Braille Monitor                                                                November 2006


What Comes after Fifty?

by Tom Bickford

Tom Bickford

From the Editor: Before I attended my first national convention in 1975, I listened spellbound to the long-playing recordings of recent convention banquets. We no longer prepare such recordings. They included everything significant that occurred during the banquet, from presentation of affiliate charters, scholarships (just one in those days), and awards, to the breathlessly awaited banquet address. The festivities included the singing of Federation songs, and leading those songs in those days was Tom Bickford. I did not know who he was, but I knew he could sing and he could lead a huge crowd in singing. He taught me my first Federation songs, long before I met him in person.

Through all these years Tom has been one of the quiet NFB leaders whom he extols in the following reflection. When we needed someone to lead the singing, he sang, and when he realized that we needed a clear manual to teach people the fundamentals of using a long white cane, he wrote it (Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane). For many years Tom worked at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, where he demonstrated every day that blind people can and do work competitively. Now he has retired. These transition moments in life invite reflection and rededication to what is important. Here are Tom Bickford's personal conclusions:

When I was helping my granddaughter learn to count, the next number was fifty-one. But I am talking now about years in the Federation. I suppose the answer is still fifty-one, but there is much more to it than arithmetic.

It was in October of 1956 that I said, "Mr. Chairman, I would like to join this chapter." Kenneth Jernigan was president of the local chapter in Oakland, California, then, and I was a student at the California Orientation Center for the Blind. I have learned many things by being a member of the Federation and many more by participating in and contributing to the activities of the Federation. Traveling to conventions helped polish my travel skills. Being a guest in the homes of other Federationists and hosting them in my own home polished my social skills. Receiving encouragement on job applications helped me become more willing to assert myself on the job. Acting as an officer in local chapters developed my organizational aptitudes. The list goes on, but it would get too long.

I know that I am not at all the longest-term member, but there aren't very many of us left at national conventions who respond when Dr. Maurer asks, "Who attended their first convention in the 1950's?" I have kept the faith with Federation philosophy. I have worked for opportunities for my fellow blind people and myself. I have plugged away at jobs I didn't always like when they were assigned to me or even when I was the one doing the assigning. That, however, is the way of the world. All jobs have aspects of drudgery.

My father, who lived on three continents through a little more than the first half of the twentieth century and saw good times and bad wherever he was, told me that the thing that makes any organization work properly is the corps of hard workers in the middle ranks. I have heard the same thing about the army, any army. Generals provide the long-term goals, and privates do the work. But the most critical leadership is at the rank of top sergeant. They are the ones who keep the whole organization going. In the Federation those people are the local chapter officers and those who chair committees and special interest groups. I have seen chapters grow or fade because of the quality of their local leadership. I have participated at that level some of the time even though I would often have preferred to be below that level of responsibility. The Federation gave me the opportunity to use whatever talents I have and some I didn't know I had, so I will continue to contribute my efforts to the cause that gave me my life, and I mean it.

What would I have been without the Federation? I would have ended up as a poor (and I mean financially as well as spiritually), helpless blind man living out my life not knowing what opportunities I had missed. Because of the Federation I have received many educational opportunities, found and held employment, married and had a family, (and without the Federation's influence in my life my wife wouldn't have thought me worth a second glance), taken part in my community, and generally led a full and rewarding life. Of course there is more. After fifty-one comes fifty-two, and on it goes. Unfinished projects linger from the past and new ones show up every now and again. I will stay with the Federation because it has been good to me, and I will do what I can to be good to the NFB.