Charlie Crane and his teacher Miss Conrod
One of the most remarkable people in Vancouver history,
Charles Allen Crane, who died in 1965, was both blind and deaf.
He couldnt see anything, he couldnt hear anything. Yet
he attended UBC for two years, worked as a reporter for the Ubyssey,
wrote for the Province, became a star varsity wrestler and
worked as a translator for blind students, converting
books into Braille. He read thousands of books. Those 6,000
Braille books were Charlies, left by him to the university.
It was Canadas largest Braille collection.
Today, the Crane Library is the Crane Resource Centre and Library,
the principal resource for UBC students and other people who are
blind, visually impaired or print-handicapped. Theres an eight-studio
book recording and duplicating facility there, computers that convert
print to synthesized speech, computer work stations with voice synthesis
and image-enlarging, a computerized Braille transcription facility,
a talking on-line public catalogue, closed circuit TV magnifiers,
and more. And it all started with Charlie Crane.
Charlie was born in Toronto in 1906. At the age of nine months
he was hit by an attack of spinal meningitis. His mother was told
he would likely die, but she nursed him night and day and pulled
him through. But the meningitis had destroyed the babys sight
Charlie told an interviewer once, I was admitted
to the school for the blind in Halifax in 1916 when I was 10 years
old. Of course, I knew nothing of language then but my teachers
told me that in six months I could pronounce 2,000 words to their
How had he done it?
The first word I was taught to pronounce was
come, he explained. Miss Conrod, my teacher
at the time, pronounced the word very deliberately whilst I held
the fingers of one hand on her throat and of the other hand on her
lips. When, after repeated trials, I pronounced the word come
in a clear, subdued voice, altogether to the satisfaction of Miss
Conrod, she instructed me to knock at the door and say, Come.
This I did. The door, which was ajar, was thrown open and three
teachers came forward, and one of them said in the dumb language,
You asked us to come, so we have come to you. I knew
then for all time what the word come meant when it was
That dumb language consisted of spelling
out with your fingers every word, letter by letter, on Charlies
The boy developed another skill that people who knew him spoke
of with awe. S.G. Lawrence, principal of the School for the Blind
in Vancouver, in 1926 told an interviewer a story about his star
pupil. (Charlie and his family had moved to Vancouver in 1921.)
"Charlies sense of touch is nothing short of marvellous,"
Lawrence said. "Not one of our pupils has even approached him
in this respect. I will give you an example. Some years ago Dr.
Carmichael preached in Vancouver. Charlies father and I took
Charlie along. After the sermon Dr. Carmichael shook hands with
Charlie. Charlie put his hand on the doctors head and shoulder
for a moment. The doctor talked to him on his fingers.
Five years passed by and, unknown to Charlie,
who had not met him in the interval, Dr. Carmichael again visited
Vancouver. He called at the school, and seeing Charlie walked over
and shook hands. Charlie held the doctors hand gripped in
his own for fully a minute and then exclaimed, Why, its
People naturally thought of Helen Keller when they
met or heard about Charlie Crane. But, says Paul Thiele,
there was one major difference between them: Charlie had a
sense of humor.
Paul Thiele, now retired, was the head of the Crane
Library in the 1980s. Paul had met Charlie in the early 1960s. I
was about 18, Paul says, working as a recreation director
at C-NIB Lodge on Bowen Island, run by the Canadian National Institute
for the Blind.
Paul, by the way, is legally blind himself, with about 10 per cent
Anyway, I heard Charlie Crane was coming to
be a guest at the lodge. He was in his mid-50s at the time. The
staff there talked about this guy with real awe. Well, I met him
and I felt somewhat disappointed. To me, he had all the earmarks
of being retarded." He gestures. "I sort of wrote him
The young recreation director has a surprise coming.
I took a bunch of holidayers out for a nature
walkthese were blind adultsand Charlie wanted to come
along. One of the things I did was to get the people to come up
to a big tree along the path and put their arms around it . . .
so they could sense the size and the feel of the thing. Well, Charlie
came up, too, and put his arms around the tree. And then he asked
me through an interpreter who understood his speech,
what kind of tree it was.
Paul laughs. Hell, I dont know trees.
So I faked it. I said, uhh, maple.
The interpreter spelled that out on Charlie Cranes hands.
Later that afternoon, back at the lodge, Paul was handed a note
from Charlie Crane. In the note, Charlie thanked Thiele for his
interesting nature walk and said he had found it very informative.
He wanted to bring up one small point about that tree he had put
his arms around.
It was not, in fact, Charlie wrote,
a maple, or acer macrophyllum. I was able to deduce,
by the moss on the tree, the indentations of the bark, and the shape
and moisture content of the leaves that it was, in fact, a mature
Alnus Rubra, or red alder.
Now, says Paul, I dont really
remember the exact tree he named because I dont have the letter
any more, but I do remember holding that letter in my hand and looking
at it . . . Theres much more to tell you about Charlie
Crane, and it will be in my book.
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