned them down. The training wage was 75 cents an hour, and I didn’t think that was fair. So they fired me.
Day after day, I looked for work at any place I could find, with the mocking words of the residents echoing in my ears. I learned the bus routes, talked to the drivers, and got ideas from them for places to go. In many cases, I had to walk beyond the end of the routes to get to the business where I wanted to apply. Day after day, I went through the same routine. I asked for the employment managers, told them about my abilities, showed them my traveling ability, and asked for a job. Most of the answers were, “We’ll call you. Don’t call us.” Remember–there were no computers to generate leads, no resumes—just applications to fill out and references from friends to confirm my experience and ability. Most of the time, I had to have the employment manager fill out the paperwork, or their secretaries helped me.
One late summer day in 1964, I took a bus to Briggs and Stratton on 124th and Burleigh. It was a long ride, and I also had to walk several blocks at the end of the line to reach the office. When I finally got there, I asked for the employment manager. He was a man named Joe Rollinger. He came out shortly, and I started my talk something like this, “My name is Melvin Sheire, and I’m looking for a job. I have some knowledge of engines, metal….” and he cut me off saying, “I wouldn’t hire a blind person if there was no one else on earth. No! Get out of here!”
Well, I was crushed, but there were several other factories in that area, so I applied at a couple of them and went back home. By this time, I was living on the east side of Milwaukee with Jerry Selber, another former student from WSVH. When I got home, I called Phil Dumbleton, a blind lawyer friend of mine. During the course of our conversation, I told him about my experience at Briggs. Maybe I was crying on his shoulder, but I didn’t really have anyone else to whom I could turn. He shocked me by saying I should go back to a different office at Briggs and ask for John Trost. He had gone to school with Phil, and I should use Phil’s name as a reference.
The next morning, I went to the 32nd Street address of Briggs and asked to see John. He took me in and we talked. It was a large room with a lot of typing going on, but I didn’t see anything wrong with that. He remembered Phil and he told me some of the things they had done together in college. I told him about my abilities and education, and I answered a few questions. Suddenly he turned around and asked, “Well, Joe, do we have a job for this nice young man?”
Joe leapt from his desk and thundered, “I talked to him yesterday and I told him NO!” He was the very same Joe who’d turned me down the day before. I felt embarrassed, scared, angry, and almost any bad emotion you can think of. Still speaking to Joe, John said, “You mean we have 4,781 employees, plus 300 office help, and not one job for a blind man?” Speaking a little more reasonably Joe replied, “Well, we could put him on the motor line, but that would be like throwing him to the dogs.”
That’s when I spoke up and said, “I’ll go to the dogs!” Of course, it was a very naïve statement. I had no idea what the motor line was, or if I could do it. Much later, I learned it would have been hard and I probably would have needed many adaptations. I just knew that I knew a little about engines, and I thought I could learn it.
John turned back to me and said, “Where are you going from here?” I responded, “Well, I’m human. I need to butter my bread, too. I’m going to Evanrud, G.E. Mill Print, and anywhere else I can find.”
John turned back to Joe and said, “You take him over to Evanrud. Have him see Mike Bladehorn, and don’t you leave tonight until you find him a job!” Joe sheepishly took me to his car and drove me to Evanrud. He took me into Mr. Bladehorn’s office where I had an interview. Mr. Bladehorn just happened to be the uncle of one of the boys with whom I flew airplanes. I never got the job, but at least he treated me very well and hired another visually impaired person later. Finally, the day was over. I had several interviews and no job. I went home, and Jerry was there. He said, “You need to call Briggs in the morning. Joe Rollinger called, and he has a job for you.”
The next morning, I called Joe. He described the job and told me the time I should be there for the interview. He ended by saying, “It’s your job, if $2.21 is enough.” At that time, $1.25 was minimum wage, so I said, “I just fainted, but if that’s over $1.25, I’ll be there!”
I figured it was real work, that I probably would be able to get wage increases, that it was work I liked, and that God had led me to it; however, there are several points to note here. Yes, it was a good job, but there were many hurdles. The building was 24 acres under one roof with no interior walls for orientation. The noise was tremendous, with 12 motor lines going all at once. I had to contend with metal shavings, strips, oil and other chemicals on the floor, fork lift trucks running around that you couldn’t hear, and young people who didn’t understand or care about blindness. At one time, I told my boss, “I couldn’t even quit this job without having to ask someone to take me to the door!”
Throughout the following months, three men and one woman found jobs at places where I had interviewed. I might be fooling myself, but I would like to believe that I had something to do with that.
In closing, I want to say, I just don’t understand Joe’s part. His son was mentally disabled, so he should have been more understanding of those of us who have our own challenges. I just know that God has seen me through many spots, and that is one of them.
Melvin Sheire lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.