Braille Monitor                                                                November 2006


An Iowa Pioneer Retires

by Elsie Hiebert Lamp

Jan Gawith

From the Editor: Elsie Lamp is one of the leaders of the NFB of Idaho and president of its Gateway Chapter. She has also served as a commissioner for the Idaho Commission for the Blind and was the recipient of the nationally renowned Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public and Community Service, established by Mrs. John F. Kennedy. Recently she planned and hosted a retirement party for Jan Omvig Gawith in Boise. She wrote the following tribute to this quiet leader and role model as an inspiration to those who will guide coming generations of NFB leaders.

Jan Omvig Gawith (age seventy-four) has been my teacher, mentor, and friend ever since I joined the National Federation of the Blind in 1999. We held a retirement reception for her in Boise on Friday, April 21, 2006, one week before her last day as manager of Jan's Cafeteria in Boise. In remarks at her retirement celebration this longtime NFB mentor said, "Although I'll be seventy-four, I'm not finished yet. I'm looking for a job; is anyone looking for a teacher?"

Because Jan has had such a profound impact on my life (and the lives of many other blind and sighted people), I decided to do a little investigation to learn just how she got to be the Jan Omvig Gawith that we all know and love. Her earliest and enduring influences, of course, were from her wonderful family. It did not take much digging to learn that the first time a true NFB orientation and adjustment training center was established, it was in Des Moines, Iowa, by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan in July of 1960. Jan had the opportunity to be one of the very first Jernigan students. Her timing and location and position could not have been more central. Dr. Jernigan had gone to Iowa in 1958 to direct the poorly performing Iowa Commission for the Blind and to prove that the NFB philosophy would work in a state rehabilitation program for the blind. The adjustment center he built and made famous opened its doors officially on July 1 of 1960.

I also learned that Dr. Jernigan had such a deep and abiding faith in the NFB philosophy that he did not wait for an imposing building in which to teach. His goal was to instruct blind people so that they would believe in themselves and understand that they are normal people who, given proper training and opportunity, can do what other people do. He even started an orientation class in November of 1959--before he had a Commission building. When this class began, female students lived with a Commission staff member, and male students stayed at the Des Moines YMCA.

Dr. Jernigan moved the Commission for the Blind offices and programs to the newly designated building on February 1 of 1960, and Jan (she was Jan Omvig then) joined the fledgling orientation class just one month later. Since the new residential center did not yet have housing for the students, Jan continued to live in her own apartment and come to the Commission for training each day. Therefore she was one of those very fortunate early Iowa students who proved the truth of the NFB philosophy and benefited in their own lives because of that philosophy.

During Jan's year as an orientation student at the new Iowa center she joined and then became a leader in the Des Moines Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, and her lifetime career of mentoring began in earnest. Also at the end of that year of training she landed her first paid job as a blind person. She was hired as a medical secretary at a veterans hospital in Des Moines. Reliable authority has it that she was so successful and performed so well on that job that before long the VA hired another blind center graduate, JoAnn Jones Slayton, sight unseen. That's what mentoring and good role modeling is all about.

By 1963 she began another phase of her activities, which continues to this day--educating politicians. While she was vice president of the Des Moines Chapter, she worked for months and eventually got Iowa Governor Harold Hughes to come to dinner with the Jernigans, tour the Iowa Commission building, and speak to the Des Moines Chapter. Governor Hughes became a staunch supporter of the Iowa Commission's programs. Throughout her NFB career Jan has been a master at educating politicians about the blind, the NFB, and agencies training blind people.

In 1965, working with Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and a newly-elected state legislator, she took a leave of absence from the VA and worked for one legislative session as a secretary in the Iowa House of Representatives. This is not as easy as it appears on the surface. The VA first turned down Jan's request for a leave, maintaining that she was too valuable and could not be spared. Not to be deterred, Dr. Jernigan and the legislator contacted Iowa U.S. Congressman Neil Smith in Washington, D.C., and got him to use his connections at the VA to arrange for Jan's leave of absence. What do you know? Almost overnight her leave was approved.

As she was receiving training along with other new legislative secretaries, her first day on the job she was admonished sternly that she would be fired if she tried to lobby Iowa legislators. Of course she did not lobby, but she did do quite a bit of educating during that session. Imagine the impact a beautiful, competent woman gracefully using a long white cane could have moving quietly in and out of the House chamber every day for an entire legislative session.

Of course, though she could not lobby, she could answer questions when addressed directly by Iowa legislators. In addition to his annual operating budget, Dr. Jernigan had two capital appropriation bills in the legislature that session. Almost every day legislators stopped Jan and asked her about the bills, what they were all about, and what she thought about their value to the blind. Both capital appropriations passed the legislature that year, and thus began a pattern of legislative success, which continued until Kenneth Jernigan left in 1978.
In the mid-1960's Jan decided to further her education by obtaining her teaching credential. During her entire college experience she never received lower than a B except one C when she was sick during the final exam and couldn't concentrate. Once, after completing the first of a two-part exam, Jan's instructor told her that she would be getting an A for the course. What happened next is the kind of integrity that is vital for all Federationists to maintain. Jan was busy packing to move and basically blew the second part of her exam. Her instructor told her that because Jan had been promised an A she would get it. Jan asked what her real grade should be. It should be a B, was the reply. She said, "I'll take it."

