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With similar afflictions, they found affection


November 1, 2019

Carlton County residents Jack Thornton and Joyce Campbell had blindness in common. When they chose to marry in 1954, their story became a sensation across the country and the community rallied behind them. Photos courtesy Thornton family, Carlton County Historical Society

Tragedy happens in an instant. To triumph over it, well, that can take much longer.

One day you are simply a newly minted teenager leaving school. One day you are an infantryman fixed in a foxhole, already accustomed to a daily deluge of enemy fire.

In an instant, you are literally blinded.


Joyce Campbell of Cloquet fell flat on her back. The icy snowball had hit her square in the face. Her school books went flying, she probably hit the back of her head - hard.

It was boys horsing around. She didn't want to get them in trouble. She was fine. At age 13, she was headstrong that way.

But she wasn't fine. Already inhibited by cataracts from birth, Joyce's vision was flagging. After holding out for a few days, she could no longer hide it.

Her retinas had been severely damaged. There would be several surgeries and hope beyond hope. But it was the mid-1940s and medical treatment didn't exist. The facts were plain. Joyce was gradually losing her sight, and would eventually be blind for life.


Carlton High School graduate John Thornton was known as "Jack," and followed his older brother Ed's path from the past decade - serving in a war far away from home. Jack was a big guy, athletic and headstrong.

He found himself in the 45th Infantry unit, one of four National Guard units active in Korea. They faced constant combat for 429 days. In Korea, you won a hill one day, lost it, and had to retake it.

Jack was a machine gunner and found himself in the Haean Basin, in a hellish place called the Punchbowl, in late 1952. Grenades were being launched into his foxhole. He had successfully tossed some out. Then his luck ran out.

The grenade exploded in front of him. He was instantly blinded. One side of his body was paralyzed from the shock. He lost eight teeth, had a cracked vertebrae, and lost some hearing.

Years later, he would describe the next stage in his war story to a reporter visiting a reunion of blinded soldiers who had met in a Veterans Administration hospital in Chicago after they were injured.

"There we were, all four of us guys, at the young age of 22, 23 ... They gave me my last rites, several times. We were there with guys with limbs missing, heads blown apart. I tell you, we were mutilated."


While Jack recovered in Chicago, a woman 400 miles away in Faribault, Minnesota was thriving. She was a star attendee at the school for the blind there, 50 miles south of Minneapolis.

The first thought was that Joyce would stay at home. But she was having none of that. She insisted on continuing her education and soon she was spending school years in Faribault and summers in Cloquet.

She was more determined than social, but starred in school plays and speech events. She played piano and other musical instruments. She became president of the Junior Red Cross in Faribault and wrote articles that were published in national magazines advocating for the blind.

She had entered a national beauty contest and was deemed the second-most beautiful "blind girl" in the country.

In May of 1953, Joyce was featured in a series of 16 photographs in the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune magazine. It was a feature on the school in Faribault and "how blind girls become homemakers." "Talented, attractive" Joyce is shown going through the steps in baking a cake.

She graduated soon after that publicity, winning a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.


And something else had happened. She met someone, on an arranged date, while on a spring break in Cloquet in 1953.

A friend had set her up with a blind man who was also visiting home. Joyce recalled later that she was reluctant. "He had been blind only four months," she said. "I was afraid he would be the kind who would want to cry on my shoulder about his troubles. He wasn't like that at all. I was amazed at the progress he had made."

Joyce said he had been able to adjust to his blindness and perform tasks in those four months that took her four years to conquer.

Jack Thornton was just as headstrong as she was.

As he recalled later: "I'm sure every one of us could have gone home to our mother's, father's house and sat down in an easy chair and just existed. But these guys, all of us, wanted something more."

While Joyce was admittedly shy, with a limited circle of confidantes, Jack was an "extrovert," with friends all over the county. They found that the dichotomy worked for them as a couple. By May of 1954, he presented her with an engagement ring.


A few months before his life changed in Korea, Jack had been in Carlton County on leave. He walked in downtown Cloquet that spring day and paused at a photography studio's window display. There was a picture of Joyce Campbell, the one that would be used, along with her biographical information, in the beauty contest.

"She sure is pretty," Jack recalled thinking. "Too bad she's blind."

While Joyce was being feted in November of 1952 for finishing second among 76 contestants in the contest - earnestly designed to normalize blindness - Jack was in a hospital in Japan, dealing with his own new reality.

He would later date that pretty girl for several months before realizing she was the pretty girl from the display window. The coincidence wasn't lost on reporters near and far who caught wind in the summer of 1954 that a veteran blinded in Korea was going to marry a blind woman from his home county.

Neither Joyce or Jack could have predicted what would happen next - that their impending Sept. 25, 1954, marriage would be celebrated in newspapers and news reels across the country, catch the attention of Pope Pius XII, be entered into the Congressional Record and stir county residents to unprecedented, compassionate action.

Next week, read about Carlton County's seemingly wedding of the century, and how Joyce and Jack's road to triumph didn't end with the fairytale wrappings placed around them at the time of their marriage.


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