During the winter of 1932-33, the Sedalia Democrat regularly reported on local residents’ efforts to help those impoverished by the Great Depression.
Sedalians demonstrated their generosity by providing food, heating fuel, Christmas toys for children, school supplies and medical care. Most of these efforts aimed at alleviating temporary poverty. The Leonard Dowdy fund, however, had more long range goals and consequences.
Leonard Dowdy, born in 1928, was the son of Leonard and Lucille Dowdy. The family lived with Leonard’s parents, John and Beulah Dowdy, his sister, Virginia, and brother Charles on the family farm on state Route 2. His grandfather John worked as a carpenter at the Missouri Pacific Railroad shops and his father Leonard worked the farm.
When young Leonard was 21-months old, he suffered spinal meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord characterized by high fever and severe headache. Many children who contracted meningitis did not survive and some of those who did suffered long-term consequences. Leonard was left blind and deaf.
In early 1933, the Dowdy family was preparing to send Leonard to kindergarten. Local schools did not then provide education for handicapped students. Instead, children were usually sent to state or private institutions where they were given basic education, the techniques needed to function in the outside world, and trade skills that would enable them to become independent adults.
Missouri maintained a school for the blind in St. Louis and a school for the deaf in Fulton. The best education Leonard could receive, however, was at the Perkins Institute in Boston, a respected school established in 1829 by Dr. John Fisher. Perkins was a progressive school, using a variety of methods and devices to assist students.
There, Leonard would benefit from a program designed to meet his individual needs. He would learn to read by using the Braille alphabet. He would learn the Tadoma technique of interpreting others’ speech by placing his right hand over the speaker’s lips, jaw and vocal chords. He would learn to speak and to sign. Leonard would study the full range of academic subjects, including reading, math, writing, history, geography, science, music and physical education.
Sending Leonard to Perkins was problematic. He was young and not accustomed to being away from his family. In addition, while the local school district might pay the tuition fees, other costs would be borne by the Dowdy family. Room, board and laundry fees, the price of books and supplies, and travel costs would place a burden on the family.
Sedalians rallied to help the Dowdy family, establishing a fund and holding a variety of fund raisers. One of the most successful of these was a Cabaret Bridge party, combining variety show type entertainment with bridge games.
Mrs. Frank Leach organized this party and an earlier bridge party. The party on Feb. 4, 1933, was held in the banquet room of the Hotel Terry, festively decked out in black and gold decorations used in the previous evening’s junior-senior prom. Young ladies from the Junior Sorosis organization served as ushers and sold candles.
The 180 bridge players gathered first for musical entertainment by the Smith-Cotton High School orchestra, its instructor and director, Ernestine Thompson, a ladies sextet and solo performances.
More entertainment, including vocal duets and solos, a tap dance, and numbers by the tots in Lilyan Hurley’s, dance class, followed the bridge game and kept the audience amused while the bridge scores were tallied.
Master of ceremonies Charles Botz recognized Mrs. Isadore Kantor for selling fifty tickets to the event. He announced the winners of the bridge games and identified the local merchants who donated prizes. Mrs. E.D. Bybee read a thank you letter from Mrs. Dowdy.
The evening was a success and helped the Dowdy family. Leonard went on to a successful life, marrying a classmate from Perkins and working assembling truck tail lights at the Peterson Manufacturing Company in Kansas City.