A film crew captures the story of "Leo
Beuerman". The footage is now part of UM special
education professor Jim Payne's most recent research
OXFORD, Miss. - As a child, University of Mississippi
special education professor Jim Payne bought pencils from a
dwarfed, deaf and nearly blind man outside a Woolworth's
store in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. Decades later, that man
is the subject of Payne's latest research project.
"Leo Beuerman: A Legacy," is a digital compilation of films
and interviews examining the 1969 Academy Award-nominated
documentary "Leo Beuerman," which depicted the innovations
of a man imprisoned by his own body.
"I never needed a pencil, but I always bought one," Payne
said. "In a way, I pitied him. But, over time, I learned a
lot from Leo. How individuals with special needs do not
need to be pitied. This project is a celebration of the
film and Leo's life."
The compilation is the first in a series of video projects
for the professor, who, with the help of the UM Media and
Documentary Projects Center, is restoring and evaluating
special education reels and tapes to create a video history
of the field and explore the significance of individual
Payne began with the Beuerman story because of his
childhood memories of the man. Beuerman, in addition to his
other disabilities, could not walk and navigated the
sidewalks on a wooden cart he built himself. Despite
tremendous challenges, he managed to operate a small
business from 1952 to 1968 selling pens, pencils and
refurbished watches - which he taught himself to repair -
on the streets.
Every day, Beuerman drove into town on a farm tractor
equipped with a custom pulley system he designed to raise
and lower himself and his cart to the street. Unofficially,
the city allowed Beuerman his own parking spot downtown to
make his process easier. A bronze plaque hangs near the
sidewalk where he operated.
"When Dr. Payne showed me some of the Leo footage, I
thought it was such an incredible story about how this guy
lived every day of his life," said Matthew Graves, a UM
documentary producer and director who has helped with the
project for two years. "The will it must have taken to do
that is amazing."
Released this year by the St. Louis-based Phoenix Learning
Group, the project was inspired when Payne found a copy of
the documentary in a box of decades-old 16mm films on
mental disorders from the University of Virginia libraries.
"When technology switched from reels to VHS tapes, a lot of
educational films were lost, thrown out or burnt," Payne
explained. "So when they asked me if I wanted them, I said
yes, but I wasn't quite sure what to do with them at the
Payne and Graves are also developing a documentary
tentatively called "Special Education on Screen 101″ to
examine the evolution of American society's depiction of
those with special needs.
The collection will begin in the 1940s and 1950s - when
terms like "idiot," "imbecile" and "moron" were used
clinically - and continue through the 1960s, 1970s and
1980s when, as Payne points out, filmmakers started to
humanize people with special needs and identify strengths
despite disabilities. It will end at present day.
"When you read the history of special education, it can be
a little boring," Payne said. "But when you can watch it,
you can start to see how each decade we change the way we
treat people with special needs."
Payne will host a public screening of "Leo Beuerman: A
Legacy," and a free luncheon on at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday (July
10) at the Water Valley Country Club. The Beuerman
compilation is also available for download online.