Rosanna D. Thorndike, worker with blind servicemen in France.

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Rosanna D. Thorndike, from her 1917 passport application

Boston-born Rosanna Duncan Thorndike (1898–1979) was the daughter of broker Albert Thorndike, who was treasurer and a trustee of Perkins School for the Blind, the first US school for the blind. At age 15, she earned a prize in a writing contest of St. Nicholas magazine alongside Bennett Cerf and Stephen Vincent Benét. At Perkins, she learned handcrafts, which was preparation for her World War I work.

In September 1917, she sailed for France, where she first served as a YMCA worker in Eleanor Butler Roosevelt‘s Hotel Richmond for US officers (a cousin of Thorndike’s father was Paul Thorndike, who was acquainted with the Roosevelt family). Thorndike also worked as a nurse’s aide with the Red Cross; as a teacher of crafts and English at the Phare de France, a training school for blind French service members involving Winifred Holt (daughter of publisher Henry Holt and founder of the New York Association for the Blind, aka Lighthouse Guild); and as a worker with US blind soldiers at Base Hospital 8 in Savenay. Thorndike wrote of her experiences in The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914–1919:

The first blind soldiers to return to America reached home in a pretty disconsolate condition. They had not been told anything of all there is left in life even after sight has been taken away, and it meant that they were utterly discouraged and disheartened, and that they had slipped so far into both mental and physical darkness, that it was very difficult to rouse them to any hope for their futures or any interest in things in the world about them. . . . .

[I]t was decided that . . . it would be eminently worth while to take a few weeks to help these men to learn a little of what others may teach them of how to be blind. . . . . Every day each one who was in condition to study learned a little Braille, a bit of typewriting, worked on a basket, modelled a few minutes in clay—made a little progress in something; and we tried to keep up their interest so they would want always to learn more. Then there were walks in the afternoons . . . . there were sometimes feasts, and always games and reading aloud. . . . .

They were full, busy, even happy days in a way, in spite of the suffering, the discouragement, the homesickness, the occasional lack of courage that just had to enter in. They were days I shall never forget . . . (93–94)

She returned to the United States in March 1919. In that year, she was a member of the Department of Social and Physical Education for the Red Cross Institute for the Blind (known as Evergreen) in Baltimore. According to the 23 Nov. 1922 Boston Post, she was one of 100 members of the Overseas Women’s Service League to participate in a parade honoring the visiting former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau. From 1923 to 1940, she was secretary to Hans Zinsser of Harvard’s medical school. In the May 1927 issue of Carry On, she wrote movingly of the plight of blind veterans, seeking to raise funds for an orchestra composed of these men:

I knew these boys in France, and I’ve known them since. I know the kind of things they are up against—no real home sometimes, often no occupation, no understanding from other people. I know their courage and their grit. . . . . Think of the plans these boys had for their lives; think of the suffering they’ve been through mental and physical; imagine the eternal darkness they can never get away from; or the tiny blurr of light that never increases and which may suddenly fade away entirely. (40)

She became a trustee of the Perkins School for the Blind. During World War II, Thorndike returned to relief work in France via the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and she was interned in Germany for over a year, as the AFSC documents (including a report coauthored by Thorndike about the AFSC’s wartime work in France).

Thorndike went on to work for the US embassy in Paris. In September 1950, she married Frederick Jefferson Leviseur, a Harvard graduate who had been a first lieutenant in the AEF’s Quartermaster Corps in World War I and worked in civil affairs in France during World War II.

Further reading:

Sarah Mildred Willmer, YMCA entertainer.

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Sarah Mildred Willmer, ca. 1920

As early as 1890, Sarah Mildred Willmer (1881–1949) was delivering dramatic monologues, eventually appearing in northeastern, midwestern, and western venues and billing as “the Sarah Bernhardt of the Lyceum.” One of her frequent performances was “The Sign of the Cross” by Wilson Barrett. In 1907, she met physicians William and Lena Sadler (Lena was the niece of cornflakes co-inventor John Harvey Kellogg), and they became friends. This promotional flyer shows that they often appeared together on the Chautauqua circuit. As the 25 Aug. 1912 Chicago Tribune documented, Willmer married minister Edward V. Bond at the Sadler home in Chicago (Bond died in 1915 from a cardiac problem).

In July 1918, the Lyceum Magazine noted that Willmer would be going overseas as a YMCA entertainer, refusing a salary and cancelling a 10-week Chautauqua contract for the opportunity (31). In Aug. 1918, Willmer sailed for France. Her account in the 22 Dec. 1918 Chicago Tribune (4) describes harrowing experiences:

“Are you afraid to go to the front?” [asked the YMCA man]

“That’s where I want to go.”. . . .

I was whirled over a thin white ribbon of a road through the valley of the Meuse and we arrived at a town. There were no inhabitants except American troops. . . . An officer moved out of his room and gave it to me. . . . rats—O, plenty of them, big as cats, that would scamper all over the place and me at night, and snuggle down in my warm blankets. None ever bit me, but one morning, as I woke, eight of them jumped from my bed. . . . .

Aided by friendly officers—entirely outside regulations and unknown to the ‘Y’ man in charge of the base—I would dress in a soldier’s uniform and go up to the front, in total darkness.

I went up one night, in a darkness which was uncanny; with shells bursting about us, with machine guns and all the other death dealing agencies actively at work, with pandemonium literally let loose, to a first aid dressing station.

O, it was horrible. The boys were brought in on litters, all in darkness, and as the surgeons and attendants passed along they would flash a little light on one for a brief instant, then on another, and in this way they had to be cared for. I wondered if it was right for me to be there, and I was frightened, O so frightened, but I did not dare to let that be known, for I was supposed to be a man. I helped with the boys who were brought in, and saw vividly the horror of it all, the lads dying and suffering, and had to remain quiet.

She also related an episode of servicemen hearing about the Armistice:

An officer—a colonel—entered the place. . . . . He flashed a smile, held up his hand, and said:

“Boys, she’s signed.” . . .

Immediately a mighty cheer went up, and then those 2,000 lads sang the Doxology as I never heard it sung before—and never expect to again. And then this officer said to me: “Miss Wilmer [sic], if you have a breath left in you, will you recite the ‘Salute to the Flag’?”

I did. Every hat went off in an instant, and then the men sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” . . . One young fellow said:

“Gee, ain’t it great?”

And then, in a sorrowful tone:

“And my buddy killed only this morning and can’t be here for it.”

Willmer was gassed twice—once at Verdun and once in the Argonne forest. The latter—a dose of chlorine gas “burning in my lungs”—necessitated her return to Chicago in December 1918, where she stayed with the Sadlers. The Chicago Tribune account credits her with receiving a Croix de Guerre, but this is not listed in the YMCA’s 1918–19 Yearbook and Official Roster of the Young Men’s Christian Associations of Canada and the United States of America with the other decorations received by YMCA personnel.

By April 1919, she was back on the performance circuit and continued throughout the 1920s. Her 14 July 1949 obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY) indicates that she opened a confectionary in Rochester in 1928, which failed in the depression. She became involved in social work and worked with the deaf on lip-reading and speech.

Her obituary includes a married daughter, Elizabeth Ann Wales, with 1930 and 1940 census records indicating a 1921 or 1922 birthdate. However, as newspaper clippings show that Willmer was maintaining a busy touring schedule in the early 1920s, it is likely the child was adopted. The obituary also lists a granddaughter, Dianna Kathleen Wales.