The year was 1941. It was on California Street in downtown San Francisco that Lois Merrihew remembers first hearing that the United States would enter World War II.
Years before, she had decided to pursue her childhood dream to train dogs as guides for the blind. An east coast school told her that women were not hired as trainers. They were not considered physically or emotionally fit for such work. That response solidified her resolve to become a dog guide trainer. She joined with Don Donaldson (formerly a trainer with the Seeing Eye) and Hazel Hurst as an administrative assistant/fundraiser to form the Hurst Foundation in Monrovia, Calif.
"[In] 1941, Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson, Blondie (our dog saved from the pound), and I went to San Francisco," Lois said. "With the support and backing of D.M. Linnard, formerly a Hurst Foundation director, we lectured, demonstrated guide dog activity, and promoted the idea of a guide dog school for the blind in northern California. Under Don's tutelage I finally learned to train dogs for the blind."
America's involvement in the war brought the realization that blinded veterans would be returning to San Francisco. Lois and Don offered their expertise to the American Women's Voluntary Services (AWVS). With the help of AWVS Director Mrs. Stanhope Nixon, San Francisco Chair Mrs. Nion Tucker, and others, Guide Dogs for the Blind was born. The school was incorporated on May 27, 1942, and operated from a rented house in Los Gatos, Calif., until it eventually moved to its present location in San Rafael, Calif., in 1947.
The first class consisted of two students, Mr. Lemoyne Cox of Oakland and Mrs. Marjorie Cosgrove of San Francisco, who were paired with Lady and Vicki, both German Shepherd dogs. The third class in October 1943 included the school's first World War II veteran, Sgt. Leonard Foulk. At age 26, Foulk lost his sight when his binoculars were hit by sniper fire at the Battle of Attu. He graduated with Lois's original publicity dog, Blondie. Lois later became the school's director of training.
"Of any of my accomplishments, I am most proud of Senate Bill #2391, passed in 1947, setting standards and licensing for both trainers and schools," she said. "Before then, anyone could 'train' and sell dogs to blind persons, without any guarantee of proper training." Lois was the first woman to become a licensed dog guide instructor.
by Lois Merrihew (written in 1939)
I saw a man and a dog pass by
And the dog was his master's seeing eye.
The sight, to my eye was a joyous feast
And I pondered the worth of the noble beast.
What better reason has one to live
Than have a service that he can give?
To be of help on life's rough road
And help another to carry his load?
I envied the dog with the seeing eye
As he led his master so proudly by,
Ever alert to his master's care
And proud of the cross he had to bear.
No thought of greed, no selfish whim,
No motive mean to hamper him.
Proud of the privilege to serve and be
The eyes for his master who cannot see.
Giving his life with a joyous heart
Willing and eager to do his part.
No wonder I was thrilled as they passed me by
That man and his dog with the seeing eye.