John and Dorothy use their gifts to bring joy to others
John Giallombardo remembers the first time art became an important part of his life. “I was born totally blind, but I had an operation when I was 2 that restored some of my vision,” he says. “When I started school, I couldn’t see the blackboard. But instead of telling my teachers, I’d draw pictures. I suppose it helped me cope.”
John’s early years were not easy. “My grandmother was the biggest influence in my childhood,” he says. “My parents were not spiritual in any way. I wasn’t even baptized until I was 11, and that only happened at my grandmother’s insistence.” She also paved the way for John to receive specialized education. “My grandmother’s best friend had a son who was a priest,” he explains. “He was instrumental in contacting schools for the visually impaired to find me some options.” When John’s parents divorced, three of his siblings went to an orphanage, and John attended the Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Janesville from seventh grade to 11th grade.
That experience changed John’s life. “It was the first time I had ever met another blind person,” he says. “The most important thing that came from the school wasn’t so much an academic education, but socialization. No one was ostracized at the school. Everyone was the same, no matter how much you could or couldn’t see.” John made strong friendships that he still enjoys today. “My classmates were my family,” he says.
John met the love of his life, Dorothy, when they both attended Viterbo University in La Crosse. “We went to the same coffee shop every day, and I worked up the nerve to ask her out,” he remembers. “At the end of our first date, I said, ‘Someday I’m going to ask you to marry me.’” Just two months later, Dorothy accepted his proposal and they married the following June.
Dorothy was fascinated by John because they came from such different backgrounds. “I had a very normal Catholic upbringing in Genoa,” she says. “We went to Mass every Sunday and received a good Catholic education.” When Dorothy was in second grade, her family got a piano. “My mom taught me and my siblings to read musical notes, and then I started piano lessons in sixth grade at St. Rose Convent,” she says. Those lessons began a lifelong love and career in music.
“I gave music lessons at home while our children were growing up,” Dorothy says. “Then an opportunity opened at St. Mary’s Grade School in Marathon, and I taught music there for 13 years.” She decided to switch careers and became a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home, but still utilized her musical background. “I would lead sing-alongs with the residents and play piano for chapel services,” she says. “Music enhances people’s lives in such a beautiful way.”
These days, Dorothy uses her skills and talents to support her parish. “I’m the music director at St. Matthew Parish, and I also provide pastoral care, visiting the sick and homebound and planning funerals,” she says. “I find it very fulfilling work.”
John also had a fulfilling career, utilizing his master’s degree in education and family counseling in numerous ways. “Bishop John Paul asked me to train at the University of Notre Dame to be a post-abortion counselor, which I did for five years before working for Marathon Social Services,” he says. John also taught college courses, and he and Dorothy trained couples throughout the diocese in Natural Family Planning.
While being visually impaired never slowed John down, 10 years ago he received a gift that enhanced his life in ways he never imagined. “I wanted a guide dog but thought they were only for the totally blind. I found out that’s not true. I got on some waiting lists, but it was a long process,” John says. One day, he was searching the internet and found a program called Pilot Dogs. “I contacted them and, within a week, an eye exam and physical were scheduled,” he says. A month later, he was on a plane to Ohio to meet Cheyenne, his English Labrador guide dog.
With the help of generous donors, Pilot Dogs provides a guide dog, travel expenses, training and room and board, all at no cost to the student. “The month-long training is intensive, and after the third day, I was ready to give up and come home,” John admits. But he is grateful that he persevered.
“Cheyenne is exceptional,” he says. “She gives me the freedom and confidence that I didn’t realize I needed. Before I got her, crossing streets and walking through parking lots really scared me. She is very good at keeping me safe. I am so grateful to have her.”
John turned that gratitude into something more when he utilized his love of art to raise money for Pilot Dogs. “I gave them a couple of paintings I had done to be auctioned off at a fundraiser. They sold for $150 each,” he says. “I did a couple more paintings for fundraisers and word got out. Before long, I was getting requests from all over the country!” John’s artwork has also raised money for the Lions Club, which prints his artwork on notecards.
“I’ve had no formal training in painting—it’s all self-taught. I know I’ll never be the greatest artist in the world, but I enjoy creating something beautiful from a blank canvas,” John says. “Painting for me is a very spiritual experience. I compare it to Dorothy’s music, which is also very spiritual. It’s gratifying to share that with others.”
When Dorothy and John reflect on their 50 years together, they readily state they feel blessed. “We have a good life, raising our seven children and now seeing our 11 grandchildren grow,” says Dorothy.
John agrees. “I recently had an amazing experience with our 7-year-old granddaughter. She told me she wanted to learn to paint. She chose a very colorful sunset scene and I helped her dab paint on the canvas and showed her how to use a brush,” he shares. “When she finished, she said we were going to spend a lot of time together, painting. Now, I don’t know how long her interest will actually last, but it’s something that I’ll never forget. It meant the world to me.”
Story by Mary Ellen Bliss
Published in the December 2022 issue of Catholic Life Magazine