In the summer of 1942 Brookfield local, Robert Curtis became a seeing-eye dog, or kid, for another local man.
Walter Smith had received a blow to the head and then completely lost his sight. Without many options for help, Smith asked his neighbor, Curtis, to walk him around town.
Curtis was born in Brookfield in 1935 and lived with his mother in a small apartment. One day during the summer of 1942, Smith asked Curtis’ mother if he could pay her son to walk him around town. Curtis, then 7 years old, became a seeing-eye kid for Smith. For 10 cents a day Curtis would walk Smith around town and help with his daily errands.
Not much is known about Smith. Curtis believes Smith was a Russian immigrant, who came to the United States to work on the railroad.
According to Curtis, he may have been the only way for Smith to get around town.
“Back then there weren’t many organizations to help people with disabilities in Brookfield,” Curtis said.
Curtis would wake up and go to Smith’s house to start the day. The pair would walk around town for hours. Oftentimes, Curtis would help Smith get groceries and take him to get root beer floats. Smith would also buy comic books for Curtis while there.
According to Curtis, he led Smith with his voice.
“We developed a system,” Curtis said. “I would say, ‘Step up and step down, Walter.’ I described a lot of things to him”
According to Curtis, Smith enjoyed being out and about.
“We would walk for miles,” Curtis said. “Sometimes we would walk into the country.”
For Curtis, it became a routine.
“When you’re a kid, it didn’t seem like anything special. It just seemed like the natural thing to do,” Curtis said.
Smith also enjoyed going to the park to hear kids playing. During one of those visits Curtis had fallen and broken his arm. Although his arm was broken, he had to take Smith with him. They walked to the grocery store, where Smith called a cab to take the pair to Curtis’ family doctor.
At the end of that summer Curtis and his mother moved to Los Angeles. He spent most of his life there, finishing school and meeting his wife. Curtis came back to Brookfield twice when Smith was still alive. During his first visit back, Smith had regained his sight.
According to Curtis, Smith did not take his sight for granted.
“(Smith) was so happy,” Curtis said. “He cleaned his place up. I couldn’t believe it.”
On Curtis’ next visit back, Smith had lost his sight again. It is unknown how Smith received his sight and lost it again. With the sense of sight, or not, Curtis always knew Smith to be in high spirits.
“He always seemed very happy to me,” Curtis said. “We would laugh and play. I never remember him being less than happy.”
Smith also mentioned during one of the visits Curtis had only been the first in a series of seeing-eye kids. Curtis did not know the other kids who may have helped Smith.
For Curtis, Smith made an impact on his life.
“I didn’t know it then, but (Smith) taught me a lot about how to deal with difficulty,” Curtis said. “It did make a big impression on me.”
During Curtis’ most recent trip to Brookfield, he visited his old house and his former elementary school. Curtis was accompanied by his daughter, Barbara Crawford, and her husband, Larry Crawford. They tried to find a family burial site in eastern Linn County, but were unable to locate it.
For Curtis, the experience was rewarding.
“I’m very glad to have the opportunity very few have had,” Curtis said.
Curtis worked as a firefighter for 35 years while in California. For Curtis, it was something in his DNA.
“It was a family trait to help people,” Curtis said.
Curtis, now 87 years old, believes it is important to look after one another.
“It’s important to help people when you can,” Curtis said. “We’re here to take care of each other.”