By Kathleen Cox
The following was originally a term paper titled, “An Able Man,” by Kathleen Cox for the college course, “Special Needs Learning,” she completed in spring 1999. Kathleen is a native Newburgher where she has worked and lived her entire life and cares passionately about Newburgh. In 2014, she was named a champion during Newburgh’s Annual Croquet Tournament at Downing Park. Her term paper has been published here with permission.
As I near my goal of becoming a teacher of vocational education, naturally, I very often wonder how successful I will be. Will I be effective? Will I make a difference? Will I touch someone’s life in a positive way? Whether or not I succeed is yet to be seen. However, I am confident that I possess, through the benefits of education and life experience, the tools I will need to succeed in my chosen profession. Some of the tools I will use have been handed down to me in the way of very special gifts from my family. I do not suggest gifts of the birthday or holiday variety that sometimes come wrapped in fancy paper and trimmed with curly ribbons. Instead, I refer to the kind of gifts that take years to recognize and appreciate and often come in the form of lessons in tolerance, compassion and service to humanity. Many of these special gifts I have received from my late paternal uncle, Frederick Cox, the most able man I have ever known.My “Uncle Freddie” was born on October 5, 1922 in Spring Glen, N.Y., a small town in Sullivan County, where my grandparents, Willet and Edith Cox, owned a small farm. Freddie was the second of the eight children born to my grandmother and grandfather. By all accounts, my uncle enjoyed a healthy, normal childhood until, in 1930, at the age of eight, he began to complain of pain in his legs. Realizing that he also had a high fever, my grandmother called the doctor. Shortly thereafter, Freddie was diagnosed with poliomyelitis, commonly called polio, a sometimes crippling, infectious viral disease of the central nervous system. The doctor placed the house under quarantine and recommended that my grandmother start a form of treatment initialized by an Australian nurse, Elizabeth Kenney, in which moist heat was coupled with special physical therapy to stimulate the muscles and to relieve the pain. Because no effective drug had been developed at this time, treatment was entirely symptomatic. Dr. Jonas Salk did not develop the polio vaccine until 1954. With four other children to tend to and a farm to help run, my grandmother did what she could to help her son but, as Freddie’s condition deteriorated and he no longer had full use of his legs, it was decided that he would go to the rehabilitation hospital in Haverstraw, now known as The Helen Hayes Hospital for Rehabilitation, for more extensive treatment. It was at the rehabilitation hospital that my uncle met a childless couple by the name of Anderson from Middletown, N.Y. As my grandparents could not provide the care Freddie needed, the Andersons took him into their home and cared for him until he was 15. During this time Freddie attended school and the Andersons helped him get the appropriate aid needed for him to go to the Reconstruction Home in Ithaca, N.Y. The Reconstruction Home of Ithaca was established in 1920 by a woman named Mary Hibbard. Hibbard saw a need to care for the many children afflicted with polio. She opened her home and began to practice what was, at the time, a unique concept in rehabilitation. Her course of treatment consisted mainly of daily physical and occupational therapy. Hibbard started the home with 4 children and financed the endeavor personally. With the help of friends assist with the therapy and to care for the children, and volunteers from the community to organize fund raising activities, the Reconstruction Home continued to grow. By 1937, when Freddie entered the program, the home had 52 patients. With the decline in the number of cases of polio after the 1950’s, the Reconstruction Home continued and continues today to care for people with all types of physical disabilities and is presently a 120 bed facility. Freddie lived at the Reconstruction Home from 1937 until 1943. During his time there he earned his high school diploma, a program that was then being offered at the facility, and participated in the many other training programs and activities that were also being offered. He earned several merit badges through the Boy Scouts of America, an organization which he believed in wholeheartedly and held in high esteem. Aside from working on his education, Freddie worked continually with the physical therapists that the home now employed. Although he received his high school diploma in 1941, Freddie stayed at the Reconstruction Home for two more years while he was trained to run the concession stand operated by the home. It was there also that Freddie met the two people who were most instrumental in helping him to continue his career beyond the home, the superintendent of the Reconstruction Home, Larry Gaurnier, a dedicated humanitarian, and Irving Knox, a businessman from Newburgh, N.Y., whose daughter was also a patient. Mr. Knox worked for the local newspaper in Newburgh and was involved in several civic and charitable organizations including the Kiwanis Club and The March of Dimes.
The March of Dimes is a voluntary health organization that was founded in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to direct and unify the fight against polio. Public contributions to The March of Dimes finance the research leading to the development of the polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk and the oral vaccine by the medical researcher Albert Bruce Sabin. The vaccines have almost eradication polio as a public-health problem. As a result, the efforts of The March of Dimes are now concentrated on the problem of birth defects in infants. However, before the 1950’s, when the foundation’s efforts were still concentrated on aiding victims of polio, The March of Dimes facilitated a program in which polio victims could receive monies to help them start businesses. Mr Gaurnier and Mr. Knox helped them start businesses. Mr. Gaurnier and Mr. Knox helped Freddie make the necessary contacts and he received $500.00 to open a variety store in Newburgh. Members of the Kiwanis Club, the organization to which Mr. Knox was affiliated, helped to set up the store. The Kiwanis Club, founded in 1915 by Allen Simpson Browne and Joseph G. Prance, is a civic organization devoted to human service.In 1943, Freddie, with a rented space, opened his variety store on lower South Street in the city of Newburgh, across from St. Mary’s Church. The rental also provided an apartment in which Freddie could live. It was at this time that Freddie’s sister, Helen and brother, Raymond came from Sullivan County to help him run the store and to got to school. Freddie prospered and, in a few short years, he was able to repay his loan to The March of Dimes and to purchase a large house with an adjoining lot jues up the street from the original store. There, he ran the store out of the back porch of the house until my father, Willet also came from the farm in Sullivan County. Together my father and my Uncle Ray built a new store with an attached apartment on the vacant lot. By the early 1950’s, Freddie had brought all of his siblings and his parents to Newburgh. He provided his family with opportunity, they became his legs.
