The Braille Monitor May 2003
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A Woman to Remember
by Cory Golden
From the Editor: The following article first appeared as a column by Cory Golden in the Sunday, July 7, 2002, edition of the Lincoln Journal Star. Mr. Golden writes a column once a month, and several times he has devoted it to blindness. He has managed to capture the spirit of a remarkable blind woman. Here is his portrait:
She was their aunt, and for that they loved her unconditionally. So independent, so capable was Leona Jennings, however, that sometimes her young nieces became impatient with her, this most patient of women, forgetting her blindness.
But what if she was more than just their aunt? What if she was a pioneer? A heroine? Now ages eighty and seventy-three, sisters Cleo Craigie and Ramona Hill remember her story with proud smiles.
Well, my stars, Aunt Leona used to say. Ramona presses the play button. The tape starts. A woman librarian from the Nebraska Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped speaks in even tones, reading a short autobiographical essay by Leona Jennings.
Born in 1891, she was a Lincoln second-grader when she lost her sight. She'd suffered scarlet fever and a fall from a porch, hitting her head. Her family never knew which to blame. She had been out of school for three years when her parents--who insisted on treating her normally, even as others left her out of Easter and Christmas pageants--discovered the Nebraska School for the Blind in Nebraska City.
At fourteen she suffered a mild case of polio that would cause back pain all her life. At sixteen she lost her father to pneumonia. She prospered anyway. At the University of Nebraska she studied piano and flute, earning a scholarship. Upon her graduation, a school for the blind in the Bronx, New York, hired her to teach music.
After a time she took a job across town at the Jewish Center for the Blind and was awarded a scholarship to study music at the David Mannes School.
In 1931 she sailed the Atlantic on a converted troop ship. She made the stormy, eight-day journey by herself only to have a taxi driver warn her a blind person shouldn't travel alone in Paris. She learned there how the French, who created one of the first schools for the blind, taught music to the sightless, and she was given a white cane.
After a brief stay in London, she returned to Lincoln after eight years away. That white cane, her nieces believed, was the first of its kind in America.
Dr. Ron Ferguson of the Louisiana Center for the Blind is writing a book that will include a history of cane travel. He said last week Jennings's cane could not have been the longer, metal cane seen on the streets now: it was developed in the 1940's for blinded servicemen, as was formal instruction in its use.
Though the cane story may not have been passed down just so, Jennings was in many other ways ahead of a time when the blind were often pushed aside. She began teaching piano lessons to sighted children upon her return home. The music she ordered for them had to be read to her, note by note, so she could transcribe it with a Braille slate, first for one hand, then the other. Ramona watched her aunt brush her fingertips over the notes, then play, then stop again, read, then play. Just once through and the music, be it Dvorak or Chopin, was hers.
In 1942 Jennings became the state's lone home teacher for the blind. Funded largely by local charities, she traveled from town to town helping those without sight gain independence, giving instruction in everything from how to use a cane and read Braille to cooking, knitting, and typing.
Sometimes she took a bus. Or she caught rides on rural mail trucks, spending the night in drafty farmhouses and returning home sniffing back a cold. A train conductor once forgot to let her off at a stop in western Nebraska, so she spent the night at the closest accommodations to the Cheyenne, Wyoming, depot--the city jail. That was among her favorite stories.
That was the woman her nieces grew up listening to play piano, tell jokes, tune in Eddie Cantor on the radio--a woman who would simply wait for the next bus if she missed the first one.
She took the bus downtown, using her cane to travel on errands, folding a $1 bill differently than a $10. She knitted and cooked, marking the wrapping on yarn and labels on cans with a system of her own. Jennings founded the Lincoln Music Forum; was a member of the Braille club; attended Second Baptist Church; and spent free time winning radio contests, playing a mean game of checkers, helping her nieces with homework. Well, my stars, she would say, in amazement.
If she believed her yard needed weeding, she did it herself, her fingers combing the grass for weeds. "She didn't have `can't' in her vocabulary," Ramona says. "She always said much worse things could have happened to her than to be blind." Jennings retired in 1963. In 1967, two years before her death from cancer at seventy-seven, she was awarded the Good Neighbor Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for her work.
"No one has enjoyed life more." It's the librarian, reading Jennings's essay. "A blind person must not be afraid of challenges--if the mountain won't come to you, you go to the mountain." The tape ends.
Snowbirds now, Ramona and Cleo spend part of their year living in Arizona. There, as in Lincoln, they see blind people walking confidently with canes and think of Leona Jennings. She was their aunt, yes, but the sisters understand now just how remarkable she was, how she set an example, how she refused to accept the darkness of low expectations. "Well, my stars," she always said.
Well, my stars.
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