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She Lost Her Eyesight but Kept Her Optimistic Outlook on Life

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."

She went to work at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a branch of the Library of Congress, as a proofreader of books in Braille and wrote a textbook of her own, "Introduction to Relevant Braille."

"She read Braille as fast as anyone else could read a printed book," her daughter said.

After retiring in 1986, Smith visited schools and civic groups with her guide dog, taught Braille and volunteered at Montgomery County's Special Needs Library. She led demonstrations against restaurants and shops that refused to admit guide dogs. After the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, requiring businesses to admit working dogs, she carried a copy of the law everywhere she went.

At home, Smith taught her granddaughters how to play bridge and enjoyed taking them to the movies. They would sit in a corner so the girls could whisper in her ear to describe the action on the screen.

"She said how fortunate she was that she had seen and knew what colors looked like, or what a dog looked like," her daughter said. "It's an optimism that, boy, am I glad she gave to me."

In 1994, Smith wrote an unpublished essay about a trip she and her husband once made to West Virginia. When weather forced their plane to land at another airport, they boarded a bus for Charleston, only to discover that the driver didn't know the way. Smith volunteered to give directions.

"Imagine his astonishment when I sat down next to him on the steps with my Seeing Eye dog at my feet," she wrote. "Finding themselves with no alternative, the passengers shouted words of encouragement, and off we went."

After reaching their destination, she and her husband got off the bus. "The other passengers cheered while the driver merely shook his head, smiled, and thanked us."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company