Without sight, Rosalie Cohen’s heart was filled with song and ambition


Though blind from infancy, Rosalie Cohen had a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve in life.

“I love music, above everything else," the Canadian Jewish Review quoted Rosalie as saying after her graduation ceremony from Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge High School in Feb. 1925. "I hope some day to be able to teach music.”

According to JTA, she was the first blind child to graduate from a New York City public school.

[[READMORE]]

J.C.B. News Bulletin Jan. 31, 1921

SHE IS THE FIRST BLIND LITTLE GIRL TO GRADUATE SCHOOL

Rosalie Cohen, a fourteen year old Brooklyn child was one of the public school graduates of the Greater City, this week end and during the graduation exercises proved on of the most accomplished.

The audience at Public School No. 127 was taken by surprise when toward the end of the evening the principal of the school announced that Rosalie was totally blind and had been without her sight ever since she was two years of age. Rosalie is a child of many qualifications and is particularly adept at music. She is the first blind child to graduate public school and will continue her studies through the high school.

The claim that Rosalie became the first blind public school graduate on Jan. 28, 1921 was also substantiated by the Indianapolis Star, which further noted that she sewed her own graduation dress and aced all subjects except English, where she scored 90 percent.

Institutionalized at the age of 2 in Brooklyn’s International Sunshine Home at Dyker Heights, Rosalie went on to enjoy similar academic success in high school.

“Miss Cohen had special praise for Miss Kate Turner, one of her teachers, who, she said, was very patient with her,” wrote the Canadian Jewish Review. “She said her lessons were read to her and in that way she committed them to memory and as she learned to use a typewriter she was able to make out her examination papers.” 

Rosalie went on to graduate with honors from Cornell University in 1929, where she played piano.

In 1944, Rosalie was hired to teach braille to returning WWII veterans at Valley Forge General Hospital. 

While making good on her aspirations as an educator, Rosalie found love. The story, as relayed by United Press Staff correspondent Joseph Swartz in 1946:

VA GUIDANCE AIDS DISABLED WIN COMEBACK

Boston- Perhaps one of the most heartwarming stories of all is of Ernest Gay of East Boston. Blinded by a Nazi mine while serving with Patton’s 3rd army, he went to an Army hospital for rehabilitation.

While learning Braille, Gay fell in love with his teacher, Miss Rosalie Cohen of New York, who has been blind since childhood. Now married, the couple has purchased a farm at Abington through the VA’s loan guaranty offices–where they plan to raise chickens.

Ernest and Rosalie Gay ultimately settled in West Hartford, Conn.

Barry Cohen, Rosalie’s youngest nephew, doesn’t know firsthand about his aunt’s early years.

“In her latter years she really did a lot with the Hartford community and did a lot of concerts,” said the younger Cohen, President of Cohen Partners insurance in Manhattan. “I remember when I was young, we used to go to Constitution Plaza to hear her play.”

After Rosalie graduated from Cornell, she maried Ernie, an Irish Catholic, and gravitated toward the United Universalist church.

Cohen died on Feb. 10, 2002, a few months after her husband.

PHOTO: Rosalie Gay, nee Cohen, and husband Ernest Gay at their great niece’s bat mitzvah in 1980. (Courtesy Phylisse Cook)

NEXT STORY