In Memoriam: Mary Jane “M.J.” Hills Schmitt
by Mary Beth Metzger
A charter ACB member and a founding ACBNY member has fought her last battle. In the early morning of Friday, Jan. 12, M.J. Schmitt, 86, died peacefully in Florida after a long illness. Throughout her life M.J. worked tirelessly to ensure that all persons who are blind could enjoy the same opportunities in education, employment and social status as their sighted peers. M.J. gave unstintingly of her time and knowledge, investing in the younger generations who are leading ACB today.
In the 1950s and 1960s, well before the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, M.J. was competitively employed as a secretary, raising two children, on the board of directors at the Association for the Blind of Rochester (New York, now ABVI) and was traveling extensively. She pursued her life and work goals relentlessly, often at considerable cost. Despite her crowded schedule, M.J. always took time to talk with others, particularly with young blind people, and, whenever possible, to convince them to spend an afternoon assisting with her latest project.
It was not enough for M.J. to succeed as an individual. Her personal successes never caused her to become complacent or to minimize the formidable barriers facing all blind people. She consistently did her best to remove those barriers for others, as well as for herself. In her determination to move forward M.J. never forgot the people who remained on the fringes, like the woman who was imprisoned in a room as a child just because she was blind. Both personally and as part of an organization, M.J. did her best to ensure that other blind people would not suffer similar isolation and abuse.
After working in the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) for several years, M.J. and others reluctantly abandoned the NFB and formed the ACB in 1961. For the next 50 years M.J. would attend every national convention, at first with her young children and later alone. At those conventions she worked hard, always dressed professionally and still managed to spend many hours socializing with friends. Regardless of how late she stayed up the previous night, M.J. was always on the convention floor the next morning, ready to do battle for the causes she supported. M.J. had very definite opinions on most subjects, and she was not hesitant in expressing her views.
In 1976, after an extensive and often frustrating job search, M.J. left her native Rochester, N.Y. to accept a job as a computer programmer at the Sears Tower in Chicago. One part of M.J.’s preparation for the move to Chicago was to train at Guiding Eyes for the Blind with Alice, the first of her several guide dogs. Together M.J. and her dogs navigated the busy streets of Chicago and traveled throughout the United States on behalf of ACB. Later M.J. would also serve on the graduate council for Guiding Eyes and would travel on their behalf as well.
During these trips M.J. was never without a small booklet listing each state’s laws pertaining to guide dog access. When a limousine driver refused to transport M.J. and her guide dog from the Chicago airport, she filed suit against the company, having exhausted all lesser means of redress. The complaint was eventually resolved in M.J.’s favor. M.J. did not seek conflict, but she never flinched from ensuring that her rights and the rights of others were considered.
Whether she was enjoying drinks with friends, selling tickets for a fund-raiser, speaking at a convention or cheering for her beloved Dodgers, M.J. plunged wholeheartedly into each task. She often stressed the need for each person to give back to the community and to help others whenever possible, and she did her best to follow these principles. M.J. remained a loyal friend, a formidable opponent and a staunch supporter of the democratic process.
If M.J. were reading this article now, she would be growing impatient. After all, there is still so much more work to be done.
As we pay tribute to M.J. personally, locally and nationally, let us continue the legacy of compassion, perseverance and fortitude that she exhibited throughout the years. Let’s not neglect to spend time with our friends either, both having fun and exchanging ideas. That, too, is part of the M.J. Schmitt legacy.
A memorial service for M.J. Schmitt will be held in Rochester, N.Y. at a date to be determined. Condolences can be addressed to Jeffhills58@hotmail.com.
In lieu of flowers, contributions in memory of M.J. Schmitt may be sent to ACB for the Angel Memorial Tribute program. Address to: ACB Treasurer; 6300 Shingle Creek Pkwy., Suite 195, Brooklyn Center, MN 55430; or call 1-800-866-3242.
M.J. Schmitt, standing on stage behind the lectern microphone, presides over the Tuesday session at the 2002 ACB national convention in Houston, Texas. She sports a deep purple shirt, purple earrings, and a gold pendant necklace.