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A Local Life: Bertha Brecker Smith

She Lost Her Eyesight but Kept Her Optimistic Outlook on Life

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

In 1941, when Bertha Brecker Smith was a second-grade teacher in Marmet, W.Va., she asked her students to sing a patriotic song. They broke into, of all things, Cole Porter's ode to the open West, "Don't Fence Me In."

For the next 66 years, you could say that Smith made "Don't Fence Me In" her theme song. She had grown up as an independent-minded Jewish girl in heavily Protestant West Virginia and was the first in her family to graduate from college. As a student at Marshall University, she escaped an Ohio River flood by climbing into a boat from her third-floor dormitory window.

She moved to New York as a young woman, married six weeks after meeting her future husband and settled in Washington in 1945. She had a spirited streak of self-reliance throughout her life, but never more than when she lost her sight in middle age and had to learn to live with blindness.

"Most people think, 'What's the worst thing that can happen to you? Losing your eyesight,' " said Smith's daughter, Eileen McGuckian. "My mother had the attitude that 'This is the way it is. I've been tossed a lemon, and I'm going to make lemonade.' "

As a college student, Smith noticed that she couldn't see well at night. She was later diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disorder that causes a progressive loss of peripheral vision. The visual field narrows until it disappears altogether.

Smith, who grew up working in her father's grocery store in Charleston, W.Va., spent several years as a bookkeeper with the Treasury Department. She led Girl Scout troops and was a substitute teacher in Montgomery County schools during the 1950s and '60s, until her eyesight grew too dim.

Her husband, Zandel Smith, who worked with an optical company for 35 years, took his wife to the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University, but nothing could be done for her deteriorating vision.

"My dad was devastated," McGuckian said. "He thought the world had come to an end. He felt very helpless."

Knowing that her condition would not improve, Smith learned Braille and took courses at the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. She organized her home in Silver Spring to allow her to do everything she had done before. After her husband died in 1981, she lived alone for 20 years.

By the age of 48, Smith -- who died Aug. 31 of complications from dementia at 86 -- was completely blind. She got her first guide dog, then stepped into a new life.

A bead of lead was soldered onto her oven dial at 350 degrees, and she had similar marks on other appliances and gauges. With her Braille printer, she typed out food labels and cooking instructions. She used Braille tags to arrange her clothing by color.

If she accidentally wore mismatched items, she made light of it. Once, when someone remarked that she was wearing one black shoe and one brown shoe, Smith replied, "That's okay, I've got another pair just like it."

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