Braille Monitor                                                                                 February 2006


Golf Widow or Golfer—I Had to Choose

by Jan Omvig Gawith

From the Editor: Jan Gawith has been an active member and leader in the National Federation of the Blind for more than forty years. She lives and works in the state of Idaho. In the following story Jan tells us how she learned to replace the words “I can’t” with “How can I?” and of the striking difference that transformation made in her life. A slightly different version of this story appeared in the Kernel Book I Can Feel Blue on Monday. Here is what she has to say:

Jan Gawith

When I was a girl, few sports interested me—I couldn’t see very well and did not do well. When schoolmates did throw me the ball, be it softball or basketball, I usually missed it or got hit by it. My glasses were often bent or broken. Also I was usually the last one chosen for the team.

When I tried miniature golf, my play was clumsy and hesitant. When bowling, I had considerable difficulty finding my ball and then approaching the lane straight. My success was about the same as in miniature golf. And my friends seemed to have fun water skiing, but they always found excuses to keep me from trying. Eventually it became evident to me that they were afraid for my safety. After all, I didn’t see very well.

Following high school, the next ten years of work, college, and teaching were fraught with great difficulty and many frustrations. My eyesight continued to fail. After I lost a job I had worked hard to get, a friend suggested that I contact the center for the blind. I wasn’t excited by the idea, but I really had little to lose. Only later did I realize what a fortunate choice I had made when I decided to go to the center. That is how it happened that nearly ten years out of high school my life really began.

The night I was interviewed about entering the training program, I met the head of the agency. Yes, I said that night. He was still at work at 7:30 in the evening. Who else would that have been but Dr. Kenneth Jernigan?

I was lucky and blessed that my training took place in Iowa in 1960-61 while he was directing programs for the blind there. We all came to know that working late nights and early mornings was not unusual for him but the norm. Dr. Jernigan did not pussyfoot around with statements like, “You don’t see very well.” Instead he flatly told me that I was blind. His direct approach helped me. If memory serves me correctly, I gulped and thought, “Okay, now what?”

Shortly after that evening visit I began as a student at the orientation and adjustment center. There was no more time to worry about that lost job. I was too busy learning—cane travel, typing, home economics, and Braille—or so I thought. In retrospect and with 20/20 hindsight, I know I was really learning to live. “I can’t” had to be eliminated from my vocabulary and “How can I?” inserted. Some activities which I had formerly considered beyond my capacity, if I had considered them at all, became an accepted way of life. During my year at the center I gained confidence and freedom. I was also introduced to the National Federation of the Blind, and it has been an important part of my life for more than forty years.

My formal training at the center ended in April of 1961—the learning from the training has never ceased. And, with the exception of about two years, I have either worked or been in college ever since. One of the most exciting jobs I have had was serving as secretary to a member of the state legislature. Just being seen carrying on my normal activities by members of the legislature was helpful. We secretaries were told that we would be dismissed if we lobbied the legislators, but walking down the halls with my long white cane for the mail probably influenced them more than words could have done. Otherwise I was careful only to answer their questions, and they had many. My favorite long-term job was working with other blind people at the Idaho Commission for the Blind.

But what about the water skiing, bowling, and golf? I’ve now done them all. The year before my husband Harry (who is sighted) and I were married, we joined a bowling league, of which we were members for twenty-three years. We continue to league bowl. I use a rail to help me walk straight. A few people complain about the rails, but not many, and the only perfect game I have ever witnessed was bowled against us with the rails. After that we threatened to take them down whenever that fellow was an opponent. He refused.
When I was about sixty, my husband took up golf with a vengeance. This presented me with a new dilemma. After all, it is one thing to bowl using a rail and quite another to strike a tiny little ball that is about four feet from your hand. After all, I hadn’t been able to play even miniature golf when I could see some. I temporarily forgot the how-can-I aspect of my way of life. I rode around in the golf cart part of the time, but five hours of that gets boring. Looking back, I can see that I put some strain on the golfing relatives; my sister-in-law sometimes decided she would rather not go.

One evening a family group was in the yard knocking golf balls around, and my brother-in-law coaxed me to try. They were using whiffle balls which won’t go very far. I tried and finally connected with a few, but I wanted to hit a real ball. The first one I hit went about twenty feet—behind me. I finally did hit one that traveled nearly a block. I knew that other blind people golfed, and I began to think “how can I” instead of making excuses. I understand that none of us will or cares to do everything—I still don’t wish to snow ski or float the river—but simply not to try was rather shameful. As Paul Harvey would say, “And now for the rest of the story.”

About six years ago I began going golfing, and I was really awful, going by the scores. I have since dropped thirty to sixty strokes off the game on any given day, and I am still awful as scores go, but, as a friend of mine said of himself, “Golf only costs me about ten cents a stroke!” The best part, however, is that instead of staying home all weekend doing exciting things such as laundry, I am often at the city course being highly frustrated along with my husband. The truth about golf is that it frustrates everyone, and I’m not there to be a professional golfer but to spend some quality time with my husband.

We also take this time to educate others about blindness. For the most part golfers are a great bunch of people. Some openly believe it is amazing that I golf. We spend some time disabusing them of this notion. Others ask questions and volunteer to line me up. One fellow from Baltimore who was in the group behind us said, “I just knew you would be slow when I saw you [meaning my cane], but now I see it is not you but the guys in front of us who are slowing us all down.” Once I hit a thirty-one yard putt. Another time I missed an eight inch putt. Considering this, with tongue in cheek I must say my golf game is truly amazing!

I will doubtless never be a particularly good golfer, mostly because I do not physically have the strength to smash the ball, making long distance hits out of the question. I do have fun and get some much needed exercise, and I’m not a golf widow. The most important thing is that I went back to the how-can-I mode of thinking that I learned so many years ago from my friend and mentor, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. My thanks go to him for helping me to create a fruitful life for myself.