Rosemary Lerdahl, a pioneering advocate for the blind who founded a camp for blind teenagers and taught job and life skills to the vision-impaired, died of a heart attack Thursday evening while riding a city bus from the doctor's office back to her Arbutus home. Ms. Lerdahl was 59.
Born on a farm in Auburn, Neb., the former Rosemary Johnson supervised services for the blind in Lincoln during the 1970s and '80s before she moved to Baltimore in 1989 to be assistant director of the National Federal of the Blind's job opportunities program.
Born with dislocated lenses that left her legally blind, Ms. Lerdahl had eye surgery at age 16 that restored much of her vision. But she still went on to devote her life to helping others cope with the condition.
After graduating with degrees in psychology and social work from the University of Nebraska, Ms. Lerdahl first worked as a typing teacher for the Nebraska Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, becoming a supervisor at the organization's headquarters in Lincoln in 1977.
Ms. Lerdahl went on in 1984 to direct the Nebraska Orientation Center for the Blind, a position she held for five years.
For Ms. Lerdahl, an avid Cornhuskers fan, leaving her family and friends in Nebraska was difficult when she took the job with the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, her co-workers said. But she soon became integral to the blind community here, said Lorraine Rovig, Ms. Lerdahl's first boss in Baltimore.
Co-workers remembered the great parties Ms. Lerdahl used to throw.
Those advocates for the blind suffered a double loss last week, Ms. Rovig said. Betsy A. Zaborowski, former executive director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, died Thursday - the same day as Ms. Lerdahl's death. Dr. Zaborowski was 58.
"All of us are shocked that ... Dr. Zaborowski and Rosemary Lerdahl died, and neither of them was very old," Ms. Rovig said.
Frederick J. Puente, president of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, added: "All of our associates are devastated. Rosemary Lerdahl was one of those people that everyone loved. She was the strongest believer in the capabilities of blind people."
Ms. Lerdahl taught blind people how to get a job, cook, go shopping and maintain their homes. She secured some apartments in Arbutus at which her students learned life skills in a home environment. To show her students they could ride the bus downtown, shop and return home independently, Ms. Lerdahl would put on sleep shades and grab a cane to demonstrate, Ms. Rovig remembered.
"Rosemary used to say that the one thing we do at Blind Industries is let people know that it's OK to be blind," Mr. Puente said.
Plans for services were incomplete yesterday. Ms. Lerdahl will be buried in her hometown, said her daughter, Angela Lerdahl of Bellevue, Neb.
Ms. Lerdahl is also survived by a nephew, Kyle Brinckerhoff of Omaha. Her marriage to James Lerdahl ended in divorce, but Ms. Lerdahl spent every Christmas in Nebraska with her daughter, ex-husband and his wife.
"We were all one big family," her daughter said.