Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: July 1991 Volume 29 Number 3, Pages 111–116

Royer-Greaves School for Blind

Robert J. Bell

Page 111

The Royer-Greaves School for Blind is a very unique school. It is unique in that it deals with children who are not only blind, but have additional handicaps as well. All of our children are mentally retarded along with their blindness. In some cases they are blind and mentally retarded and also victims of cerebral palsy; others are blind, mentally retarded and have a hearing loss.

To know the history of the school one should first know about its founder. Dr. Jessie Royer Greaves was a remarkable woman. From the very beginning she was destined to become one who would lead a distinguished and honored life.

She was born on September 9, 1874 in the town of Trappe, Pa., into a well educated family of modest means. Her father was Dr. Joseph Warren Royer and her mother was Anna Herbert Royer.

She had three brothers and a sister, and the family was a gifted and musical one. At one time there was a family orchestra, which played not only for church events but also could and did give an entire evening's performace for other organizations in the county.

Jessie Royer attended the St. Luke's Reformed Church in Trappe, across the street from her parents' home. There she served as a teacher in the Sunday School, took part in the Christian Endeavor, and sang in the choir. Her days were filled with happiness, fishing in the Perkiomen Creek and going to parties with friends -- but she especially liked to talk.

Page 112

In an era when most women went right from high school -- if they even finished high school -- into motherhood, raising families, and taking care of the home, she wanted to become educated as her father and grandfathers had been. (Her Grandfather Royer was an Associate Justice of Montgomery County, and her Grandfather Herbert was the comptroller of the Philadelphia Public Schools.)

Growing up in such an intellectual atmosphere, it was only natural that she would go to college too -- and she did, graduating from Ursinus College in Collegeville in 1892, although back in the "Gay Nineties" higher education for women was not as universally accepted as it is today. At graduation she gave the commencement address, and it is not surprising to kow that her topic was "The Higher Education of Women".

After graduation from Ursinus she had a great desire to seek a life of public speaking, so she enrolled in the Emerson College of Oratory, in Boston, graduating in 1901. During the years between Ursinus and Emerson she was known for giving speeches and entertaining audiences with stories and tales of her day and her time.

But her plans changed while attending Emerson College. Dr. Emerson, one of the founders of the school, aroused in her an interest in working with the blind. She visited the Overbrook School for Blind, and was persuaded to abandon her public speaking career to teach. She taught declamation and physical expression at Overbrook for twenty-five years, from 1902 to 1927.

During her years at Overbrook she became quite distressed because many children who were not only blind but suffered other handicaps as well were not accepted at the Overbrook school. In the early 1920s mental testing was introduced for children with defective handicaps, and many children suffering blindness, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, or hearing loss were not acceptable in any state-funded programs. They were considered "untrainable", and therefore simply discarded into mental institutions by society.

Jessie Royer Greaves saw nothing but the best in many of these people, yet at Overbrook she saw them being rejected because of their mental defects. It was then that she decided to start her own school.

Jessie Royer had become Jessie Royer Greaves in 1905, when she married a young aspiring artist named Henry Eugene Greaves. They had fourteen wonderful years together before Henry Greaves died in 1919. (Today many of his original oil paintings adorn the walls of Royer-Greaves School.)

Eighteen months after her husband's death, in 1921 Jessie Royer Greaves, with the help of her mother, opened her school in their home in Strafford. She named it the ROYER-GREAVES SCHOOL FOR BLIND in honor of her father and her husband.

Page 113

The first school at Strafford

The first pupil she took in was a blind, mentally retarded young girl of 13, who weighed a mere 56 pounds. She had to be taught all her functions -- how to bite, how to chew, how to brush her teeth, how to wash her face and body, how to hold utensils -- things we all take for granted. Jessie Royer Greaves felt that such children were trainable -- and many of them were. Within a month a second student was enrolled, a young boy from New Jersey, and within a year both of them were functioning far more normally than anyone would have expected.

During the summer months the new school also harbored all the homeless children from the Overbrook School; one year there were twenty-eight of them. The school soon outgrew its surroundings and building in Strafford, and in 1922 a larger house was purchased, in King of Prussia. [The house is still standing, right in the center of King of Prussia, but unfortunately it is now identified as the "Adult Movie House."]

The school remained at King of Prussia for nineteen years. During this period the mortgage, whatever it was, was paid off and two additions were made to the house, to accommodate more pupils. And during these years, incidentally, there was no public funding coming in from anywhere to support its programs; Jessie Greaves did all this on her own and with a few friends who wanted to help out.

The second location at King of Prussia

Page 114

The "mansion house" of the school in Paoli

By 1941 the King of Prussia property could no longer serve the number of children in her "brood". The house there was sold, and a move made to a small estate on South Valley Road in Paoli, where the school is still located.

