When Pat and Dale Wolthoff meet someone new, they can’t see their skin color, tattoos, piercings, hair styles, clothes, deformities – or whatever else distinguishes individuals. Married for 35 years, the Waltoffs have been blind from birth. Instead of, as the adage goes, “judging a book by its cover,” the Waltoffs focus on voice, manners, intellect and compassion before sizing up a new acquaintance. “We’re very attuned to people’s personalities instead of the way they look,” says Pat. She believes that if there is a benefit to being blind, that is it.
The Waltoffs met at a New Year’s Eve party in Chicago in the mid 1970s. He was 44; she was 32. They shared a taxi back to her place. He walked her to the door and kissed her good night. She says she knew then that she wanted to marry Dale. They were married two years later.
Although they came from very different backgrounds, Pat and Dale had their blindness in common – and the fact that they worked full time in a sighted world. She worked at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for 17 years, while he worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 26 years. They decided to retire a few years ago in Columbia, where he knew one family, because it was a milder climate than Chicago. Essentially, the Waltoffs started over with friends, family and becoming familiar with their surroundings.
For each of them, resiliency and independence began when they entered a school for the blind. Pat, who was premature and given too much oxygen as a preemie, was raised in a foster home. She was taken to a boarding school for the blind at age 7 where she learned that she would be able to function productively in a sighted world despite what her foster parents taught her.
Dale, who suffered as an infant from congenital glaucoma and underwent an unsuccessful surgery for it, was brought up in a supportive family with four siblings. They lived on a farm, where Dale learned to ride a bike, milk cows, collect eggs, climb trees and even ride a horse. “Everyone in my family was supportive, and I got into the same kind of trouble and suffered the same kinds of consequences as my siblings.”
When it was time for him to attend a boarding school for the blind at age 5, his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles showed up. “They were all crying because it was 125 miles away. But I was fine.”
Both Pat and Dale were able to return home during breaks. Dave’s experiences resumed on the farm, while Pat says that her foster family focused on her blindness as a handicap instead of what they consider it: a nuisance. “My foster parents wouldn’t introduce me as Pat, but instead as their blind foster daughter.”
Dale Wolthoff plays piano while Pat, his wife, sings along.
Being at schools for the blind leveled the playing fields for both Pat and Dale. They learned to compete with others in a variety of ways. Pat was introduced to drama and voice, both of which she still enjoys, while Dale learned how to play the piano. Pat’s girl’s quartet once performed for the governor of Illinois, and the group had an opportunity to sing in public. Dale’s skills with the piano eventually landed him jobs playing professionally. Since moving to Columbia he has become involved in the Congaree New Horizon Jazz Band and in a Dixieland band.
“I love to hear him play,” says Pat.
“It’s still a great hobby and great fun,” adds Dale.
What really “opened their eyes” to the world, so to speak, was learning Braille at their schools. “I was taught I couldn’t do anything because I was blind,” says Pat, “but learning Braille gave me confidence.”
Braille is a system that enables blind and partially sighted people to read and write through touch. It was invented by Louis Braille in the 1800s. He was blind and became a teacher of the blind. Braille consists of patterns of raised dots arranged in cells of up to six dots. Each cell represents a letter, numeral or punctuation mark.
(Top) A metallic tag in one of Pat’s dresses describes the item in Braille. (Bottom) Dale enjoys grilling out.
The Waltoffs, who are both actively involved with the National Federation of the Blind through the local chapter on Kilbourne Road, are worried that Braille is in danger of “going away” because of technology. “We feel that if you can’t read Braille, you are illiterate as a blind person,” says Dale. Computers, they point out, are helpful, but they shouldn’t be relied on to do everything for a blind person.
“I have 30 cans in my cupboard right now that have magnetic labels on them in Braille,” says Dale. “Each of my credit cards is in an envelope with a Braille label that has the credit card number, the card name, and the phone number of the credit card company … all that information. Braille is very practical for a blind person.”
In fact, the Waltoffs lives are as much dependent on Braille as a sighted person is dependent on the printed word. Labels on their clothes – to determine style, color, etc. – are in Braille. There are labels all over the Walter’s home on appliances, switches and other items. Friends from church typically go with them to the grocery store. When they return home, friends help them identify the items, and Braille labels are attached.
Both enjoy cooking, and Dale is a master griller. They use a flat top stove – feeling the roughness of the eye for placement of the cookware before turning it on. A special knife guide helps them cut items, while some utensils such as an apple cutter and a tomato slicer make it easier for them to maneuver in the kitchen. Timers enable them to cook for the right amount of time.
Pat laughs when she shares how being blind in the kitchen is not without its foibles. “Once, we ran out of milk, and I thought the juice carton was the milk carton so I made macaroni and cheese with orange juice.” Another time, when they invited guests for dinner, which they do often, Pat says she noticed – by listening –- that no one was eating. When she asked what the problem was, someone mentioned that there was too much oregano in the burgers. The lid had come off and dumped all the oregano on the meat while she was cooking it.
The Waltoffs are not only capable in the kitchen. Pat went to Illinois on her own for nine days in June. She took a plane and then a bus before arriving at her destination. As a couple, they have traveled throughout the United States, to Hawaii, and even enjoyed a cruise. They traveled to Dallas, Texas, in July for the National Convention for the Blind, where the latest tools and gadgets for the blind are on display.
At home in Columbia, she swims at the Drew Wellness Center while he takes their black lab, Faith Joye, on a two mile walk daily. They have 500-plus movies in their collection that are narrated. “We make popcorn and enjoy movies by ourselves or with friends,” says Pat.
They appreciate assistance from others when they are traveling and out and about, but don’t want to be treated with kid gloves. “We feel it’s respectable to be blind,” say Pat. “The only real difference is that we have to do the same things as a sighted person, only do them differently.”
“There are some things we need help with, like reading our mail. We have a reader, but it doesn’t pick up graphics. And, of course, we can’t drive!” Dale says with a laugh.
Dale especially feels like being blind has made him stronger and more determined. “I was proudest of the fact that I moved from my home in Iowa to the big city of Chicago and got a real job. I am very grateful for that and enjoyed meeting a wide variety of people. And, I place more value on that job because I had to work harder to get it and keep it.”
When asked if they would take the gift of sight if given to them for a day, Pat says yes, Dale says no. “I can’t say I miss seeing the sun because I’ve never seen it,” says Dale. “I don’t miss what I’ve never had. I think it’s better to be born blind because you don’t grieve for the thing you can’t do. But if you’ve been able to do it and then it’s taken away … Besides, we’ll be able to see when we get to heaven!”