In Memoriam: Winifred Downing

by Frank Welte

Reprinted with permission from “The Blind Californian,” Summer 2016.
 
Winifred Downing passed away peacefully on the morning of April 2, 2016. She was a leader in the blind community for many years, and she has been a mentor and an inspiration to many of us. As a teacher she transmitted her knowledge of and love for braille to her students. She was a tireless advocate for braille.
 
I first made Win’s acquaintance on a shuttle bus ride during a convention of the American Council of the Blind in 1991 or 1992. I had numerous opportunities to interact with Winifred during the following two decades of our mutual involvement with the California Council of the Blind. On April 11, I shared in a moving and joyful funeral service with perhaps 200 family members and friends in her parish church in San Francisco, where she was a beloved member.
 
As I now fill the position of president of the San Francisco Chapter of CCB where she led and served for many years, I hope I can continue to preserve her legacy of advocacy, caring, leading and teaching into the future.
 
You can read her love-filled, life-filled obituary, originally published in “The San Francisco Chronicle” at www.legacy.com/obituaries/sfgate/obituary.aspx?n=winifred-downing&pid=17....
 
The following is a sampling of the many tributes for Winifred shared in the days immediately preceding and following her passing.
 
“Winifred taught me about advocacy, just by her example.  I wish her a peaceful passing.  She has been so frail for so long.  I hope our chapter or the LightHouse will do something in her memory.   She is surrounded by her very loving family.  She is in my thoughts.  What an amazing life she has had and all the love she gave and was given.”
— Beth Berenson, San Francisco chapter and GDUC
 
“Thank you all for sharing your warm thoughts. I have compiled them and emailed them to Winifred’s daughter, Eileen.  I know it will be of comfort as it was of comfort to me. Charlie [Dorris] and I spent some time with Winifred and her eldest daughter, who is a nurse, today.  Winifred was asleep our entire visit and her breathing was labored but she looked at peace. Her daughter told us that Winifred said …, ‘My children and grandchildren are well, I have lived a good life and ready to go.’ She is going as she wanted, with her mind intact and at home. I thanked Winifred for being an inspiration to me and to many students, and for making a significant difference in my life. It is my hope she heard me. I’ve told her before, but she didn’t seem to ever believe me, but at least the family now knows what difference she has made.”
— Ellie Lee, Teacher of the Visually Impaired and Orientation and Mobility Instructor, San Francisco Unified School District; San Francisco chapter
 
“Winifred Downing, one of the true giants of the California Council of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, passed away peacefully at 3:45 this morning. Advocate, mentor, leader, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, and so much more are words that barely scratch the surface when it comes to Win. She worked so incredibly hard to improve the lives of persons who are blind or have low vision. She also cared deeply about her family, and the ACB and CCB families, and showed it with her love for so many of us.”
— Jeff Thom, ACB first vice president and California Council of the Blind president
 
“She will be missed indeed. I truly will miss our chats that she and I have had throughout the years. May the Lord be with the family during this difficult time.”
— Sylvia Lopez, Fresno chapter
 
“This is truly a sad day for CCB and ACB with such a loss. She wouldn’t want us to mourn. Let’s all show our respect and pitch in just a little more to keep the CCB and ACB as the great organizations she helped them to become. RIP Win.”
— Sharlene Ornelas, director elect, CCB board; San Diego chapter and GDUC
 
“I first met Winifred when I joined the blindness movement in 1974 as a young person just learning about advocacy. I was in the same chapter as Winifred, who was one of my strongest mentors for several years, teaching me why it was so important to advocate, how to calmly present topics of importance pertaining to blindness to others, and most important, the reason to continue always fighting for braille.
 
On the home front, Winifred was extremely talented in her activities in her homemaker responsibilities, and was a great mom.
 
Winifred was also a super teacher as she worked for Hadley and had so much energy with everything she did. We must not forget that Winifred was also involved on the CCB resolutions committee for a long period of time.
 
I will personally miss Winifred so much and will always recall our times together and our many conversations. Best to Winifred’s family with deepest sympathy. She is once again at peace as she was while working on all the projects she put herself into at 100 percent without ever taking away from her family.”
— Ken Metz, president, Greater Los Angeles chapter; president, Guide Dog Users of California
 
“The San Francisco Chapter has suffered a great loss with the passing of Winifred. I will miss her tremendously. Among her other talents, she was a great mentor to many people. On a personal note, Win was very encouraging and supportive of all my activities with the San Francisco Chapter and the CCB. She was especially proud of me when I was hired with the City and County of San Francisco. I will never forget all the conversations that I had with Win. Words cannot express the loss that I am feeling right now. My condolences go out to her family. Rest in peace, Winifred.”
— Peter Pardini, California Council of the Blind treasurer; San Francisco chapter
 
“We have been notified that our chapter member, Winifred Downing, passed away this morning at 3:45 a.m. It is our understanding that she died peacefully at her home in the company of her family. Thank goodness she died peacefully. We will miss you awfully, Winifred. You were an inspiration for me throughout much of my life. I am grateful to have known and learned from you!”
— Daveed Mandell, secretary, San Francisco chapter
 