The new property consisted of five buildings, situated on 12.7 acres of land, and was "out in the country" in those days. The mansion house had three full floors, which housed the children and staff, the offices, and the dining area. A smaller house was used by the caretaker and his family. A third building, the carriage house, became the garage for the vehicle and mower equipment, while a fourth structure, a small building, was used for storage. The fifth building, also a small building "outback", which had been a playhouse for the Hoopes children before the property was sold, became the Cub Scout House for the school's Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops.

In 1943 the school incorporated as a non-profit organization, recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a charitable organization, with tax exemption privileges.

The school continued to thrive, and more pupils were enrolled. In 1948 a farm was purchased at Gum Tree, just outside of Coatesville. The property had 100 acres and several buildings. Here Dr. Greaves began a junior unit. The estate was named Peyton Hall, in honor of John C. Peyton, one of the school's early benefactors who had helped it through many hard times. The Paoli facility now housed the senior students, while the younger ones were at the Peyton Hall estate.

During these years the student enrollment grew to 85. It was the largest enrollment the school had ever had.

In 1960 it was decided to build a new junior unit back at the Paoli property. When it was completed, sometime during that year, all the children were again brought "under one roof", as Dr. Greaves had wanted them to be for some time. The Gum Tree property was eventually sold.

Page 115

In the fall of 1962 a large 12-room single home, built in 1906, just north of the school property, was purchased by the school as a residence hall, and continued to be used as such until September of last year.

A year later, in the fall of 1963, Dr. Greaves' long-awaited dream of having a gymnasium, so greatly needed for the fullest physical development of her children, was realized. The building also included a stage, where many school programs could now be presented. When the building was completed it was simply called the Activities Building and not given a name.

The fall of 1966 brought an addition of a library wing on the classroom building. It was named in memory of Walter Sherman Perry, formerly the school's comptroller, who had died in 1959. Before that there was no library, although several books had been donated to the school. We now have a complete library in Braille. (Unfortunately, at the present time there is only one person in the school who is able to read Braille. Back in the '40s, '50s, and '60s the school had many higher-functioning children; today there are only lower-functioning children, who are not capable of learning Braille or using a Braille typewriter.)

The spring of 1967 also saw the completion of a large, enclosed and heated swimming pool, added to the back of the Activities Building. It has been a God-send to the school. Many of the children enjoy swimming and can do things with their bodies in the water. It's like music. We also have a great deal of music in the school, and have some very talented piano players.

Dr. Jessie Royer Greaves passed away at her beloved school, on August 21, 1967, at the age of 93. She was succeeded by Anne C. Perry, whose association with the school began in 1939. She became the Executive Director of the school in 1975. (When Mrs. Perry retired last September, I became the Executive Director.)

During her lifetime Dr. Greaves received numerous honors and recognition. In 1926 she received the Distinguished Service Medal of the Norristown Kiwanis "for the most unselfish service done in Montgomery County". In 1938 she received the Isaacher Hoopes Eldridge Citation of Emerson College "for character and service". In 1939 Ursinus College bestowed on her an Honorary Degree as Doctor of Pedagogy. In 1950 she was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania. In 1954 she was presented the Fame Award by a group representing six hundred women's clubs in the Philadelphia area, and was also named Woman of the Year of Chester County.

Lion Hall, a residence for boys, was completed in 1971. It was named Lion Hall because the local Lions' Club was very instrumental in donating money towards the construction of the building. Today it is the dormitory for all the students.

And in 1984 the former junior unit, built in 1960, was completely renovated and air-conditioned. It now houses all classrooms, and also the kitchen and a large, spacious, well-lighted dining room.

Page 116

The school has had a declining enrollment for the past 20 years. When I came here in 1978 there were 45 students. Today there are eight students and eight clients, a total of 16. One of the principal reasons for the decline, of course, is a greater recognition by society of the need to provide broader special education programs for handicapped children of school age who are considered educable. As it was with the very first students at the school, today's students are thus basically children who are trainable rather than educable, able to learn only how to take care of themselves.

The distinction between "students" and "clients" also reflects a change in the school's program. The eight "students" are children under 21 years of age, and are funded under the Department of Education. The eight "clients" are persons over 21 and over school age, in a program licensed by the Department of Welfare.

In July of 1989 the school received a license from the Department of Welfare to operate a vocational-residential program for persons over 21 forfurther advancement in whatever trainable education the school could give them. The school commenced the program in July 1990 with seven clients, one of whom, incidentally, had been a student at the school up to the time he reached the age of 21 six years ago. Since last July another client has been added.

Funding for these students and clients amounts to about 85% of the total budget. The difference is made up by fund-raising efforts and contributions we receive.

Plans for the future are expected to include building renovations to implement this newest program of providing a residence and activity program for the multi-handicapped individuals who are beyond school age.

At the same time, the Royer-Greaves School for Blind continues its residential program of instruction and training for multi-handicapped blind school age persons, thus continuing to function as an approved school under the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Drawings by Franklin Wandless
from the Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly
October 1957


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