116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: Grant Perrin
Blind musician graduated from Coe, taught music and literature, earned Ph.D. at Iowa
Grant Perrin was born in Charles City on Dec. 7, 1897. When he was about a year old, a disease affected his sight, leaving him with foggy vision but the ability to discern colors.
In 1907, his parents moved to Vinton and enrolled him in the Iowa School for the Blind.
Perrin had what he called “defective vision” in 1908 when he went with his parents to see Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan at a Chautauqua event on a hot August day in Charles City.
He remembered the cooking smells and the bright colors. He also experienced other smells, “Horses, sweating in the hot sun mingling with smoke from strong cigars and pipes; later in the big tent, the smell of many hundred humans gathered together on a hot day,” he wrote in an essay for the Des Moines Register.
Bryan gave Perrin a silver dollar that day. Bryan’s running mate, Sen. John Kern of Indiana, also gave Perrin a silver dollar. Perrin got a second chance to talk to Bryan when the orator visited Vinton.
Blind at 16
When he was 16, Perrin underwent an operation at University Hospital in Iowa City that doctors hoped would restore his vision. Instead, it left him totally blind.
He graduated from the Vinton school in 1918 after he had studied the three alphabets for blind readers (New York Point, American Braille and English Braille). He carried a special pencil and slate to each class that allowed him to take notes by punching a metal stylus through heavy paper, creating raised dots.
Perrin entered Coe College in Cedar Rapids that fall, becoming the college’s first blind student. He made it a point not to ask for accommodations. “He goes to and from school alone and finds his way around buildings to various classes without any difficulty,” The Gazette reported.
Perrin began studying music with Professor Clyde W. Stephens. At the end of his freshman year, Perrin was contributing to the school newspaper, The Cosmos.
The Coe College Conservatory of Music hosted a recital in 1919 that included a piano performance by Perrin, who showed “remarkable talent, not only in performance but in composition,” The Gazette reported.
Perrin finished his sophomore year at the top of his class and was awarded the Knox Prize, founded by Cedar Rapids meatpacker and Coe College trustee Thomas M. Sinclair. The prize, named for the Rev. James Knox, who had pastored the First Presbyterian Church from 1864 to 1875, went to the sophomore student with the best scholastic record in their freshman and sophomore years. The prize paid for Perrin’s junior and senior years at Coe.
“I was surprised when I got the Knox scholarship,” Perrin said in 1921. ”It had never entered my head that I might get it.”
In his junior year, Perrin switched music teachers, from Stephens to Max Daehler of the Coe Conservatory.
He received his bachelor’s degree in 1922, but continued to study at the Conservatory and serve as music critic for the Cosmos. He received a bachelor’s degree in music in 1923 and became The Gazette’s music critic.
He also began writing a book on the pianoforte, taught piano at his home on C Avenue NE and occasionally performed on radio broadcasts on the Cedar Rapids radio station WJAM.
In an April 1928 Gazettte story, Perrin said he found advantages and disadvantages to his blindness.
“In reporting an artist’s performance, if you have not previously become acquainted with him and cannot see him play, the force of his personality is lost on you, and as you listen closely, you are swayed only by the music as it actually comes to the ear. [T]his a sightless critic is perhaps able to give more of a faithful impression of the music itself as it was actually rendered. …
“But on the other hand, he must rely on information derived from sighted witnesses for a report on the manner of the artist’s performance.”
Perrin earned his master’s degree in music from the University of Iowa in 1935 and his doctorate in music in 1938. He was the eighth person to be awarded a Ph.D. in the UI music department.
In 1940, when he was 43, Perrin married his assistant, Elinor Wisely, in an informal ceremony in the chapel of St. Paul’s Methodist Church. They left soon after for Piney Woods, Miss., where Perrin taught music and English.
In 1943, he became the piano and band instructor at the New York Institute for Education of the Blind in New York City, where he also taught English literature
Declining health forced Perrin to retire, and he and his wife, who had five children, moved to Janesville, Wis., in 1957. While there, Perrin was presented an Award of Merit recognizing him as an outstanding Coe graduate and musician. The award was presented at an alumni banquet by acting Coe President Harry M. Gage.
In 1960, the Perrins moved to Marion. He died at a Cedar Rapids hospital Jan. 6, 1963, at age 65 and is buried in Linwood Cemetery.