“Win was a tremendous person, and if all of us could be as dedicated to the CCB as she was, we would go a long way. Win was a mentor when I had my son. She told me my son was losing too much weight as an infant, and she was right! If it weren’t for Win, my son might not be here today. This world is a much better place because of Win’s presence in it. She touched many people; she supported many people, and she was a role model for many of us. Win, RIP.”
— Margie Donovan, CCB Capitol chapter and GDUC
 
“Throughout all of the years in which I have known Winifred Downing as a colleague, she has been unceasingly a strong advocate of, and full supporter for promoting and advancing braille literacy in the blindness community, not only here in San Francisco, but also in California and nationwide. I have a lot of respect for the work which she did as a teacher of learning how to use the Optacon, as well as reading and writing braille. She did her best to educate and reinforce that blind children and adults learn how to become literate in reading and writing braille. I have to say: she did indeed love her Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, and beyond. Winifred, please rest in peace where there is no sunset, or dawning. I extend my condolences to Winifred’s family in this most difficult time of her passing.”
— Jim Blacksten, San Francisco chapter
 
“My most sincere condolences to the friends and families of Winifred. The few interactions I’ve had with her have always been very pleasant. I have always enjoyed reading her submissions in ‘The Blind Californian.’ She will definitely be missed.”
— Guillermo Robles
 
“Win and I knew each other pretty well; when I announced I was going to run for president, she calls me up (I’m on my way home from work) and she says, ‘Are you really sure you can do this? You don’t suffer fools gladly.’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess the fools will just have to get used to me!’ When I asked Win to become editor of the BC, she said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t know anything about technology; I can’t do that.’ I think it took two or three conversations for me to convince her. One thing that Win and I had in common: we were sticklers for editing. Win never tolerated grammatical or spelling errors or poor sentence structure: anything. The BC, with all due respects to former and current editors, Win was the best we ever had. She’ll be missed.”
— Mitch Pomerantz, former president, ACB and CCB
 
“Win made me laugh so hard. She was not one for swearing; her strongest swearing would be she hated something ‘with a purple passion!’ She was such a special person. I miss her.”
— Leslie Thom, Capitol chapter
 
Obbie Schoeman shared that his late wife Connie and Win used to share braille books, mailing them back and forth.
 
“In resolutions committee, Win’s attention to detail was something I loved. We’re definitely kindred spirits in that way. You know how it is in resolutions when you’re wordsmithing and someone says, ‘No, it should be must,’ and someone else says, ‘No, it should be shall.’ ‘No, no, it should be may!’ Win would say, ‘Just make a decision! Be quiet, we’ve got to do this. I’m so tired.’ She put up with us but she was just an awesome force!”
— Donna Pomerantz, immediate past president, CCB
 
“I was elected president of BRLC in the spring of 2010. Win was the editor of our newsletter ‘The Braille Writer.’ When I wrote my first presidential statement, she was so patient with her corrections. I wasn’t the most grammatical heavyweight around, but she knew I was trying to do my best. Once my article came out, I was congratulated so warmly. It was so good to have her on my side and to have such complete support.”
— Steve Fort, CCB director; president, Bay View chapter
 
“I was on the resolutions committee with Winifred and I thoroughly enjoyed her contributions to the committee. I remember one time about 2:00 in the morning, Winifred was still there. I’m thinking, ‘I want to go back to my room! But I’m not going to let this woman leave after me!’ I know she will be missed by many. My wish would be to have met her sooner.”
— Robert Wendt, director, CCB; Greater Long Beach chapter
 
“When I became chair of the resolutions committee, she did so much to help me understand the process of editing a resolution. I’ve got to say the quality of meetings definitely went downhill when Win resigned.”
— Gabe Griffith, vice president elect, CCB; Contra Costa Chapter
 
“Her voice reminded me of Angela Lansbury as Jessica on ‘Murder, She Wrote!’ I remember her talking about how the earthquake damaged her house. She was one of the cutest, sweetest, wonderful women in my life.”
— Christy Crespin, chair, CCB scholarship committee; Inland Empire chapter
 
“I believe that Win had a beautiful and genuine soul. I got to know her when she was the editor of ‘The Blind Californian.’ She was very committed and dedicated to producing a quality magazine for the organization. I was writing the Career Connections column. I’d submit an article, and I’d wait for her call. And she’d call me and say ‘Cathy, we have a few things to talk about.’ I learned a lot from her, and I’m very appreciative of knowing Win. May she rest in peace.”
— Catherine Schmitt Whitaker, publications committee member
 
“I met Winifred rather late in her life. I moved to San Francisco in 2005, and I decided to go to the San Francisco chapter because I had read Win’s name in ‘The Braille Forum.’ I was warmly welcomed by Win and quickly recruited for something she started, The Good Neighbor Fund, which evolved into the grant we have now, The Student Education Access Grant. Eighteen months later she got me elected president of the chapter. She took me to CCB, got me on the nominations and resolutions committees, and when I ran for the board, she gave my nomination speech. So I feel truly mentored by her.
 
On a personal level, Winifred was a staunch liberal Catholic, in the very best sense of the word. She would say a naughty thing now and then. One of my favorites: ‘That Bill Clinton! I don’t care how many women he slept with, he still was a good president!’ I will be attending her funeral on Monday. Her family has hired a bus to transport many of us from the church to the site of the reception; that’s how much they care about our community. I love you so much, Winifred. Rest in peace.”
— Linda Porelle, chair, publications committee; president, BRL of California; San Francisco chapter