In 1952, Taylor. Michigan resident Lillian Ricker used her faith and determination to help disadvantaged children to create Penrickton, a nursery school for blind children. Penrickton grew and expanded to include children with at least one other disability and it still operates as a vital 21st century resource with a reach far beyond Taylor.
The 1948 Polk’s Dearborn Directory lists A.P. Ricker as a distributor of J.R. Watkins Quality Products. He and his wife Lillian Ricker lived at 6801 Jackson in Taylor Township. The Rickers had two daughters and a son, and by 1952 their children were grown up and living on their own.
Living her philosophy of “I’d rather wear out than rust out,” Lillian decided to take a job as a babysitter for the twin daughters of Mr. And Mrs. Thomas Penman who lived next door. The Penman twins, Sandra and Patricia, had been born prematurely and their 1953 medical prognosis foretold a limited life for both of them. According to some accounts, when Sandra was ten months old constant care and medicine restored her sight, but Patty remained blind and could not walk, talk, or eat solid foods.
Doctors at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor told the Penmans that they felt 2 ½ -year-old Patty was also brain damaged. Mrs. Penman had to take a job to help pay the medical expenses for the Penman twins and Lillian Ricker, their next door neighbor, agreed to babysit for them. Lillian Ricker didn’t accept the verdict of the University of Michigan doctors. She took the twins firmly in hand and in a matter of weeks she had taught Patty Penman to take her first steps and speak her first words, The 1962 Associated Press Newspaper story by A.F. Mahan says that Sandy developed normally or “at least as normally as a blind child can.” Other stories, like the 1954 Benton Harbor News Palladium story say that Sandy’s sight was restored and she developed normally.
Mrs. Ricker’s curriculum for Patty Penman included taking her to a neighborhood grocery store. The store manager Jess Marody kept track of Patty’s progress and one day he took Ms. Ricker aside and told her that he was a member of the Taylor Township Lion’s Club. He asked her to visit Mrs. Margaret Wiggington and her
six-month-old blind daughter Marcia. Lillian found herself teaching three little blind girls and insisting they do things for themselves. Jess Marody continued to track Mrs. Ricker’s results and he eventually asked her if she could teach some other blind pupils one day a week. She committed herself to meeting every Saturday at the Eureka Fire Hall in Taylor Township with any mothers bringing their blind children. On the first meeting day, 11 mothers and 11 babies greeted Mrs. Ricker.
Word of the Eureka Fire Hall meetings spread and the Parent Teacher Association of Fletcher School invited Mrs. Ricker to tell its members about her program. “I had absolutely no idea then of starting a school,” she said. “Why, I’m not even a qualified teacher.”
Grocer Jess Marody and the Taylor Lions thought differently. They made a bargain with Lillian: if she would start a school for blind children they would give a benefit party to help fund the school. They raised $3,000 for the new school and pledged one-third of the Lion’s income for an indefinite period of time.
Before she opened Penrickton, Lillian Ricker traveled to Los Angeles to visit a nursery school for the blind there and returned to Taylor, stronger in her dedication to give every blind child an opportunity to learn and wondering how many desperate parents she could possibly help. Lillian assured the parents of her prospective students and the students themselves that “If you can get to us we’ll try to help you with some program.” Her therapy usually began with encouraging parents to plan the future of their child with hope instead of despair.
Lillian decided to call her new school Penrickton, a combination of the Penman, Ricker, and Wiggington. Lillian and 13 pupils and a former public school teacher with twenty years of experience, Mrs. Vera Gaertner, opened the first day of school at St. Paul’s Evangelical and Reformed Church in Taylor. The maximum school tuition was $25.00 a week, and the minimum set at $5.00, although Lillian allowed people who didn’t have the tuition to pay it with kitchen, office, or maintenance work.
Since Lillian firmly believed that she and her school needed a real schoolhouse, she continued to agitate for one and she badgered the Taylor Township Board into
donating land for a school. The Wiggingtons donated an acre of land for a new school. Parents of pupils and former pupils established a building fund and by 1956, Penrickton moved into a sunlit, 18 room, $155,000 home. By now, the school also owned $4,500 in play equipment and Sparkey, a pony, and a cart.