My elders tell me that the city of Newburgh was still safe and beautiful in the 1950’s but, I can only assume this through photographs. My earliest recollections of the area did not start until the mid 1960’s when the city had already started its decline from grandeur. But, even so, how bad could anything seem to a child sitting inside of a big oak and glass case filled with jars of penny candy. This is my earliest memory of Uncle Freddie’s store. The store where I learned so many things. Not only the obvious things like how to count change back and how to order stock but, I learned a lot about life and I learned a lot about my Uncle Freddie.
After my grandfather died in 1956, Uncle Freddie shared the apartment behind the store with my grandmother. Except for requiring some help to get in and out of the bathtub, Freddie could take care of all his personal needs. He was a small man in size and he sat in a small wheelchair that he still had from his time at the Reconstruction Home. Because by this time he only had the use of his right arm, a wooden arm rest was now attached to the left side of his wheelchair so he could write more easily. And write he did. He always kept his own books and calculated his own taxes. I remember being amazed while watching him ten to his carefully kept ledgers. Uncle Freddie loved numbers and expanded his knowledge of accounting by taking courses at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh. At Orange County Community College he obtained his Insurance Broker’s license and sold car insurance out of the store. What my uncle lacked in physical capabilities he made up for in intellect. He opened his store by 6 o’clock each morning and closed the store each evening. As he serviced his customers he made change from a manually operated coin counter that he wore strapped to his waist. He kept the bills in his shirt pocket secured with a rubber band. He managed his money to the penny and, as he as a devoutly religious man, gave 10% of his earnings to his place of worship. Uncle Freddie did everything by the book.The quality I remember most about my uncle Freddie however, was his kindness, his gentle nature and his love for all people. I worked at the store on and off in my high school years. I don’t think I ever heard Uncle Freddie complain or ever saw him angry. In fact, more often than not, what I witnessed was his extraordinary tolerance of his family, friends and the people who patronized his store. He even helped some of them by homes or he would lend money if he learned that someone was having a hard time. His charisma earned him the title “The Mayor of South Street”. He told me that he always tried to give back what was once given to him. He did. Tenfold.
During a conversation I had with my Uncle Ray, while researching this paper, he said to me, “You know, throughout my life, even during the hardest times, I’d think of your Uncle Freddie and somehow, nothing really seemed that bad or worth complaining about”. As I pondered his words I realized that this was true of all my father’s family. They never seemed to complain about anything. I think more than most of us they had a deep sense of how much they had to be thankful for. Not because they did not have disabilities like their brother Freddie but, because they had a brother like Freddie. As my late father often averred; “If it wasn’t’ for Fred, none of us would be where we are today”. I too, believe this to be the truth.
In 1975 lower South Street was the hub of the Newburgh racial riots. Sadly, although my uncle Freddie was a friend to many of the African-American families who lived in the neighborhood of his store, this did not stop the frequent barrage of rocks from being thrown through the store windows. An ordeal that I know caused him a great deal of pain. After 32 years in business, at the urging of his family, Freddie agreed to sell his store. He went to live with Aunt Helen and my grandmother came to live with us, across the street from Aunt Helen. Uncle Freddie remained active in his religious studies, but after a few years his health began to fail. Another trip to Helen Hayes Hospital for evaluation determined that his muscles had deteriorated so much that there was nothing that could be done. He would now have to reside full time again in a nursing facility which he did until his death in 1990.My Uncle Freddie was truly an inspiration to my entire family and to many others who had the good fortune to cross his path. Frequently, in the nine years since he has been gone, he comes to mind. Each time I see a cashier struggling to make change without the aid of a computer or, realizing that people in wheelchairs don’t cause me to suffer the discomfort that some people feel, I silently thank my Uncle Freddie for his gifts. I am a better person because of his gifts to me and hopefully, as a teacher, I will have the opportunity to pass them on someday.
Throughout this course dealing with Special Needs Learners, we have discussed many way in which the lives of people with disabilities can be enriched. As I researched this paper, I was struck by how many of the philosophies and practice of current government mandated programs in job training, vocational rehabilitation, and life centered career planning actually were initiated as early as the 1930’s. My Uncle Freddie reaped the benefits of what such initiatives can provide for people with disabilities. The uniqueness of his situation was that rather than his best interest being mandated by a government agency, my uncle as able to thrive due to the innate generosity of humankind. Although I realize that mandatory legislation is a necessity in our society, it is this innate human generosity that I believe is what makes the greatest differences in our lives.
Note: The Reconstruction Home in Ithaca is getting ready for its 80 years anniversary celebration. Through contacts made while researching this paper, my family and I have been cordially invited to attend and I was asked to share some of the memorabilia my uncle saved from his time there. I have included some of this saved memorabilia as a point of interest in this paper. [The memorabilia mention here is distributed above.]
Bibliography available upon request.