Ralph Hilgendorf, who helped others learn to live with blindness, dies at 88

·3 min read

People recognized Ralph Hilgendorf in St. Paul because he was the type of man who liked to be busy. He walked to work each day from his home in the Hamline Midway neighborhood, he made frequent trips to the hardware store and he often joined marches in the Twin Cities to protest war and violence.

Some may never have realized Hilgendorf was blind, his children said.

"He's kind of the poster child for overcoming adversity," Dhaivyd Hilgendorf said of his father, who died June 7 at 88.

Ralph Hilgendorf was born in Welcome, Minn., and grew up on a farm, where he learned all sorts of handy skills. He got his pilot's license and purchased a Piper J-3 Cub airplane with his brothers as a teenager. A few years later, at age 17, Hilgendorf crashed the plane and lost his eyesight.

That injury would have debilitated some people, said his daughter Betsy Hilgendorf. Not Ralph. "He was unstoppable and always quite cheerful about things," she said.

Hilgendorf moved to Minneapolis to adjust to being blind. He walked with a cane and attended the University of Minnesota, where a roommate dared him to ask a lifeguard on a date. That woman ended up becoming his wife, Kay.

After earning his master's degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling, Hilgendorf started helping others learn to live with blindness. He worked for a few years in West Virginia and Mankato before moving to St. Paul, where he spent decades serving as assistant director for Minnesota State Services for the Blind and Visually Handicapped.

"He would advise them in terms of what kind of resources were available, but he also was empathetic — because, of course, he'd already been through the same thing," said Hilgendorf's daughter Cherry Flowers.

Hilgendorf's own experience was exemplary for those adapting to life without sight. He raised five children. Kris Hilgendorf, his oldest daughter, remembers serving as her dad's eyes while he finished the basement in their home. Hilgendorf would ask Kris to identify the colors of wires and watch to make sure his circular saw was cutting straight.

The siblings nicknamed Hilgendorf "map head" because of his extraordinary sense of direction and knowledge of geography. They would sometimes test their father by waking him up on road trips and asking what small town they were passing through. Hilgendorf was almost always right.

"It was uncanny," Kris said. This was also true when it came to Ralph's knack for recognizing voices. Even if decades had passed, he could often place on old friend or acquaintance after hearing them speak just a few words.

That was especially impressive because Hilgendorf talked to lots of people — on the bus, in the streets, in the store. More than 50 people lived in the Hilgendorf house over the years, including deaf foster children, a Salvadoran refugee in need of sanctuary, college students and activists.

Hilgendorf began attending Society of Friends meetings as a young man and eventually became a pillar of the Quaker community in the Twin Cities. Inspired by the Movement for a New Society, he and his family frequented protests for social justice causes.

His children say he was constantly looking for ways to help others — serving on countless boards, investing in the organic Whole Grain Milling Co., taking charge of home construction projects or washing pots and pans.

In addition to his wife and children Dhaivyd, Betsy, Cherry and Kris, Hilgendorf is survived by another son, Larry Wichern; four brothers, John, Al, Doug and Joel Hilgendorf; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. July 17 at the Friends School of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478

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