Minnesota Deaf Heritage Oral-Visual Interview with Gordon Allen
This interview with Gordon Allen (GA) was incorporated into the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans’ (MNCDHH) Oral-Visual History Project. This interview was originally produced by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Metro Division (DHHSD) of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. This interview took place in 1997. The interviewer was Robert “Bob” Cook (BC).
A note about translation of this interview: The interview was recorded in American Sign Language (ASL). The interviewer and interviewee used ASL as a first language, and the signed information was translated into vernacular or spoken English by interpreters.
This transcript and the open captions in the video are based on the spoken English information.
Actions are in brackets. Translation notes are in parentheses and italics (using the emphasis font), and they represent additional information and corrections about what was said.
Transcript of Interview with Gordon Allen
Key to names:
GA = Gordon Allen (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
BC = Robert “Bob” Cook (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
[Visual of title graphic “Minnesota Deaf Heritage: An Interview with Gordon Allen”]
[Robert “Bob” Cook is sitting with Gordon Allen for the interview.]
BC: Hello, my name is Bob Cook. We have a very special guest with us here today. His name is Gordon Allen. He is well known in Minnesota, as well as all over the country as a leader within the Deaf community. We are really fortunate to have him here so that we can take advantage of some of his experiences. At ninety-three, he remains very active.
GA: Well, thank you Bob.
BC: I’d like to start at the beginning. You can tell me a little bit about yourself as you were growing up.
GA: Well, I was born in Minneapolis in 1902. I attended a public school until the 7th grade. It was at that time that I had my hearing loss from scarlet fever. There were three or four of us in the family who had become sick from scarlet fever. They nursed us for several days, but the medicine that they were using at that time for the cure destroyed my hearing. It also ruined my balance. It made it very difficult for me to walk. After my illness, I had to begin the process of learning how to walk all over again. It was like a baby grabbing onto anything which would give me balance as I practiced my steps. After that I returned to the public school for one more year, but it wasn’t very successful for me because of my deafness now.
BC: Can you explain a little bit maybe about how it felt to lose your hearing so suddenly?
GA: Well, I accepted my deafness. I had not suffered, or had any pain. My father tried to find a cure for my condition. He took me to several doctors, one physician after another. And there was one physician that told my father that I might someday be able to hear vibrations placed against my eardrum. My father wrote down what the doctor had said, and I told him that it seemed to be God’s judgment. My father never mentioned finding a cure after that.
BC: You went to the school for the Deaf (Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf – MSAD). How long did you go there?
GA: Well, I attended the school until 1920. I entered the school in the fall, and I had been dependent on my voice and hearing. At the school, all the instruction was in sign, so it took me about three months until I could communicate.
BC: So after graduation, what kind of work did you do?
GA: At first, I worked as a wood turner for three or four years. I next worked in construction as a contractor for myself, building homes. Then in 1935, Social Security was implemented, and I switched to work with a roofing company. I worked with that company for the next thirty years or so.
BC: You said you worked for a roofing company. What about the problems with your balance? Weren’t you worried about falling off?
GA: Well, if it was a clear day, and I had good vision, I could control myself pretty well. But, it was when it got dark or cloudy, I had a tendency to lose my balance. I also had weak knees, and sometimes my co-workers would tease me about my knees, but they would lead to my fall.
BC: OK, tell me about your family.
GA: Well, there were four in my family, my parents, sister and me. My mother died one year before I lost my hearing, and then when I lost my hearing, my grandmother became concerned that I might die too. It had been exactly one year after my mother’s death.
BC: Are you married? Do you have any children?
GA: Uh, yeah, I married a hard of hearing girl in 1935. We were married for ten years until she died from a stroke. I stayed single for the next four years, and then I met and married a widow from Duluth. She was active in MSAD. She had two sons, whom I adopted as my own. The oldest son is currently teaching at the University of Minnesota as a professor in accounting. The second boy works at the U.S. Embassy in Argentina. This is his third or fourth year down there now.
BC: I understand that you are involved with the board of trustees for Charles Thompson Hall. Can you tell me a little bit more about how it all got started, and maybe share some of your experiences of the forty-five years that you were associated with the board.
GA: Well, Charles Thompson met Margaret Brooks when they were both students at the MSAD school. Charles himself came from a very wealthy successful family. His father had founded the First National Bank in St. Paul. Margaret came from a very poor rural family, farm family in Windom, Minnesota, area. They married, but Charles soon after died from alcoholism. Margaret was left with much of Charles’ wealth, and very comfortable. She wanted to establish a memorial in his name. At that time, the Deaf community was meeting in saloons around the city. This made it very difficult to maintain a sense of community, with the constant changing of venues. So she decided to contract with Olof Hanson, a Deaf architect, to build a club for Deaf people, and a memorial to Charles. She purchased land on the corner of Marshall and Fairview.
BC: You said she purchased land. Who purchased the land?
GA: She did, she bought the land, then she hired the architect and they built Thompson Hall. It opened on November, 1916. There were only two rules. It was a club for Deaf people, and that it would never charge for membership. She wanted Thompson Hall to be a gift to all Deaf Minnesotans. Margaret was a smart and wise Scotch woman. You know, better statuary than a cemetery.
BC: You and I both know that Olof Hansen was the architect of the building, and I have a picture here that I would like to show. [Shows photo of Thompson Hall.] It’s really a beautiful building, makes me feel so proud.
