No party was scheduled Wednesday for the 80th birthday of the Reading Room for the Blind, although "quite a bit will be said about its romantic history," according to the president of the board of directors.
Instead, Glenn E. Casey said it was business as usual as drivers transported some 50 blind Salt Lake County residents to the Reading Room, 309 E. First South, where they enjoyed lunch, listened to musical entertainment and heard excerpts of fiction, poetry or non-fiction read by volunteers.Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the Reading Room is open from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., thanks to private donations and a grant from the United Way. Light refreshments are served (Wednesday participants got a full lunch) as the patrons swap stories and tell jokes. Some of the blind have been attending sessions for more than 40 years.
The Reading Room was established Sept. 14, 1908, at the urging of Col. and Mrs. Andrew S. Rowan. Rowan had been an unsung hero of
he Spanish-American War. At great personal risk, in April of 1898, the then-lieutenant carried an urgent message from President McKinley to Gen. Calixto Garcia, leader of Cuba. His action, though seldom noted in history books, set the state for quick victory over Spain.
Rowan has been forgotten by most of the world, but in Salt Lake City his name is remembered at the Reading Room for the Blind. A decade after he carried the message, Rowan was transferred to Fort Douglas with his wife and her blind brother, who lived with them.
Josephine Morris Rowan was used to reading to her young brother, and decided that if he enjoyed it, so would other blind people. With the help of a small group of influential women and the public library staff, she organized the Reading Room for the Blind.
It was one of the first service organizations in Salt Lake City and is the only such service in the United States today. The board sponsored the first Braille work in the community, buying books, providing and supervisor and generally broadening the services until Salt Lake City was selected as one of the first regional libraries for Braille books under the Library of Congress.
For many years it carried the colonel's name as part of its title.
Mondays and Fridays, the Reading Room provides services to 20-25 blind people, while the number rises to about 45 on Wednesdays.
According to Leona Hattenberg, assistant supervisor, two of the volunteers are retiring in October. Anyone interested in volunteering or in attending the reading sessions can call Bernice Eisen, supervisor, at 582-4538 or Casey at 581-9675.