Roy Fitzgerald

December 8, 2009
Lewes Beach retiree Roy Fitzgerald stands by “Fearless Fred,” a wood carving inspired by the Maori people of New Zealand and Northwest American Indians. NONE KEVIN SPENCE PHOTO
As a young man, just out of college, with a degree from Western Reserve University, Roy Fitzgerald traveled to London, where he began studying at Tavistock Institute. He became interested in blindness and how blind people cope with loss.

Under the guidance of internationally recognized British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, Fitzgerald learned no one had conducted research about blind people and how they respond to becoming blind. So Fitzgerald began by surveying blind Londoners, visiting their homes, finding out how they adjusted to blindness.

“Some were able to get out of their depression, while some remained stuck,” said Fitzgerald. “There may or may not be a turning point.” While each case is different, Fitzgerald said, poorer folks don’t cope as well as wealthier ones. Coddling blind people doesn’t work either, he said.

Many cases of blindness stem from diabetes or glaucoma, he said, and in the United States, from poor diet and obesity. Very few cases derive from accidents or tumors, he said.

Fitzgerald, 70, sits by his fireplace in his Massachusetts Avenue home in Lewes. With his legs outstretched, Fitzgerald stares at the floor, appearing almost as if he, himself, is blind. He occasionally strokes his gray goatee, as he explains his fascination with helping others cope with their disability.

Fitzgerald moved to the Cape Region 13 years ago.

For more than three decades, Fitzgerald was a member of the clinical staff at Crozer-Chester Medical Center near Philadelphia, also working for much of that time as an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University.

In October, Fitzgerald was presented with a 30-year service recognition award from the Philadelphia-based Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where he currently serves as board chairman.

Perhaps his greatest professional recognition came in 1981 when he was invited to the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan, who congratulated Fitzgerald on leading an expedition for blind and other disabled people to the top of Mt. Rainer, a trek featured in the HBO movie, “To Climb a Mountain.”

He said part of his work involved making house calls to meet blind clients in their homes to dissect the root of their depression.

“I want to get people moving and doing for themselves,” he said.

Fitzgerald, who has been married to Jennie Keith for 29 years, has four children, one son who is a mobility instructor for blind people.

He keeps busy in his retirement carving wood sculptures. About 15 years ago, his wife gave him a carving chain saw. He has a workshop in Riverside Park in Lewes, and his home is filled with black walnut tables and life-size whimsical figures. His recent inspiration is abstract carvings.

He’s shown his work at 205 Lavinia Street in Milton and the Rehoboth Art League.

He said he loves the sense of community in Lewes and in Sussex County in general. “I think Lewes is a very sophisticated little community,” said Fitzgerald.

“What I really don’t like is the disenfranchisement on the east side of the county that has little to say in terrible overdevelopment,” he said.

Fitzgerald is also a committee member of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society’s winter film weekend. The committee consists of mental health professionals who bring movies on such topics as aging and transitioning.

He’s also a volunteer for the Historic Lewes Farmers Market. Both he and his wife also regularly attend Quaker meetings, he said. In addition to woodcarving and volunteering, Fitzgerald remains dedicated to increasing awareness about blind people – an often underserved population, he said.

“My mission for our organization is outreach, particularly to older people. So many of them could live better lives – that’s a real important focus for me,” he said. “People don’t want to focus on their handicaps, but rather the positive things they can do.”