By Pam Dewey • July 23, 2020
Louise Whitbeck Fraser started a small school for children with special needs in her Minneapolis home in 1935. She did this despite extreme personal adversity — having lost her son and husband — and facing skepticism from professionals — University of Minnesota mental health officials called her a fraud.
The school was a passion project. Louise’s daughter Jean had contracted spinal meningitis when she was six weeks old, and after she recovered, doctors diagnosed her as mentally handicapped. Jean was later found to be mostly deaf. At the time, people with special needs were often institutionalized and not educated. Louise had her teaching certificate and began teaching Jean at home.
Word spread, and soon parents were asking Louise to tutor their children with special needs. During her first year, five children attended Louise’s Home Study School in Minneapolis. From there, the school continued to grow, and Louise’s impact on children and families with special needs spread.
Louise led an unusual life, especially for a woman during that time. Her example inspired many people. Here are five things you might not know about Louise.
1. She was orphaned at a young age.
At age three, Louise’s mother died, and five months later, her father died. Her guardian took her by train from her home in South Dakota to Rochester, NY. She lived with her aunt and uncle in Rochester for nine years. Louise’s aunt loved her but was very strict, and Louise often felt frustrated by her aunt’s rules.
2. Music therapy was a cornerstone of her teaching.
Louise had a Victrola (old-time record player) that she would play. She began to notice that Jean’s behavior would mimic the Victrola. She started teaching Jean with music. When other students started to attend her school, her friend brought over a piano for Louise to use.
She taught students to write through music. The students would take a piece of chalk and make swoops to the music on the chalkboard. That is how Louise taught them to write letters and then to write their names.
3. She was a powerful speaker.
Rebecca Fraser, her granddaughter, said Louise was a great speaker. Hubert Humphrey spoke at Louise’s funeral, and he said when Louise spoke, she commanded the entire room.
4. She was a revolutionary in more than one way.
Rebecca also found a picture of Louise from 1916, where she was wearing pants and smoking a cigarette. At the time, women who smoked were negatively looked upon, and smoking in public was considered particularly uncouth. Most women wore skirts, and wearing pants was considered a radical act.
5. She always saw the positives in every child.
Rebecca remembers that her grandmother had stacks of pictures of children from the school, and she would go through the pictures with her. Louise would say, “This is so and so, and they are struggling with this, but they can do this.” She would say something positive thing about each child, and she knew every child at the school.
Louise’s legacy is still felt throughout Fraser. Each year, Fraser honors an individual or an organization with The Louise Whitbeck Fraser Award. The award goes to those who demonstrate a commitment to the Fraser mission: to make a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives children, adults and families with special needs.
This year, the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and Alice Seagren were recognized for continuing Louise’s work with the community. Below is a video with Gretchen Cudak, the Fraser Board of Directors Chair, which highlights the award winners' accomplishments.