Lillian Ricker’s successful educational methods for teaching blind children began to attract national attention. Even though her education had ended with high school, Lillian found herself lecturing psychologists, educators, and nurses, many
of them with doctorates.
In 1959, Wayne State University awarded her a scholarship to a seminar in childhood development and she lectured at a 1962 Institutional Seminar at Walden Woods, Michigan. She was the only one among 63 psychologists and educators to never have gone to college. Some professionals criticized. Lillian for not having more professional educators and doctors on her staff, but she replied that she always had professional consultants and she called them whenever she needed them.
In his June 1962 story about Penrickton in the Ocala Star Banner which the Associated Press distributed across the county, A. F. Mahan stressed Lillian’s faith.
He wrote that on a recent Friday after Lillian wrote the payroll checks, Penrickton had $178 in the bank with another $800 payroll looming for the next Friday. Since the school operated primarily on donations from individuals and organizations with no public funds, making ends meet always concerned her. Where would she get payroll and grocery money for the next week?
“I don’t know but I hope it comes. I’ve got several on my staff who are wonderful Christians and they help me pray. And there’s the bank which had $4,700 worth of faith in us when we just had to have it once. I guess you might say,” she added, “we just run on faith.”
In June 1962, both the Ocala Florida Star Banner and the Spartanburg South Carolina Herald Journal recorded that Lillian’s health was deteriorating. In fact, in a tragic twist of fate, the teacher of blind children was now nearly blind herself. She had suffered stretches of ill health her entire life, beginning with a childhood bout of rheumatic fever that damaged her heart. In 1955, she had suffered an operating table heart attack, and in 1960 an operation for cancer. The childhood rheumatic fever returned and she developed ulcers on her corneas which drastically affected her sight. She now used a Braille wristwatch, but she continued to operate her school and teach her pupils.
The September 25, 1962, Benton Harbor News Palladium reported the story of Lillian’s legal battle with an insurance agent from Manistee, Michigan, who told her that he was the executor for the estate of a wealthy Manistee woman who had listed Penrickton as a possible beneficiary of $13,000 dollars. He said he had the power to decide which charitable bequests to award and for a bribe of $1,300 he would award a bequest to Penrickton. Outraged, Lillian sued him and after a two month court battle, the judge awarded Penrickton the money.
"Glory be, now we can pay our debuts and maybe operate two or three months without worrying,” Lillian said.
An item in the Michigan Troubadour, the newsletter for the Michigan District of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in American, Inc., noted a donation to Penrickton in its January 1963 issue. On Sunday afternoon, December 9, 1963, the Detroit Chapter #1 and their ladies attended the annual Christmas Buffet Supper at the Penrickton Nursery School for Visually Handicapped Children.
The Detroit Chapter partially supported Penrickton and Chapter President Art Schulze presented Mrs. Lillian Ricker a check for $691.00. Donald Cardinal, one of the blind instructors at Penrickton, and alumni and students presented a program, with Mrs. Ricker, founder and director, acting as M.C. The entire Motor City Chorus with conductor Bob Craig sang several songs and closed with
Christmas carols. Several hundred donors and interested parties attended the event.
Individuals and service clubs like the Taylor Lions Club donated funds and helped build Penrickton’s original brick building. After a modest renovation in the 1980s, Penrickton undertook a 2.1 million dollar expansion that was completed in 2001. Charitable donations from individuals, service clubs, corporations, and foundations funded the expansion.
On November 14, 2008, the center held a Mortgage Burning Party for the completed project, although many parts of the building still need updating.
Over more than fifty years of operation, Penrickton Center has adapted its programs serving visually impaired children. In the late 1950s, the Center added a five day residential program and in the early 1960s, it incorporated a trailblazing program for blind children with one additional handicap.
In the 21st century, Penrickton specializes in teaching blind children ages one through twelve with one additional handicap included deafness, cerebral palsy, brain damage,developmental delay and seizures.
Lillian Ricker’s faith and perseverance are as enduring as the red bricks in the first Penrickton building and her legacy is still changing the lives of countless children in the 21st century.