Louis W. Rodenberg

Louis Rodenberg at Fort Kaskaskia State Park, 1942

A talented innovator with a creative mind, Louis W. Rodenberg was instrumental in transforming the way that blind musicians experienced musical notation.

Louis William Rodenberg was born in a modest log home near Evansville on May 11, 1891. He was the first child of Philip and Frederika Rodenberg, who both came from German families. Like so many children of his time, Louis was raised to speak both German and English. He had two older siblings, Henry and Elizabeth, from his father’s first marriage, and the Rodenberg family quickly grew to include numerous additional brothers and sisters, all of whom were raised on farm land in rural Randolph County. In his memoirs, Louis would describe his childhood in the country as idyllic. “As a boy, I reveled in fields, woods, and streams, and in going afoot to the country school a mile and a half away,” he recalled.

In the winter of 1901, though, his beloved treks across the rural landscape turned tragic. As he so often did, Louis sprinted across a frozen field to catch up with his older brother, Henry, on their first day back to school after the Christmas holidays. But this time, Louis tripped on an errant cornstalk and fell. He had been carrying a lunch pail in one hand and a pen case in the other, and one of the pens pierced his eye. The physical trauma was intense, but the infection that followed was even worse. Despite the efforts of the local doctor, Louis lost his sight in both eyes.

Philip Rodenberg took his son to St. Louis, hoping that physicians there would be able to restore Louis’s vision. Louis remembered “a rushed train trip to St. Louis” and “a dreaded operation in a strange big hospital.” The efforts failed. The Chester Tribune reported in March 1901 that, after spending eleven weeks in the city, Philip and Louis returned home to their farm near Ellis Grove. His blindness was permanent, and for a boy just about to turn ten, the new darkness that surrounded him was horrible.

George Hellman (back row, far right) and his students at the Belle Vista School between Evansville and Ellis Grove, ca. 1903. Louis Rodenberg is third from the right in the back row, wearing dark glasses

Initially, Louis had to rely on others for help at every turn, and members of his community worked hard to try to accommodate his new reality. His siblings shepherded him daily to the Belle Vista school house between Evansville and Ellis Grove, where he was given a seat at the front of the room so that he could hear each lesson in detail. In the autumn of 1902, a new teacher arrived at Belle Vista. George Hellman introduced Louis to Braille, a system of reading and writing for the visually impaired. Developed by Louis Braille in the nineteenth century, the system used a series of dots, printed on embossed paper, to form the alphabet. By memorizing the patterns and then running their fingers over the embossed dots, people with visual impairments are able to read text.

At first, though, Louis was resistant. The dots on the paper were yet another symbol of his much-resented physical difference, and he wanted no part in the project. His older sister, Lizzie, turned out to be the key that unlocked his Braille education. She capitalized on his inner drive to succeed and began learning how to read the Braille texts herself, knowing he would be envious if she knew how to do something and he didn’t. Predictably jealous of his sister’s newfound knowledge, Louis threw himself into learning the system. Soon, with the help of both Mr. Hellman and Lizzie, he had mastered it. Already fluent in two languages, Louis had now essentially acquired a third.

Learning to read Braille unlocked a new world of possibilities for Louis, and as an adult, he often enthused about the doors that Braille education could open for other blind men and women. But the local schools could only offer him so many resources. For a bright, ambitious young man like Louis, finding a better educational fit was important. In September 1903, he boarded a train with his father bound for Jacksonville, Illinois, where he enrolled as a student at the Illinois School for the Blind (now known as the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired). The school offered educational programs tailored for young people with visual impairments, from elementary classes all the way to high school programs and advanced courses in various subjects.

The Illinois School for the Blind (now the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired) in Jacksonville

Louis flourished in his new educational environment, which was located on a leafy ten-acre campus with a student population of 150. The school provided the necessary accommodations for blind students, but its curriculum was not limited just to helping them navigate their world. The school offered the same slate of academic subjects as all other four-year high schools in Illinois. Louis studied science, mathematics, history, economics, political science, and literature, as well as German and Latin. A voracious reader, Louis devoured Braille books on subjects like architecture and medicine. He graduated with his high school diploma in 1911, but he decided to go back and take on another year of specialized music courses. The tall, red-headed young man was developing into a talented musician who played the cello, clarinet, piano, and organ.

