In 1949, Helen Fahey had just graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown when she applied for a job at the National Braille Press in Boston, and was told no.
Fahey, who is legally blind, had been working summers and school vacations at the publishing operation, but founder Francis B. Ierardi, who was also blind, told her he wouldn’t hire her until she had more experience in the wider community.
“He said: ‘No, you’ve been with blind people all of your life,’ ” Fahey recalled recently, sitting on the front porch of her longtime Arlington home. “ ‘Now, you have to learn to live with people who can see. You get out in the world . . . get a job and do well, and then I will give you a job.’ ”
Fahey landed on her feet. She married, had three children, and worked as an inspector of M1 rifles during the Korean War. In 1960, she went back to the National Braille Press, and this time got hired.
Last month, after 53 years on a job that included assembling and binding books, and required countless bus rides with a seeing-eye dog to and from work at the St. Stephen Street operation, Fahey retired, just shy of her 84th birthday.
Brian Mac Donald, president of National Braille Press, said about 30 percent of his employees are blind, but Fahey’s tenure was unusually long, and she always brought an amazing level of energy to her work. They are having a goodbye party for her on Thursday. “We’re going to miss her a great deal,” Mac Donald said.
Fahey, whose maiden name is Cordeau, attended school in Somerville along with children who could see until she finished the sixth grade.
‘She really is just a shining star for us. I would come in the morning and she would be the first one here.’
She gradually lost her sight at a young age because of a degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa .
Fahey said she remembers trying to read “The Little Engine That Could” in print and being unable to finish it.
“I was heartbroken, because, you know, it just faded,” Fahey said. “I always wanted to be able to read with the other kids.”
She enrolled in the Perkins School for the Blind when she was in the seventh grade, and there she learned to read Braille, even though it was sometimes a difficult task for someone who had been able to see.
Before she graduated, she met Boston College student Bob Fahey at a school dance, but the couple didn’t cross paths again for a year.
“I didn’t know until within the last couple of years that she told her girlfriends that night that she’d marry me,” said Bob, who is also 84.
“Some things you just know,” Fahey said.
Despite her prophetic words, the couple reunited only after Bob received a copy of the now-defunct Boston Post newspaper in the mail while stationed with the Marines in Quantico, Va. On the front page was a photograph of Helen sitting on the stern of a boat on the Charles River. He sent her a letter care of the Perkins School, which forwarded it to Helen. Soon after Bob returned to Boston, they got married.
The couple will celebrate their 63d anniversary in August. They have lived in Arlington for 50 years.
When Helen Fahey ventured out in search of work after graduating from the Perkins School, she was able to take advantage of her heightened sense of touch. While other inspectors used machines to check the safety catches on M1 rifles, Fahey said, she could tell by feel whether they were lined up properly.
After returning to the National Braille Press, her job was collating Braille newspapers, magazines, and books. She became a supervisor and began hiring other blind employees and teaching them how to do the work.
One of her biggest projects at the company involved its contract to print Braille versions of all of the “Harry Potter” books. She said that while the books were being put together, the company covered its windows to prevent anyone from getting an advance peek before the official publication date.
“For the first book that we did, they even had someone check us as we were coming out the door to make sure we weren’t taking anything home to give to people,” Fahey said.
Over the years, Fahey said, her co-workers became like a family to her, and one of the reasons she remained on the job for so many years was because it had become such an important part of her social network.
Jaclyn Sheridan, the vice president of production at National Braille Press, said Fahey has an “infinite loveliness” and always asked about, and remembered, the families of her colleagues.
“She really is just a shining star for us,” Sheridan said. “I would come in the morning and she would be the first one here. She’d be collating on her own. She was so independent and doesn’t need anybody to tell her what’s going on. She just comes in and picks up where she left off.”
As Fahey got older, the commute between Arlington and Boston’s Fenway section for work became more of a challenge, but she wasn’t deterred. At age 69, when she began having difficulty crossing streets, she got a seeing-eye dog, Echo. Now her second guide dog, a German shepherd named Fletch, stays close to her side and greets visitors at her front door.
While Fahey’s last day on the job was May 31, she plans to continue doing some volunteer work at National Braille Press. But she’ll have more time to spend with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as Bob, who retired from his job at MIT when he turned 65.
“Now, I think it’s time to take it easy,” she said.