Remembering Leaders
in the Field of Blindness and Visual Impairment

Michael T. Collins

Michael T. Collins 60

Helped deafblind and disabled youth around the world.  He worked at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown for 30 years.

By J.M. Lawrence Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2008

Michael T. Collins, who devoted his life to helping deafblind and disabled children around the world as director of international programs at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, died May 16 from lung cancer. He was 60.

"Mr. Collins contributed more systematically to this field than anyone else in the world," said the school's president, Steven M. Rothstein. Mr. Collins, who lived in Medway, died at Wingate Healthcare in Needham. He worked at the Perkins School for 30 years.

A Boston native who was educated at St. John's Seminary and Boston College, Mr. Collins was a towering, soft-spoken man whose quiet voice belied a powerful impact on the lives of so many, colleagues said.

Twenty years ago, he founded the Hilton/Perkins International program to train teachers and teach deafblind children with multiple disabilities in developing countries.

Under his leadership, the program grew from serving a few hundred students to helping more than 10,000 children annually in 63 countries.

After he was diagnosed with lung cancer last fall, Mr. Collins told friends there were people in "the bush" praying for him to gods he had never heard of.

"His love for children with multiple disabilities and his deep understanding of their needs was evident when he visited programs and dandled children on his knee," Nandini Rawal, project director of the Blind People's Association in Gujarat, India, said in an e-mail.

Mr. Collins's formula for successful programs was based on nurturing local control and ownership. In a recent statement recapping the lessons he had learned running Hilton/Perkins International, he advised having a clear mission and resisting the urge to pay for everything.

"It is very important that the donor not be 'the tail that wags the dog,' and that programmatic decision-making be made in accord with the priorities of the local personnel," he said.

News of his illness had spurred tributes from around the world.

"Thanks for helping us with our children and youth," leaders of a program in Cordoba, Argentina, said in a message to him. "They are having a life with more dignity."

Mr. Collins was born in Newton and grew up in Brighton. He was the son of the late Michael T. and Katherine (Jewett) Collins.

He graduated from Boston Latin School and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and theological studies from St. John's Seminary in Brighton in 1969.

In 1972, he earned a master's in special education from Boston College.

He met his wife, Linda (Burnickas), while they were students at BC.

He began his career teaching deafblind children in Colorado Springs. He and Linda later worked in Lansing, Mich., for the Midwest Regional Center for Deafblind Services.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Collins was hired to supervise the deafblind program at the Perkins School.

Jaimi Lard of Watertown, who was a young student in those days, remembered Mr. Collins as a welcoming presence.

"He was so wonderful," she said through a translator. "When we went into the school building, he was always there to greet you. It made you feel good when you came to school for the day."

Mr. Collins won numerous accolades for his work. This year, the Perkins School gave him the school's award named in honor of Helen Keller's teacher Annie Sullivan.

"Mike Collins was an inspiration, an all-around great person and a phenomenal advocate for the blind and the deafblind," said Janet B. James, who chairs the Perkins School board of trustees. "He was a genuine person who always had a few minutes to listen and laugh."

Mr. Collins was a past president of Deafblind International and was a board member of the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment.

He also founded the National Coalition on Deafblindness.

He played guitar and sometimes performed folk favorites at the school's coffeehouse nights.

As an administrator, he never lost his love of "teaching moments," according to colleagues.

One Perkins staff member recalled seeing his expression as she propelled herself backward on a rolling stool while teaching a child how to use a cane.

"I recognized that warm, from-the-depths-of-his-heart smile, for I had seen it on so many occasions before," Mary Trainor wrote in an online tribute.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Collins leaves leaves a son, M. Thomas of Medway; two daughters, Stacy of Watertown and Elizabeth L. Elliot of Rochester, N.Y.; three brothers, Robert and Timothy both of Brockton, and John of Candia, N.H.; four sisters, Mary Ellen Spenard of Taunton, Patricia Collins of Millis, Marjorie O'Brien of Hyde Park, and Claire Sennott of Nashua; and one grandson © Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.