NEEDHAM, Mass. — Caitrin Lynch, associate professor of anthropology at Olin College of Engineering, has produced a film about a Needham, Mass., resident who spent a good part of his 100 years on earth advocating for the needs of individuals who, like him, were hearing impaired. The film was shown March 28 at Olin in a private screening before an audience of Olin community members, people associated with the film and students and administrators from Boston’s Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
The film, called “My Name is Julius,” tells the story of Julius Barthoff, a Needham resident whose progressive hearing loss was a result of a bout with diphtheria in his infancy. He became painfully aware of the extent of his disability in grade school, when his teacher whacked him across the hand with a yardstick because she thought he wasn’t paying attention. He went on to become a lifelong advocate for the hearing impaired. In 2009, at age 99, he won the Oticon Focus on People award, which recognizes individuals who provide positive models of people with hearing loss.
Barthoff attended college and trained as a lawyer. He was not able to practice law due to his disability, but had a successful career in sales. He spent much of his free time working for a greater societal recognition of the hearing impaired. He spoke frequently at schools about hearing loss, wrote a column, encouraged people with hearing problems to get tested and became a persistent advocate for their needs. An avid reader, he kept up on politics and current affairs right up to the end of his life. He passed away in April 2010, never having seen the documentary that bears his name in its final form.
Lynch, who is also from Needham, first became acquainted with Barthoff while doing research for a book on older workers leading meaningful lives. Although Barthoff was not a major figure in the book, she became intrigued by his positive outlook on life and zeal for helping people. It was not until a couple of years later, though, when Barthoff contacted her again, that she determined to bring his story to a wider audience.
“I felt the world deserves to meet this person,” said Lynch in a recent interview. “He was so passionate and engaged in the world around him, and caring about the community.”
Through a faculty colleague at Olin, Lynch connected up with Titi Yu, a New York-based director who has done work for PBS and the History Channel. The two—aided by a crew that included many Olin students—managed to create the film for a budget of about $30,000.
The film shows Barthoff, who was 99 when the filming began, in vignettes drawn from his everyday life: a birthday celebration, a visit to the doctor, speaking with hearing-impaired young people, sitting with friends.
It also shows him delivering newspapers to the residents of his retirement complex—a voluntary ritual he performed every day. Barthoff would pick up the papers every morning from the delivery table and then carefully place a paper against the door of each subscriber so that it would fall inside when the door was opened. He called the routine his “good deed for the day,” citing Jewish teachings on ethics that call for such good works.
Lynch believes his strong commitment to service was related to his disability. “Julius had a sense of social justice and wanted to help people,” said Lynch. “Having a disability fired that passion to help others.”
It also fired a determination not to let his condition get the better of him.
“I think that hearing loss affected my entire life” says Barthoff in the film. “I was up against a society that looked at hearing loss as a stigma. But at one point, I decided hey, I’m not going to let hearing loss run my life. I’m going to learn how to cope. And I think I cope to the best of my ability.”
Lynch and Yu hope the film will help educate society about disability and aging. They plan to show it in school and university settings, as well as at conferences and senior centers. They also intend to submit it to film festivals, and hope that it can eventually be shown on TV. More information on the documentary is available at: http://www.juliusfilm.com/.