by Daveed Mandell
The San Francisco Bay Area's blind community has lost one of its most talented, dedicated and witty members, with the death in late September of John di Francesco. He was 86 years old. John was a brilliant, gifted and highly respected musician, baritone opera singer, teacher and braille music expert.
Born in Lawrence, Mass., in 1919, John lost his sight from spinal meningitis at the age of 2. His first language was Italian, but he learned English at 7 when he began attending Perkins School for the Blind.
After finishing high school, John earned a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he studied voice, piano and organ, and graduated summa cum laude in 1944.
Following his years at the conservatory, John was mentored by renowned opera star Ezio Pinza, who was so impressed with John's voice that he paid for John to study with fellow singer and voice coach Enrico Rosati in New York. There, John had a weekly radio program, on which he sang operatic selections, Italian folk songs and light classical numbers.
In 1947, John married Muriel Cook, whom he met during his studies. In 1949, he appeared as Pinza's protege on a CBS television special. John made his Town Hall debut in 1950 after being chosen as a winner by the Music Education League in its Concerto and Vocal Competition.
John moved to Oakland in 1957, and became music director and instructor at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley. He taught music and English, and led the school's Glee Club for 22 years. John spent many hours of his own time reading plays and teaching drama and various musical instruments. He expected the best from all of his students, and inspired them to work up to their capacity. In his last years at the school, John led an unsuccessful fight against the eventual move of the school to Fremont in the late 1970s.
John worked tirelessly to bring together the California Council of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind of California (ACBC). That group had been known until the 1970s as the Associated Blind of California, but changed its name to ACBC.
John retired in 1980, but he didn't stop teaching. He participated in a wide variety of musical events, ranging from fully staged operas to concerts of Lieder, Oratorio and regular productions of Handel's "Messiah." John founded the Vista College Chamber Chorale in 1979. He served as Protestant Choir director at the Alameda Naval Air Station, and conducted choirs at several Bay Area churches.
In the late 1990s, due to severe hearing loss, John was forced to stop teaching. However, he remained active with organizations of the blind, especially the California Council of the Blind's (CCB) Bay View Chapter, of which he was a founding member in 1959. During the 1980s, John was actively involved in the unification effort of the CCB with the Associated Blind of California (ABC) and ACB. He was also instrumental in working with the City of Oakland to install audible pedestrian signals. John worked with several other blind Oakland residents on a project to produce tactile maps of that city, but it was never completed.
For many years, John vigorously campaigned for increased braille literacy as an active member of the Braille Revival League (BRL). A recognized expert on braille music, he served for several decades as a proofreader for the Library of Congress.
John's wife Muriel died in 1996. He is survived by his sons Paul, Tom and Michael.
John was a kind and caring human being, with a quick and sharp wit. He was also a persistent advocate on behalf of blind people. John had a profoundly warm, deep, authoritative and impressive professional singing and speaking voice. A rapid and fluent braille reader, he read aloud beautifully. John coached many singers and actors throughout the Bay Area. His breath control, diction and expression in both singing and speaking were always meticulous. John was a magnificent singer, actor, choral conductor and teacher. We will always remember him fondly. May John rest in peace.