Morris Frank, ’29, once playfully recalled the time he got a free train ride.
“The conductor told me he had watched me come down the platform, get on the train and take my seat, and he said that no blind man in the world could do that.”
As proof, Frank popped out his artificial eyes and had his guide dog, Buddy, take him to another seat. “The conductor was so shocked he didn’t take my ticket.” Frank later redeemed it for a refund.
Born in Nashville in 1908, Frank lost his right eye at age 6 when he ran into a tree while riding a horse. The left eye was put out when he was 16 during a boxing match at Montgomery Bell Academy, where he attended high school.
The young man enrolled at Vanderbilt, perhaps the first blind college student in the South. He paid his way from wages earned as a piano tuner and later went to work as a salesman for the National Life and Accident Insurance Co.
Despite the support of loving parents (his mother also had been blinded in both eyes in separate incidents), Frank’s frustration drove him to the edge of bitterness. By nature self-reliant, he required a paid helper while attending classes. He was embarrassed by the “talkative, incompatible guide” who accompanied him when he called on business clients. An evening with the opposite sex had to be a double date so he could be steered by a pal’s hand on his arm.
One afternoon in the fall of 1927, Frank’s father read him an article that had just appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. The author, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, described schools in Germany that trained guide dogs for veterans who had lost their vision during World War I. A wealthy American then living in Switzerland, Eustis operated a school that supplied dogs to that nation’s customs and police services, and to the Red Cross.
Her sojourn in Germany led her to think more broadly. She had been impressed by the unusual intelligence and faithfulness of her German shepherd, Hans. Could selective breeding develop such qualities more widely? If so, then why not breed and train dogs to assist blind people?
“I have often thought of this solution for the blind but have never heard of it being put to practical use before,” Frank wrote to Eustis. “I should very much like to forward this work in this country.”
In April 1928, Frank sailed for Europe, accepting Eustis’ invitation to visit her school and see about a guide dog for himself. Because of his disability, he was classified on the ship’s manifest as a parcel. This and restrictions against his movements during the voyage angered him and made him more determined than ever to establish his independence.
At Fortunate Fields, near Vevey in the Swiss Alps, Frank met a beautiful German shepherd dog named Kiss. Frank had imagined striding through downtown Nashville with the help of such an extraordinary animal. Because he couldn’t imagine startling passersby with “Come, Kiss!” he decided to call his new companion Buddy.
The trio and other trainers who were connected with the school worked together for weeks. Frank sometimes stepped on Buddy’s paws, missed her cues, and walked into closed doors. The dog walked patiently at his side, allowing him to falter, fail, then pick up and start over. At the end of the training, Frank could get around Vevey holding tightly to Buddy’s harness.
Frank returned to the United States with a goal of spreading the word about guide dogs. Tipped off by what they assumed would be a sensation, some reporters met his ship at the dock. One cynical newsman challenged Frank and Buddy to cross West Street in the face of treacherous traffic. Frank later recalled:
“I lost all sense of direction and surrendered myself entirely to the dog. … I shall never forget the next three minutes: 10-ton trucks rocketing past, cabs blowing their horns in our ears, drivers shouting at us. When we finally made it to the other side and I realized what an amazing job she had done, I leaned over and gave Buddy a great big hug and told her what a good, good girl she was.”
He quickly dispatched to Eustis a one-word telegram: “SUCCESS!”
Back in Nashville, Frank found that his life had changed forever. People stood amazed as the boy they formerly had pitied was now making his way down busy sidewalks and crossing streets through hurtling traffic. Buddy obeyed Frank except when executing his command would result in harm. If a low-hanging branch was blocking the sidewalk, Buddy would ignore “Forward!” and guide his master around and past it, avoiding a collision.
Frank observed that in the past, people had not known how to strike up a conversation with him. “They did not wish to be rude,” he said. “They just did not know how to bring me in without referring to my blindness. With Buddy there, it was the easiest and most natural thing in the world for them to say, ‘What a lovely dog you have!’
“I can’t put into words what my personal friends and the people of Nashville did. … Nashville accepted the dog into restaurants, on streetcars, and everywhere I went. … It was glorious: just [Buddy] and a leather strap, linking me to life.”
Word of Frank’s success reached Fortunate Fields, and Eustis seized the opportunity. She left Switzerland for America, planning to recruit sponsors and funds for a dog-guide training school here. It incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Nashville in January 1929 as The Seeing Eye and graduated its first class the next month. (Eustis probably drew the name from Proverbs 20:12: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye—the Lord hath made them both.”) Morris Frank, the institution’s managing director, oversaw its day-to-day operations.
The special relationships between dogs and blind people can be traced back as far as ancient Rome. But The Seeing Eye was the first guide-dog school in the modern sense, and Buddy became the forerunner of canine guides for sightless persons in the United States. The Seeing Eye remained in Nashville for two years, then relocated to Morristown, N.J., where Eustis had purchased a 56-acre estate. On its campus the school offered dog training, instructors, housing for all, and living situations where the hard work between students and dogs was carried out day by day.
To publicize The Seeing Eye, Morris Frank traveled throughout the nation, logging 50,000 miles. His stops included the White House, where he and Buddy were received by presidents Coolidge and Hoover. Frank’s philosophy, he told his hearers, was “to fight the tyranny the blind impose on themselves—self-pity—and to teach them how to see, with their minds.” Buddy barked warmly at the applause from audiences.
When Buddy died in May 1938, she was hailed as a national heroine. By that year The Seeing Eye had trained 350 dogs to lead blind people in America. Even as his heart was broken, Morris Frank requested another dog, which was a benefit The Seeing Eye extended to blind people whose animals die in service.
On the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, The Seeing Eye’s board of trustees resolved that Seeing Eye dogs would be supplied, without charge, to members of “the armed forces who lose their sight in the line of duty.” Morris Frank and “Buddy II” enlisted in this effort, touring Army, Navy and Veterans Administration hospitals.
Dorothy Eustis retired as president of The Seeing Eye in 1940. Wartime shortages of manpower hit the institution hard. Yet the work of Eustis, Frank and able associates carried on. Eventually, a puppy raising club was begun in association with 4-H Clubs of New Jersey, and further acreage was added for the raising of German shepherds.
Morris Frank and “Buddy III” visited President Truman at the White House in 1949. In 1960 the school held its 500th graduation, honoring 2,600 people who had come through the program. In 1978 Morris Frank became the first person to reach the half-century mark as a Seeing Eye dog user.
This visionary man died Nov. 22, 1980. Since his time, guide-dog schools have opened all around the world, and thousands of people know what Morris Frank meant when he said, “One of these extraordinary animals could be the answer to my prayers.”
A reporter visiting The Seeing Eye once noted: “Often a person without sight arrives with stooped and tentative shuffle. In the month that follows, he or she comes to ‘see’ through a dog. … He learns to care for and to love the companion that will seldom leave his side until death.”
“When I came to The Seeing Eye, I had little interest in life,” one graduate wrote. “Now my dog has done what I never thought could be done: She has made me over mentally.”
In 2005 a statue of Morris Frank and Buddy by J. Seward Johnson was dedicated in Morristown. This year, 2010, The Seeing Eye celebrated its 15,000th graduate.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Courtesy of The Seeing Eye
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.