Julius Barthoff, 100; fought for the hearing-impaired

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / May 31, 2010

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At his desk in a Chicago elementary school a couple of years after World War I ended, Julius Barthoff learned with a sharp slap that something was amiss.

“I must have been in either fourth or fifth grade,’’ he said in an interview for a documentary on his life that is in production. “The teacher always stood way at the other end of the room and she walked around carrying a yardstick. I was sitting at the desk like this and she hit me on the hand with the yardstick. She said, ‘Julius, aren’t you paying attention?’ Actually, I wasn’t aware that I had a hearing loss, just that she hit me on the hand.’’

A bout with diphtheria when he was an infant apparently caused the impairment, which worsened as he grew older and learned he would have to make difficult choices to succeed. Long before legislation addressed the added needs of those with disabilities, Mr. Barthoff became a polite but persistent advocate for those who, like him, traveled in a world where sound was at best a faint whisper.

Mr. Barthoff, who in February visited a class of kindergartners and first-graders at Boston’s Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, died in his Needham apartment April 29 of congestive heart failure. He was 100. On his birthday last fall, he picked up a pad and jotted down, in order, the names of the 18 presidents who served during his lifetime.

“He tells the story that his first hearing aid was really big and the battery pack was probably gigantic,’’ said his daughter Toby Sandler of Needham. “And when he went to school, all the children made fun of him and called him deaf and dumb. He went home and told his mother, ‘I’m never wearing this again.’ ’’

Though Mr. Barthoff learned as a boy to lip-read and eventually used adaptive devices, gaining acceptance proved more difficult. After graduating from law school, he was in a courtroom one day in the 1930s and “asked the judge to repeat something because he couldn’t hear it clearly, and the judge just lit into my father,’’ his daughter said.

Humiliated, Mr. Barthoff went to a park where he sat for hours, thinking about what career to pursue. He decided to leave law and go into sales, a job that still would give him the contact with people that he enjoyed.

“I think that hearing loss affected my entire life,’’ he said in the documentary. “I was up against a society that looked at a hearing loss as a stigma, but at one point I decided, ‘Hey, I’m not going to let hearing loss run my life. I’m going to learn how to cope.’ And I think I coped to the best of my ability.’’

“He would carry a little card that said, ‘I’m hearing-impaired,’ ’’ said Caitrin Lynch, an anthropology teacher at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham who is producing the documentary film. “He wasn’t hiding the fact that he was hearing-impaired, he was there to tell them, ‘This is what it means and if you do these few things, everything will be OK.’ ’’

Born in Chicago to parents who had fled anti-Semitism in Russia and what was then Austria-Hungary, Mr. Barthoff was the youngest of four children in a family that “lived in a cold-water flat in a tenement,’’ he said in the documentary, which Lynch and the director, Titi Yu, hope to finish this summer.

The first in his family to finish college, he worked his way through school shelving books in the city’s library. Mr. Barthoff graduated from Central YMCA College and from John Marshall Law School, both in Chicago.

Even without the more advanced hearing aids available today, he found ways to explore the world. After deciding to forgo working as a lawyer, he hitchhiked from Chicago to Arizona, working at farms and ranches along the way to pay for the trip.

For years afterward, he was a sales representative for manufacturers of steel equipment. In one office he visited, Ellen Wexler was the secretary. They married in 1940.

“In his quiet and anonymous way, he advocated for the hearing-impaired,’’ his daughter said. “For example, when he was a traveling salesman and would go to a hotel that didn’t have a phone that was accessible for the hearing-impaired, he would contact the managers and tell them how they could get one for free.’’

Mr. Barthoff eventually moved his family to Park Forest, Ill., and in retirement he and his wife lived in Oberlin, Ohio, and Tucson before moving to Brookline in 2000. He moved to Needham three years later and his wife died in 2006.

In his Needham senior housing building, Mr. Barthoff met a newspaper deliveryman in the lobby each morning. Taking 20 newspapers, he placed each one carefully so it fell inside the moment the subscribers opened their apartment doors.

“I don’t make a big deal of it,’’ Mr. Barthoff told the Globe in October. “In the Judaic religion, you’re asked to do a good deed every day, and that’s the way I look at it. It’s not a chore. It’s just something you’re supposed to do.’’

So, too, was his advocacy. After he died, his daughters found in his records copies of letters he had written over the years to anyone who could make a difference.

“He really missed law and all his life read books about the law,’’ his daughter said. “He could tell you anything about the Supreme Court and the framers of the Constitution. In later life, he also was very much an expert on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which I think was something he thought he’d never live to see.’’

With the Horace Mann schoolchildren in February, “there was this connection, there was something that was really special about him,’’ said Jeremiah Ford, the principal and headmaster.

“Instead of all the attention being on him, he really redirected it in a warm way on the students,’’ said Gail Joniec, who was teaching the class.

“He was so engaged with the world,’’ Lynch said. “The computer was really a great thing for him, and he would send these really interesting, really nice e-mails. He gets up at 3 in the morning, so when I signed on at 7 there were be these e-mails about the news of the day. He was such an inspiring person because he never stopped wanting to make things better for people.’’

In addition to his daughter Toby, Mr. Barthoff leaves another daughter, Sue Weidenbaum of Oberlin, Ohio; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday in Temple Beth Shalom in Needham.