“Every machine has its own story,” says braille machine technician Joe Hodgson. He should know. He’s worked on hundreds of them over his 35 years of servicing the devices for such entities as the Council, Milwaukee Public Schools and the State of Wisconsin. Joe fixes the machines at no cost to the owners in keeping with the policies of the organization that got him in the business to begin with: Telephone Pioneers of America.
Telephone Pioneers was founded in 1911 as a social and, eventually, service-oriented professional club. To become a Pioneer, one had to have 21 years of telephone service, which means the original chapter members started in the business shortly after Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone at the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia.
“Our (Wisconsin) chapter was founded in 1935,” Joe says. At one time there were 109 chapters throughout the country. Thirty-nine remain. “I started with Wisconsin Telephone in 1962 when I got out of the Army,” he says. When the Pioneers branched out into public service in 1962, the group focused on using members’ technical skills to repair talking book cassette machines. With that came the opportunity to service braille writers as well. Joe joined the Pioneers in 1987. He’s been repairing Council braille machines in his home workshop in Barneveld since 1990.
Using the Perkins manufacturer’s manual, “I just learned hands-on,” says Joe. The manual guides not only how to fix the machines but also how to choose and order new parts for them. His shop includes a “morgue” area where old machines that are beyond repair serve as parts-donors for machines Joe brings back to life. “When I get a machine, I can turn it around in two days,” he says.
Sometimes just getting the machines cleaned is half the work. Joe’s seen it all: “Cat hair, paper, dirt, bugs, you name it,” he says. Interestingly, he notes that the older the braille writer, the better. “Some of the older ones are really, really nice machines. The latest machines just don’t hold up as well,” Joe says. “They cut corners making them now.” The average age of the machines that come in is around 20 years. “I can take an old machine that’s been in the closet for 25 years and I can get it just like new.”
Joe keeps a meticulous card system in place in his shop. Every machine he’s ever worked on gets a card with complete notes of his service work. This is how he knows the machine’s history even as he supplies it with a new future. “Some machines I’ve repaired eight or nine times over the last 30 years,” he says. Joe has 350 cards on file.
That’s a lot of free service to others. It’s why, during this season of gratitude, the Council would like to publicly thank Joe for his dedication and his ongoing work in support of our mission of independence and empowerment. And that goes for the rest of our wonderful volunteers as well!
Brent Perzentka, Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist at the Council, expresses the Council’s gratitude this way: “Without Joe’s services, people would have to send their braille writers to a company on the East Coast for a minimum of $50, just to have them looked at. I keep dreading the day Joe retires from fixing them!”