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Ma Bell's Good Samaritans Help the Handicapped with Their Technical Wizardry

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The inventors on these pages are unique. They will never make a dime from their inventions, and that’s the way they want it. They belong to the 500,000-member Telephone Pioneers of America, a service organization composed entirely of 18-year-and-more Bell System employees who contribute their spare time and their know-how in aid of less fortunate neighbors. Little known, but much admired, the Pioneers were founded in 1911. Appropriately, their first member was Alexander Graham Bell himself.

Talking toys speak to once-silent children

Trying to communicate with withdrawn and autistic children, Fred Boettcher and Wally Zimmerman thought of installing two-way radios inside toy animals. A therapist, hidden behind a one-way mirror, may then talk to the kids through the toy. It is a device that has proved effective in coaxing such children out of their shells.

Zimmerman (left, above) started as a mechanic with Western Electric at 19 and is now, at 56, a senior engineer. Married and the father of four, he and his wife, Pam, live on a 38-acre farm in Fleetwood, Pa. Their hobby is restoring antiques. Boettcher (right), of Reading, Pa., is now 61 and has spent 40 years in electronics at Western Electric. An avid skier for 45 years, he and his wife, Kathryn, have three married sons and grow 22 kinds of vegetables in their garden. When a child responds to one of his toys, Fred says, “It’s like having a son make good.” And sometimes, adds Wally, “it just makes you want to cry.”

A converted radio becomes a cheap hearing aid

For the hard of hearing but short of cash, Joe Messana has perfected a way of converting a transistor radio into an audio aid for less than $15. Messana, a 38-year Bell Labs employee, lives with his wife, Catherine, in New Hyde Park, N.Y. and has worn a $325 hearing aid for 11 years. Now, by cannibalizing a radio for components, adding an amplifier and doing a bit of rewiring, he has put together a new kind of hearing device—though one that is too bulky to be practical everywhere. “But it can be used at the movies or when watching TV, when the audio is adjusted to a normal volume,” he says. “Anyone with skill in repairing electrical devices can make it in less than two hours.”

Blind bowlers keep in touch with their game

Charles Wood had always enjoyed bowling and thought the blind should be able to also. So he invented “Touch and Tell a Pin”—an electronic unit fitted with small pop-up pins and wired to a bowling alley’s automatic pinsetter. “The blind,” Wood explains, “can feel which pins remain standing by simply touching the unit’s surface.”

It took Wood some 800 hours to build the prototype in 1971. Since then 23 have been installed in the U.S. at a cost of $300 each. Wood, 58, a 180-average bowler himself until sidelined by arthritis, has been a Bell telephone switchman for 32 years. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Eden, N.Y. For 16 years he moonlighted as an electric clock operator at the Buffalo Raceway. “I’m one of the few people,” he also observes, “who can say a horse track paid for my daughter’s education.”

Functional furniture eases crippled kids’ struggles

At the Cerebral Palsy Center in Edison, N.J. crippled children play happily on furniture designed and built for them by Ray Klein, 74, a retired Western Electric engineer. His creations include a ramp that enables a child to slide unaided from a wheelchair and pull himself back again, and an elongated chair that helps a handicapped youngster push to a standing position.

“I can make four rocking chairs from a $10 sheet of plywood,” says Klein, a widower who once carved 432 miniature birdhouses to earn money for supplies to carry on his charity work. “The biggest joy,” he relates, “comes from the reaction of the kids. They hug you and kiss you. You know you’ve made them happy.”