During this same time Jan was serving as president of the Des Moines Chapter. Then her life took a major turn to the west. The NFB of Idaho (with help from Dr. Jernigan and the Iowa Commission for the Blind) had worked hard to get the Idaho Legislature to create an Idaho Commission for the Blind patterned on the Iowa model. The new Idaho Commission director, Kenneth Hopkins, a former Iowa center student, asked Jan to come to Idaho and help him establish orientation and adjustment programs here. She moved to Boise in February of 1968. At first she was the orientation center. She taught Braille, travel, typing, home economics, and other things to the first students who were gathered together. Eventually, of course, the Idaho Commission got its own building and inaugurated a full residential program.

In the 1970's Harry Gawith entered the picture as the new shop teacher in the Idaho center. Harry needed someone to confide in, and he and Jan became close friends. Thirty years ago Jan and Harry were married May 9, 1976, and they have worked closely together as a team ever since.

In 1983 Jan decided to leave her employment with the Idaho Commission and enter the Business Enterprise Program (BEP). She became the operator of the cafeteria in the Idaho Commission building. This gave her time to continue her mentoring, her work with center students, her education of Idaho politicians, and her general NFB work. She has become close friends with many of Idaho's leading politicians and has been key for many years in planning and carrying out the Idaho affiliate's annual legislative dinners. Also she can always be counted on to help with community recognition dinners, state fair displays, and bike-a-thons; selling raffle tickets; and obtaining auction items, door prizes, and the like.

In 1993 she left the Commission cafeteria and became BEP operator of Idaho's largest and most lucrative vending operation, located in the LBJ (Lynn B. Jordan) State Office Building, next to the Idaho State Capitol building. Her education of politicians has never slackened, and she can count many current and former state legislators, U.S. congressional representatives, and governors among her many close friends.

Jan will have no trouble finding things to do. Harry reached early retirement age, and they have moved on together. Harry has served as the Idaho affiliate treasurer for several decades and is a reliable sighted worker in the NFB. One of his many responsibilities is helping Diane McGeorge with door prizes at national convention. Harry is an avid golfer, and Jan wrote a Kernel Book story about choosing to golf with him rather than becoming a golf widow. She has taught others that they too can participate in golf or any other activity that interests them. At least one of her blind golfer friends has become quite successful at his game. Jan and Harry bowled on a team called the White Canes. They were a visible force in the sport. Jan graduated from Boise State University. The Gawiths are devoted Bronco fans who rarely miss a football or basketball home game of her Alma Mater.

So Jan has decided to retire from her BEP position but not from her many NFB activities. An estimated three hundred people attended her retirement party on April 21. The governor of Idaho, Dirk Kempthorne, had a framed certificate presented which reads in part: "The Office of the Governor presents this Commendation for Distinguished Public Service to Jan Gawith for twenty-three years at Jan's Cafeteria. As the Governor of the State of Idaho, I extend to you the thanks and deep appreciation of a grateful state."

The Boise NBC television channel, KTVB, sent a team to cover the retirement event, and on the evening news they aired a delightfully accurate story about Jan, the blind, and the NFB. Perhaps most treasured of all, however, was a letter to her from NFB President Marc Maurer, which was read at the retirement ceremony on Friday and again Saturday at the meeting of the Treasure Valley (Boise) Chapter. Dr. Maurer's letter reads in part:

"When I came to Idaho during the troubled time in the mid-1980's, you were gracious. Among other things you offered me canned elk. I had never had canned elk, and I have only had it three times to date. Each of the three has been at your bestowing. I am sorry that the elk had to sacrifice, but I would have been sorrier if it had not done so.

"You have provided a measure of observation, a constant measure of support, a measure of reality, and a kind of sanity to the Federation wherever you have been. Only this year we shared our first New Year's Eve. May there be many more of them, and may the joy of the good spirit run as deep and as wide as they do in your heart."

More frosting was added to the cake for Jan when her brother, Jim Omvig, and his wife Sharon from Baltimore and Jan's sister-in-law, JoAnn Omvig from Lexington, Kentucky, came to attend the retirement activities. Also Jan's cousin Becca Williamson and her children Michaila and Morgan from Paris, Idaho, joined the weekend activities.

Jan's influence factored into my joining the Federation. Jan and Harry have opened their hearts and their home to me. Their assistance with my new business and their support and concern through my life-threatening illness have been heart-warming. The generosity they have shown to me, to many others, and to the Federation is inspiring.

Dr. Jernigan's early students in Iowa who helped to prove the soundness and value of the Federation's philosophy came to be known as the "pioneers," and Jan has made a great pioneer. She has worked steadily and quietly, usually behind the scenes, but what a difference she has made. Jan, your grateful friends are proud of you and what you have done for blind people, and we thank you.