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January 24, 2003

At 100, deaf elder looks back

From: Democrat and Chronicle, NY - 24 Jan 2003

By Greg Livadas
Democrat and Chronicle

(January 24, 2003) — Clifford Leach was born the same year Henry Ford organized the Ford Motor Co. and the Wright brothers’ plane lifted off at Kitty Hawk.

“I know so much history and have seen so many things,” said Leach, who turns 100 today. He’s most amazed by the advances in technology.

Deaf since contracting whooping cough when he was 18 months old, Leach feels blessed that technology has enabled deaf people to communicate more easily. He recalls that a traveling minister sold him a huge text telephone, or TTY, in the late 1950s. It was the first time he could use a telephone to communicate with someone else.

“What a wonderful convenience it was,” he said, using sign language.

Leach, of Greece, was one of nine children born on a farm in Moatsville, W.Va. His mother died in 1912, and his father two years later. He graduated in 1924 from the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind in Romney, W.Va., and is a member of its baseball Hall of Fame.

Leach moved to Binghamton to work for the Public Works Department. He was an outfielder in a semi-pro baseball league there and is proud of his .408 batting average one season.

“All my life, I’ve been a sports fan,” Leach said. He excelled in baseball, softball, golf and bowling, which he gave up at age 90, when he also gave up driving.

In 1941, Leach was one of 16 deaf workers hired as assembly workers by IBM in Endicott, near Binghamton. Prior to that, the company had hired four deaf workers, but had shied away from hiring more because the deaf people would scream during lunch hour, he said.

“The government said they had to hire people with disabilities, so they hired us. The personnel department was very satisfied with us and we turned their opinion,” he said. “The 16 of us opened up the way for more deaf employees.”

Leach retired from IBM at age 65 and moved to Avon, Livingston County, nearer to relatives of his wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1975. His first wife, Helen Larkin, died in 1972 of cancer.

“I was tired of being in the same old place,” Leach said. “I really liked it here because of the many deaf people in the community.”

He’s always been active in associations for the deaf, including the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf, the National Association of the Deaf and the Empire State Association of the Deaf.

“He is a very, very friendly and smart man,” said Frank Kimmes of Greece, president of Deaf Elders Around Rochester. He said for years, Leach -- possibly the most senior deaf elder in the state -- has encouraged deaf people to stand up for their rights and not be afraid to approach lawmakers to make positive changes.

“He always cares about the deaf,” Kimmes said.

Leach’s days now are spent reading, watching television, walking when he can and eating in restaurants with his friends as much as he can.

He and his wife are settling into a new apartment off West Ridge Road after the one they had lived in for more than 15 years was heavily damaged in an electrical fire in November. They weren’t injured, but had to flee with just the clothes they were wearing.

Leach was slowed a bit from a fall a few years ago which injured his head, but he still walks unaided, easily rises from his chair and makes each of his monthly doctor checkups.

Asked whether there are more things he’d like to do, he said: “I want to go on a space flight, go on another planet and populate it with deaf people.”

He shrugs when asked the secret to his longevity. He said he was a heavy drinker until 20 years ago, and smoked five cigars a day for 45 years.

“I thought, ‘Where’d my money go?’ I should have saved it for a good cause or invested it. I smoked it all up,” he said.

Leach plans to celebrate his birthday quietly with friends and relatives. His only surviving sibling, a sister, Elsie Cross, 93, is visiting from Maryland.

And he’ll continue regularly playing euchre with his wife at the Rochester Recreation Club for the Deaf on Lyell Avenue.

“One thing I can do is play cards,” he signed with a smile. “I keep going.”

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Clifford Leach uses sign language at his Greece home to talk about his long life. At 100, the former semi-pro baseball player remains an activist for the deaf. “He really cares,” said an acquaintance.

Copyright 2003 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.