In 1913, Louis was offered a new job, one that would chart a new course for his life. He became director of the school’s print shop. Now he wasn’t only able to read Braille texts—he was also an instrumental part of their production. Good with machines, and deeply interested in reading and writing, Louis was a perfect fit to become superintendent of the shop. The print shop became one of the largest producers of Braille literature in the country, and Louis helped to dream up new publications for the shop to print. He and a fellow musician, Fred Meyers, even established their own publishing company, The National Embossing Press. Among their publications was the Weekly News, the very first American newspaper published specifically for blind readers. The publishing company wasn’t ultimately a success, but it gave Louis valuable experience as he moved forward with the production and distribution of other Braille works.

The print shop also gave Louis the chance to make real strides and changes for his fellow blind musicians. When he arrived in Jacksonville, there was no accepted universal standard for the printing of musical scores for the blind, and the method most commonly used was clunky and difficult. It required the visually-impaired piano player, for example, to read and learn the notes for the left and right hands separately, without any idea of the way the bass and treble sections sounded together. Louis decided to try to solve that problem.

In 1918, Louis began a series of experiments with various methods of printing musical scores for the visually impaired. In the process, he identified 18 different possible systems. After consulting with blind musicians and teachers of the visually impaired across the country, he landed on the best solution, which he called the “bar over bar” method. In an article syndicated to numerous American newspapers, the system was described in detail: “Instead of printing the whole composition for the left hand and then following the music for the right, after the manner of a puzzle in which the two parts must be pieced together, Mr. Rodenberg follows the conventional method of printing music. On the top line of the page is printed the score for the left hand. Just underneath he places the right hand score. Thus a blind musician can read with both hands at once and get a perfect idea of what the composition as a whole will sound like.”

Louis W. Rodenberg

The Rodenberg method of musical notation for the visually impaired was, by 1923, accepted as a standard by all leading American institutions for the blind. Louis was hailed as a “genius” for his achievement. All major schools for the visually impaired in the country adopted his system, and the print shop in Jacksonville became the nation’s leading producer of musical scores for the blind. Louis wrote A Key to Braille Musical Notation, and then, as part of the Uniform Type Commission, co-authored the Primer of Braille Music. He also became the American editor of a new international musical magazine, the Musical Review for the Blind, for the visually impaired in the 1930s.

The work that Louis had accomplished in creating a new musical notation standard was noticed by some very prominent people. In 1929, he was named as the only American delegate to a conference in Paris that sought to develop an international standard for musical notation for the blind. He sailed to England in April 1929, then traveled on to France to represent the American Foundation for the Blind at the conference. The Jacksonville Daily Journal described the conference’s aims: “By making the musical symbols used by the blind of various nations uniform, the conference will perform a valuable service in enabling any blind person to express himself in the universal language, music, by playing the great masterpieces of all countries.” Notably, Louis, then almost 40, traveled to Europe unattended, making the lengthy journey confidently on his own. The organizers of the conference had prepared several special excursions that particularly delighted Louis, including a night to hear Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande at the Opéra Comique, and a trip to the village of Coupvray, where Louis Braille was born in 1809.

The conference was just the first of several that Louis attended. In 1932, he returned to the United Kingdom as part of a three-expert panel working in London on Braille standardization. The Associated Press noted that Louis and his colleagues at the Uniform Type Conference were focused on “the adoption of a universal code of printing for the blind, so that hereafter all books published in the United States will be clearly legible to ‘finger readers’ wherever English is read.” He was joined by George F. Meyer, a supervisor of Braille education from Minneapolis, and Robert B. Irwin, the executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind. Louis worked closely with a British colleague, Alice Pain, during the sessions. The result of the committee’s work was the adoption of Standard English Braille, Grade Two, which remained an accepted standard for many decades afterward.

While engaging in work as a part of these important committees, Louis also continued to produce his own scholarship. He was deeply interested in history, and the lives of his fellow blind musicians became a particular interest. He wrote several biographical sketches for the Musical Review for the Blind. One of his subjects was the visually-impaired hymn writer Fanny Crosby, who gained national fame in the nineteenth century as a poet, lyricist, and composer, writing the lyrics to classic hymns like “Blessed Assurance” and “Near the Cross.” Louis’s biography of Crosby, called The Song-Bird in the Dark, was serialized first in 1930 in the Musical Review for the Blind and then later in the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness. In January 1931, a special evening service was held at Jacksonville’s Central Christian Church that highlighted Crosby’s music, based on Louis’s biography.

