May 11 2017 02:53 AM

Former teacher’s 90th birthday stirs tales of Michigan School for the Blind

Michigan’s School for the Blind closed in the mid-1990s, leaving a lot of untold stories.

Not all of the students were completely blind. Many had partial or peripheral vision and used this gift shrewdly. They deliberately dropped pencils in English lit class so they could bend over and check out Miss Manning’s legs.

Alumnus J.J. Jackson flashed a smile after spilling the beans at a dinner party in the back of Coral Gables restaurant Thursday.

Seated directly across from Jackson was Ann Manning herself, in a skirt that barely covered her knees, celebrating her 90th birthday with a dozen former students and colleagues.

The teacher dealt Jackson a quick air kick under the table.

“I still have nice legs,” she said. In its heyday from the 1920s to the 1960s, the Michigan School for the Blind, on Lansing's northwest side, bustled with nearly 300 students from around the state.

The school held classes in all K-12 subjects, from art to shop to athletics, until education for visually and hearing impaired students were mainstreamed.

Many students lived on campus, adding to a unique camaraderie that was still obvious as Manning and her admirers dove into their lasagna and birthday cake.

Nicknames were a big deal at the school.

Many students and staff had several. One of Miss Manning’s was frosted on her cake.

“We called her Guinevere because she was like Queen Guinevere in Camelot, so graceful and light,” Jackson said.

The other one we’ll get to in a minute. Bill Meyers wrestled at the school in the late ‘60s, just after it snagged Class B wrestling championships in 1961 and 1963. Meyers is burly, shaven-headed and gruff — and pushing 70 — but is still careful to say “Miss Manning.”

“She ran a tight ship,” Meyers said. “She knew what she was doing. She threw me out in the hall a couple times.”

Another wrestler, Jim Oudsema of Holt, attended the school in the mid-‘60s.

“Miss Manning liked her job, and that enthusiasm rubbed off,” he said. “Her and Joe were my favorite teachers.”

“Joe” is Joe Toth of Okemos, 79, who sat next to Oudsema at the party. Toth joined the teaching staff in the fall of 1962, with only two years of experience in the classroom.

“Suddenly I’m supposed to know how to teach the blind,” he said.

Grading exams in braille was only part of the challenge.

“I knew nothing,” he said. “I learned it all on the job.”

He and Manning got along well, even though he was a liberal-leaning government teacher and she had a religious, conservative worldview. (Toth grew a beard in the mid- ‘60s and almost got fired for it.)

“Remarkable lady, professional in all respects,” Toth said of his former colleague. “She provided a lot of motherly advice to these kids — what’s the term? In loco parentis.”

Toth had a blast wrestling with the students, but he never got the best of Oudsema.

“Jim — he was a 127 pounder, and pound for pound — he used to mop the floor with me,” Toth said.

Toth waved at another former School for the Blind student, Larry Powell, further down the table.

“Larry, who was about 20 pounds more — I could do better with him.”

Powell, a retired teacher and wrestling coach, went to the school from 1962 to 1964, the school’s wrestling glory years. His class was a “rowdy” group of 10 boys and one girl.

“Miss Manning had our number,” Powell said. “She knew what we were thinking before we were thinking it.”

While reading Homer’s “Odyssey,” one of Powell’s classmates dubbed Manning “Old One Eye,” after the Cyclops, because of her watchful gaze.

“She understood we weren’t bad kids, just goofy,” he said. “We had every type of character, but she rolled with it. Some teachers would have had a real problem with us.”

There’s a reason Manning dealt so well with willful kids. It takes one to know one.

In a brief quiet spell between birthday wishes, Manning proudly called herself a “kindergarten dropout.”

After four weeks of kindergarten at Bingham Elementary on Lansing’s east side, where Manning grew up, she persuaded her parents to pull her from school.

“I couldn’t stand sleeping on those rugs when I had a good bed at home I could take a nap on,” she said. “And holding hands with a stranger to take a walk — that wasn’t my idea of an education.”

She went to Nazareth College in Kalamazoo, liked the teachers there and decided that career was for her. She taught stenography and English at a nursing school in Kankakee, Ill., and came back to Lansing to attend special education classes at MSU. The superintendent of the School for the Blind offered her a job.

“I snapped it up,” she said. “I knew it would be a challenge.”

Manning’s most famous student was Motown icon Stevie Wonder, who had just hit it big with “Fingertips” when he enrolled in the School for the Blind in 1963.

J.J. Jackson became close friends with Wonder. The two are still in frequent touch. Jackson credits Manning with keeping Wonder in school despite a relentless touring schedule.

“He was a good student,” Manning said. Getting an education when a 600-page Braille book takes up the better part of a tabletop is not easy. If you are a touring Motown sensation, the difficulties are almost insurmountable.

“The Detroit schools told him he had to choose to either be a student or pursue his musician dreams,” Jackson said. “He was told he could not have both.”

Working with a traveling tutor, Manning got approval from the school superintendent and worked out a curriculum that focused on one subject at a time.

“That’s how we got him through high school,” Manning said.

Manning’s whip-cracking wrist is still in trim. When Jackson told Manning he is working on a book about his friendship with Wonder, she asked him when it would be finished. Pleading computer problems, he told her it had taken him eight months just to get to Chapter 7.

Manning cocked an eye and told Jackson she’d heard he had a ghostwriter helping him.

“Sounds like he’s more ghost than writer,” she cracked.

Jackson enrolled in the school in kindergarten in 1955, after an operation to correct a cleft palate went wrong, causing him to become blind. He graduated in 1968 and went on to a successful career as an academic at MSU, executive for Amoco and advocate for the disabled.

“She gave her students so much love and confidence, and that’s why we were able to go on in our adult life and do so well,” Jackson said.

Meanwhile, a kindly-looking woman with a white cane sidled between the tables to greet Manning. Alumna Henrietta Brewer got the nickname “Hickory” at the school, although she doesn’t remember why.

On her first day at the School for the Blind, she fell in love with another student, Dan Brewer. They were in eighth grade. He squinted at her from across the room, owing to his sensitivity to light.

“It looked like he was smiling at me, and I decided he was,” Brewer said.

They were married for 47 years and had four kids. He died in 2014.

Henrietta said her husband was a kind, generous man, owing largely to “an MSB upbringing.”

Manning spotted an opening for one more quip.

“That stands for My Sight is Bad,” Old One-Eye said.