Alum Spotlight

Leader Dogs: A Family Tradition

By Jennifer Wilkinson

Published in: Update - Issue 2 - 2013 »   
Old black and white photo showing six seated Leader Dog clients, their dogs and their instructor standing behind them in 1954

Clarence Hanson and Leader
Dog Duncan (far right) graduated on
May 21, 1954.

In 1954, Clarence Hanson arrived at Leader Dogs for the Blind. For the last 32 years, since he was 16 years old, he had been making his way through the world as best he could in darkness. But he wanted to do more for his family, to provide more financial stability, and so at age 48, he received his first Leader Dog, Duncan. His son Tom was 9 when his father first arrived at home with Duncan, and he remembers Duncan as "the perfect image of Lassie. He was extremely loyal to my dad and to the family." With Duncan at his side, Clarence worked as a door-to-door salesman and then as an operator of a vending stand. Duncan opened the door to more independence for Clarence, and together they were able to achieve Clarence's goal of providing for his family.

Fast forward 59 years. It's 2013, and at this point, Tom Hanson has already achieved a great deal: he has two master's degrees and a Ph.D. in special education, and for the last 16 years he had been a teacher at the Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where he later became the first graduate of the school to become its superintendent. Tom had retired, and he and his wife, Sue, were ready to move to Florida to begin enjoying life in the Sunshine State.

The move presented a challenge. Tom, who lost his sight when he was six years old due to glaucoma, had been using a cane to travel in the familiar terrain of Wisconsin for decades. The new community in Florida was an unknown, creating concerns about the possibility of becoming lost or injured. After studying his options, Tom came to the same conclusion his father had so many years before: he wanted a Leader Dog. "I was looking for a greater level of safety," Tom says, "There are cars coming along that you can't always hear." With a Leader Dog, Tom says, "I would have more independence and confidence to go out in the community."

Tom Hanson stands in a hallway at Leader Dog with his golden retriever, Marco, at his side. He is holding the old black and white photo showing his father's class from 1954

So, in the spring of this year Tom arrived at Leader Dog and was matched with his new best friend and guide, a golden retriever named Marco. Though Tom joked that bringing Marco home would spark a war of the Hatfields and the McCoys between his new dog and the family cats, he reports that Marco has been doing well, and that as a guide, Marco is extremely smart.

Tom is not the only second generation of a family to come to Leader Dog. We take pride in the strength of the relationships we have with our clients, and the fact that those relationships in turn foster ones in the lives of the people our clients touch, even over decades. Leader Dog's Chief Programs & Services Officer Rod Haneline explains it this way: "The viability and strength of the service we provide is proven by our sustainability over time and generations. Sustainability and quality are key to our success in changing lives."

Tom Hanson would have to agree. "It felt good," he says, "Realizing that the school was still there, that it was still operating at the same high quality. It felt good to follow the family tradition, so to speak."