Thursday, October 22, 2009

99-Year-Old Needham resident subject of documentary

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Every morning for the past six years, 99-year-old Julius Barthoff has awakened in time to meet the Boston Globe deliveryman, taken a stack of about 20 papers, and placed them on the door of every subscriber in his Needham senior citizen housing building.

Barthoff, who has been profoundly hearing impaired since he was an infant, wears large hearing aids in both ears and has a constant smile on his face as he describes his morning routine. He says he takes care to gently fold the papers and prop them upright, so that when each resident opens his or her door the paper falls right inside.

“They don’t even need to walk into the halls to look for it,” he said.

Although he has a list of Globe subscribers in the building and makes the rounds daily, the deliveries are not a job for Barthoff. It’s just his daily good deed – one that has earned him the attention of a local documentary producer and helped him recently win the national Oticon Focus on People Award, which regognizes individuals who help eliminate negative stereotypes of hearing loss.

He has worked throughout his life to educate people about hearing loss and advocate for the hearing impaired. According to his award nomination, he has spoken at schools, lobbied for a TTY telephone for the hearing impaired at the Needham library, and helped fellow seniors get hearing tests.

The film, which is going by the working title “Julius,” focuses on his story as a means to address the issues facing people with hearing loss. Caitrin Lynch, an assistant professor of humanities and social sciences at Olin College in Needham and the producer of the movie, said the project helps viewers see the world through Barthoff’s eyes.

During one day of shooting, Lynch followed Barthoff during his 45-minute paper delivery route through the hallways of his building. Lynch said on Sundays, when the paper is thick and heavy, Barthoff goes back and forth from the lobby to deliver each paper individually, rather than carrying them in a small stack as he does on other days.

“We were exhausted, chasing Julius up and down the halls while he delivered the Boston Globe, but he loved it,” she said.

Lynch said that throughout the production of the film, she was continually inspired by Barthoff’s attitude and his ability to overcome the difficulties he has faced in his life.

“It’s hard for Julius to have meaningful relationships with people because of his hearing,” Lynch said, “and he is so remarkable because he has never let that stop him.”

As for his morning deliveries, Barthoff said it has helped him connect with other residents. A widower, Barthoff lives alone in a basement apartment, but he says he now knows everyone in the building. He sometimes leaves notes or get-well cards in with the papers. However, not everyone knows that he is behind the paper delivery.

“There are a few people who don’t know, I’m sure they think it’s part of the subscription service,” Barthoff said. “I don’t make a big deal of it.”

“In the Judaic religion, you’re asked to do a good deed every day, and that’s the way I look at it. It’s not a chore. It’s just something you’re supposed to do.”

Lynch nominated Barthoff for the Oticon Focus on People Award, which he won this month. In her nomination, she said “he has been an advocate for recognition of the hearing impaired population for his entire life.”

Barthoff said he dreamed of being a lawyer when he was younger, but could not pursue it because of his disability. Instead, he worked as a salesman for manufacturing products until his retirement years ago. He communicates well, but his daughter, Toby Sandler, sometimes helps him understand conversation by repeating words loudly and enunciating each syllable.

“A lot of people don’t want anything to do with hearing loss, even people that have hearing loss. They’re not interested in finding out how to cope,” Barthoff said, noting that he is trying to change that.

Lynch hopes to continue his mission by using the film to educate people on the challenges of living with a hearing impairment. With director Titi Yu, they plan on submitting the documentary to festivals and showing it at conferences and disability awareness events.

The documentary is set to be completed by the beginning of 2010. The last day of shooting will be on Nov. 3, Barthoff’s 100th birthday.

“He has faced so much hardship throughout his life,” Lynch said, “but he’s just made a great life.”