Louis’s fascination with history was also focused on his Randolph County roots. The Rodenberg family farm was located near the site of Fort Kaskaskia, and Louis became engrossed in the history of both his family and the area. He produced a private family history, “Frederika and Her Family,” that he shared only with his siblings. The three-part history included a lengthy poem, “Pieces in the Quilt,” that shared a portrait of life on the farm through his mother’s viewpoint. The two had had a great deal of time to share stories about the past. After Philip Rodenberg’s death in 1924, Frederika had moved to Jacksonville, as did two of Louis’s sisters. By 1940, Louis was living in a house on South Fayette Street with his mother and the family of his younger sister, Freda Harber. The Harbers would continue to reside with Louis for years to come, even after Frederika’s death in 1945.

For most of his adult life, Louis nurtured a private desire to become a poet. One of his biographers, Walter B. Hendrickson, wrote a lengthy study of Louis’s poetry in 1981. Nearly all of his poems were unpublished, circulated only among groups of trusted family members and friends. Hendrickson notes that Louis’s reluctance to share his poetry was part of his tendency toward perfectionism. Louis sought out the opinion of scholars, including Cornell professor W. H. French, but he kept his poems almost entirely private during his lifetime, continually working to write and rewrite them in an attempt to perfect the verses. A book of Louis’s poetry was finally compiled after his death, a project undertaken in part by his nephew, Wayne State College President Lyle Seymour. That volume, though, was also circulated only in limited numbers.

Louis Rodenberg’s poem, “Triptych to a Sunken City” on bronze tablets at Fort Kaskaskia State Park

Louis did share one notable poem with the world during his lifetime. In the early 1940s, he composed a trio of sonnets dedicated to the history of the village of Kaskaskia. Titled “Triptych to a Sunken City,” the poems lament the destruction of the town by the Mississippi River, which he calls the “father of waters” and “monarch of the plains.” But Louis didn’t just commemorate the history of Kaskaskia in poetry—he also worked to help establish a memorial to the lost village. Hendrickson writes that for two years, from 1940 to 1942, Louis corresponded with the Division of State Parks in the Illinois Department of Public Works, as well as local citizens in Chester, to advocate for the creation of a state park near the historic site of Fort Kaskaskia.

The state park was approved, and the Daughters of the American Revolution funded the purchase of bronze tablets, engraved with Louis’s poems, to be installed at the new overlook on the bluff above the river and the original village site. A dedication ceremony was held on Sunday, October 18, 1942. Louis’s poem was set to music and sung by a choir of schoolchildren from Chester. Louis himself was able to be present at the ceremony to hear his composition shared with the gathering.

Louis Rodenberg receives the Migel Medal from Helen Keller, 1943

The early 1940s were a time of great success and recognition for Louis. In July 1943, just a few months after his poem was installed near the new park shelter, he was recognized with one of the highest honors bestowed by the American Federation for the Blind. The Migel Medal, named for the foundation’s first chairperson, was established in 1937 to recognize professionals and volunteers whose dedication and achievements improve the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired. Louis received the medal for his “achievements in the development and unification of Braille type for the English-speaking world, and his many scholarly and interesting contributions to professional literature on the blind.” He traveled to New York to receive the medal at the foundation’s annual meeting, where it was presented to him by none other than Helen Keller herself.

By now, Louis was one of the world’s leading acknowledged experts on musical notation for visually-impaired musicians. Further accolades arrived regularly. He was honored with the Mary McCann Award by the Illinois Federation of the Blind, and MacMurray College in Jacksonville gave him an honorary doctorate. In the early 1950s, the United Nations came calling, too. They appointed him as a technical consultant to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and to the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind. In 1954, he traveled with his brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, to attend conferences for both organizations in Paris. Louis was one of 100 delegates and observers from 30 nations participating in the meetings, which sought “to raise cultural and economic levels of blind persons throughout the world and plan for their wider integration into normal society.”

In 1963, after five decades as head of the print shop in Jacksonville, Louis finally retired. He had been a printer, writer, editor, and contributor for half a century, working diligently to provide more opportunities for visually-impaired people to read, write, gain a greater understanding of the world, and express themselves creatively. His retirement was prompted by the state of Illinois’s decision to close the print shop for good, citing economic reasons.

Relatives remembered that Louis continued to maintain an active and productive life afterward until his unexpected death in 1966. Historian Donald Hickey, who joined with Louis’s nephew, Lyle Seymour, to write Louis’s life story in 1982, noted, “In spite of his childhood tragedy, Rodenberg’s life was full and fruitful. His “affliction,” as he called his blindness, prompted him to pursue a career that greatly benefited blind people around the world.” Louis transformed a life interrupted by misfortune into one dedicated to improving the lives of others. Visually-impaired people everywhere can thank Louis for opening up new doors for them—and so can every single person who enjoys hearing poetry and listening to music.

Louis W. Rodenberg was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2023.