Silent News founder Julius Wiggins dies at 73

Originally appeared in Silent News, November 2001.

Julius H. Wiggins died Oct. 13 at a nursing home in Mount Laurel, N.J., due to complications stemming from congestive heart failure. He was 73.

Wiggins founded Silent News, a newspaper devoted to the deaf and hard of hearing community, in 1969. “My father had a dream, and that was to bring deaf and hard of hearing people together through the newspaper,” daughter Adele Wiggins says. “He lived to see it continue for nearly 34 years, and that was a proud achievement for him.”

Julius was born in Toronto, Canada, on Sept. 19, 1928, and attended the Belleville School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ontario, until the school became an army base during World War II. He was transferred to a vocational school in Toronto, where his skills at tailoring were noticed by his father. His father thought Julius might want to try apprenticing with fur, and Julius learned the trade rapidly. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a furrier. He worked in Toronto until he was 20, then moved to New York City.

Back in those days, it was difficult for a deaf person to be taken seriously by employers. As described in his autobiography No Sound, Julius experienced years of frustration and oppression as many employers doubted his ability to be a top furrier. However, he proved them all wrong and worked his way up into the Manhattan fur district with his expertise and skills.

Julius met Harriet Berkowitz at a deaf event in New York City. They married on March 23, 1952, and had three kids and 49 years of marriage.

In 1968, as the fur market once again fell for the second time, Julius found himself unemployed. He decided to try and request help from his vocational rehabilitation counselor in seeking appropriate employment. The vocational rehabilitation counselor referred Julius to a job in the postal service. Julius was a creative man and according to Adele, the job was difficult for him with its repetitious and tedious tasks. “Unfortunately, some of his supervisors gave him a hard time and teased him about his deafness,” Adele remembers.

That following summer, as the family traveled to California for a deaf convention, they stopped over in Las Vegas to visit relatives. As the family shopped, Julius saw a sign that said, “Who, What, When, Where and Why,” and was suddenly inspired with an idea. The family returned to their Fair Lawn, N.J., home, and Julius immediately arranged a meeting. Deaf leaders were invited, and the idea of having a newspaper serving the deaf and hard of hearing community was discussed.

“This was the time before portable TTYs and computers were available to the deaf community,” Adele says. “The North Jersey deaf community said he couldn’t do it. Some had tried, but Dad wouldn’t listen to the naysayers.”

Julius, who his family describes as a very determined and strong-willed man, proceeded to convince the deaf leaders to buy shares of Silent Press, which printed Silent News. In exchange for printing the first year’s issues of Silent News and No Sound, he would provide the publisher’s wife with a full-length white ermine mink coat.

The first issue was pasted together in the basement of the Wiggins family’s home. All the Wiggins kids were recruited and put to work for the first year’s issues. The newspaper is about to enter its 34th year, and continues to thrive with a solid subscriber base. The newspaper was run by the late Walter Schulman for the first 20 years.

Julius loved to travel, and he with his wife Harriet traveled all of Europe and Israel. He believed that high visibility was key to gathering information for the newspaper, so he and Harriet attended many conventions and gatherings. The newspaper moved back to New Jersey after several years in Rochester, N.Y. Due to Julius’s failing health, the newspaper was sold to Adele, who then became executive director in 1996.

Julius leaves behind many people. His three kids have all grown up to be successful adults. Adele is currently the executive director and owner of Silent News in Mount Laurel, N.J.; Morton Wiggins is the president of 33rd St. Records, a division of Tower Records, in California; and Shimon Wiggins is a rabbi in the Atlanta, Ga., area. Combined, they gave Julius and Harriet ten grandchildren, and plenty of memories.

He also was very active in deaf organizations, including the Temple Beth Or of the Deaf in Queens, N.Y., the Philadelphia Hebrew Association of the Deaf, New York Hebrew Association of the Deaf, Brooklyn Hebrew Society of the Deaf, and a member of the National Association of the Deaf and the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf.

“Julius and Harriet both were business role models for me to look up when I started my business in 1982,” Bob Harris of Harris Communications in Minnesota, says. “When I see the name Silent News anywhere, the first picture that pops up in my mind is always Julius and Harriet.”

Others remembers the same sense of awe upon meeting Julius. “I looked up to him and sought his ideas and guidance during the time I served as editor in chief of Silent News. He was unfailingly supportive and positive about the future of the newspaper. He was an inspiration to me and countless others,” says Betty Broecker.

“My father was always a man ahead of his time, and this is evident in his life experiences,” says Adele. “I am honored to have been able to carry on his determined dreams of bringing the deaf community together through the power of news.”

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Julius Wiggins fund, which will go towards the creation of a youth section in Silent News. Contributions may be mailed to The Julius Wiggins Fund, c/o Silent News, 135 Gaither Drive Suite F, Mount Laurel, NJ 08054.

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