GA: Yes, yes. In its glory, Thompson Hall had very ornate wood railings and posts around the second floor balcony, and around the facade. But this eventually had to be removed, due to rot. What is left is the brick and stone of the building. Some of the finer features of the building are the tall windows and ceilings, and this provides good lighting. After all, it’s important for Deaf people to be able to see each other signing.
BC: I’ve been really fortunate to serve on the board of trustees, and I feel a great honor when you supported my appointment to serve. And I really want to thank you. I enjoy sharing the stories about Thompson Hall with my friends. And people from all over the country are envious that we have such a good place for meeting and socializing. Can you tell me a little bit about the make-up of the board, especially in the beginning. I understand that the first board was made up of hearing people, and Deaf people were added as time went on.
GA: Yes, Margaret ran the first board, and had several hearing relatives working with her, nieces and nephews. She liked to run things her own way. Then a fourth member was added, who happened to be Deaf. I don’t remember who that was. After him was a man named Bowen. He died and I replaced him on the board in 1945. Shortly thereafter, the two remaining relatives on the board asked to leave. And they had told me that their positions should be replaced by Deaf people. And this has been the way it’s remained ever since, that Deaf people have been serving. I did what they asked.
BC: So it’s been like that all along, from that time?
GA: Yes, yes. And let’s see, I started to serve the board in 1950 as the Secretary/Treasurer, and remained in that position for over thirty years. Then just last year I retired from the general board with the title of “Trustee Emeritus.”
BC: There have been so many changes to Thompson Hall. Wasn’t there a bowling alley in there at one time?
GA: Yes, yes in the basement, but in the basement, it was just too wet, and we had to replane the surface because it became warped so often. We had to plane it, and plane it again, so we just decided to get rid of it.
BC: How long was the lane there?
GA: Well, about ten years or so. We just couldn’t keep it because of the dampness down in the basement in that area. Plus, at first it was just too long. People had to step over it this way or that way and it was truly a bother, so it was shortened, and then we just got rid of it.
BC: You’ve also been involved with MAD (Minnesota Association of the Deaf), or what is now MADC (Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens), and also NAD (National Association of the Deaf). You worked as a parliamentarian for national conventions. Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences at both the state and national level?
GA: Well, nationally I was involved with the board for about ten years. And that was at a time of great change for NAD. We met in Seattle to find out about our responsibilities as board members. Also, at that time NAD had no home office. Our business was conducted out of the current president’s home, whoever happened to be president at the time. Then in 1956 we had a convention in Fulton, Missouri, at the state school for the Deaf there. We met and conferred and established a new set of bylaws, which would allow for the creation of a home office, as well as establishing a federation of states. This for the first time would allow a voice for each of the states, which had not necessarily felt affiliated in the past. Each state had two votes and I was involved on that. I continued my service with NAD for the next twenty years on their bylaws committee. Then when they established TDI (formerly Teletypewriters for the Deaf, Inc., now Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc.), I was involved with that. I helped write their minutes and their bylaws for that board of directors when they got started.
BC: Excuse me, business?
GA: Well, for their many business meetings. And then I was on the board of TDI and involved as a past president because I had so much experience with establishing committees and making revision to bylaws and information and things like that. That’s why I was brought into this group to work with them for so long. TDI was, I think, I was one of the presidents at the start, but involved with their bylaws I believe for about twenty years, too.
BC: Now you also had a business repairing TTYs (Teletypewriters, or Text Telephones), and you traveled around doing that. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
GA: Oh, yes, yes, oh gee... let me see, I began working with TTYs way back. There were two companies. There was AT&T which had the old machines and there was a man from California, who had been able to adapt them to working with TTYs so that Deaf people could make calls over telephone lines. And, then it was about 195 - 60s or so that he had brought me in to work under him. He picked me from several different people to work in the state of Minnesota and distribute these 600 machines that we had gotten from the AT&T company. We started to set up the machines. We set up four originally, one in Brainerd and then we set up an experimental one at the Michigan College so that people could learn how to work on these machines. I had a cousin who was helping me with distributing the machines, and reworking them and retooling them. We had to get them all compatible and get them out of the AT&T company, and find a place where we could house them and work on them. And I honestly didn’t know what I was doing as I started. I was working with my aunts and uncles who would come and help me read over the information and learn what I had to do. It was - there were quite a few machines and we were getting quite a few out to different people. I truly have a lot of respect for this man from California, and I feel fortunate to have been his apprentice.
BC: I remember that. What do you think about the old green machines changing to these real small TTYs? What are your feelings about that?
GA: Well, it seems appropriate that we’ve made the change to the new technology. There were problems with the old green machines, there were limitations on the five lines and you could only have six words to each minute. You could only type at six words each minute, and ASCII, - the A S C I I (code) - had problems and as we’ve made the change between the two. And the baud rate, which is the speed, wasn’t good enough with the older machines, so it seems appropriate that we’ve gotten rid of them.
BC: I understand that you are planning on giving your favorite old green machine to a museum?
GA: Yes, I was thinking about giving it to the museum at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf so that they could remember the original machines and what they were like, those old green machines. I used it for so many years, it worked just fine for me, and it just seems appropriate to give it back to the Minnesota State Academy.
BC: We only have a little time left here. If you could maybe share with us about your experiences and your association with the Deaf community, and your perspectives on that.
GA: Times have changed! Times have changed so much. Deaf people can drive. Deaf people can do anything. They can do anything but hear.
BC: I really want to thank you, Gordon, for taking your time coming and sharing with us. I really appreciate you being here.
GA: Oh, I enjoyed it too, I enjoyed myself. Thank you.