From the Editor: Tuesday morning, January 6, word began circulating around the country that our longtime friend and a mentor to many hundreds, Dick Edlund, had died. For those of us who had known Dick the world was immediately a bit dimmer. In his prime Dick was larger than life. His deep, resonant Kansas drawl could smooth ruffled feathers, unify and excite a crowd to action, or reduce a group to helpless laughter, depending on his intention. He was NFB treasurer from 1974 to 1988 and a member of the national board of directors for even longer. He served as president of the NFB of Kansas from 1974 to 1990.
Dick’s rambling, folksy responses did not suit him for TV interviews, but at the 1979 convention, when we were engaged in an internal political floor fight that we preferred not to have the press observe, Dick and I were charged with snagging a Miami Herald reporter who showed up unexpectedly and carrying him off to a late lunch and a background briefing on the issues facing the National Federation of the Blind. Dick was masterly in his entertaining and rambling explanations of the issues we faced. The reporter was charmed and confident that he was getting the inside scoop even as he was missing the fireworks on the convention floor. When I told Dick afterward how impressed I was at his performance, he shrugged it off by saying, “That was simple. When you said we had to go to lunch with Miami Harold, I was expecting a hit man. Reporters are easy to deal with.”
Dick was an original. Knowing him convinced you that blindness didn’t have to stop a determined person from doing exactly what he or she wanted to do. He lived that philosophy every day, but he devoted his life to helping those who did not have his courage, inventiveness, wit, or determination to change the world for the blind. He welcomed anyone who was willing to stand beside him on the barricade, and his strong arm was always ready to help others over the rough ground. Here are remembrances from several of Dick’s thousands of friends:
Marc Maurer: Richard Edlund (known to everybody as Dick) died on Tuesday, January 6, 2009. He was eighty-four. His long life is a record of joy, humor, friendship, public service, and accomplishment. Few people have touched the lives of so many—and done it with such humility.
I met Dick in the early 1970s when I was a student and he was a businessman. He told me that he operated a hardware store. He had been blinded in his teenage years, he said, but he had led an exciting life despite his blindness. He wasn’t good at Braille because his duties in the hardware store required him to cut glass frequently. Customers would come in wanting glass cut to a particular size. Dick would take a large sheet of glass and cut it to fit the window that needed to be repaired. He cut the glass with a glass cutter, a very small tool with a tiny, very hard cutting wheel at the end. By placing this wheel against the glass and pressing heavily, he could score the glass. A sharp tap on the scored glass would break it along the line he had made. Cutting glass required precision measurement and extreme care in using the glass-cutting tool. It also created very sharp edges of cut glass. All of us who have cut glass in this way have also found our fingers bleeding now and then. After a time the sensitivity in the ends of Dick’s fingers diminished.
Dick was always getting involved in some kind of business. He owned an airport for a time—a small private one. A number of his friends kept airplanes at his airport, and Dick owned several planes himself. He explained to me once that it is necessary when flying a single engine plane to learn your whereabouts. Sometimes it is difficult to know your location with any precision. Dick kept roadmaps in his plane. When he got lost, he would buzz the water tower of the nearest town to read its name. Then he would get out the road maps to find out what state he was in. He did not think this was much of a problem—it was all part of owning a private plane.
Dick had an interest in an auction barn. Each week he and his friends would show up to auction whatever people had brought. He said that some auctioneers had a partner placed in the crowd to bid up the price on products being sold. Because Dick was aware that this type of artificial bidding occurred in many auctions, he became more watchful of his fellow human beings. He said that they were about as honest as the circumstances warranted. He was good-humored about it, but he kept in mind that sometimes not every activity is straightforward.
Dick’s experience with business made him a very strong supporter of those who were unable to speak and act for themselves. He travelled to sheltered workshops throughout the United States to assist in organizing them for collective bargaining. At the beginning of his efforts, unions in sheltered workshops were unknown. Subminimum wages for these blind workers were commonplace. Dick wanted blind workers to have the same rights of collective bargaining that sighted employees enjoyed. He is personally responsible for bringing collective bargaining to a number of sheltered shop operations. I went with Dick on some of his organizing trips. It was amazing to watch him do his work. He would walk into a room where sheltered shop employees were gathered, and he would say, “I wanna talk with you folks just a bit.” In about thirty seconds there would be a feeling of warmth. The workers trusted him instinctively.
When Primo Foianini was employed at the Utah sheltered workshop, trouble erupted. Primo had a tape recorder running while he was being attacked and physically struck by the supervisor in the sheltered shop. Dick Edlund and I went to Utah to see what could be done. The sheltered shop was operated by the government of the state under the direction of the board of education. The superintendent of the board would not meet with us, and public laws in the state prohibited union organizing of a state-operated facility. Dick suggested that we go see the governor. Everybody told us that this could not be done. They said, “You can’t just walk in on the governor!” But we did. Before we had departed from the governor’s office, he had expressed the view that the board of education was outside of his jurisdiction. Dick Edlund was not impressed. He told me that any governor as weak as the one we had met would be out of office in no time if he lived in Kansas.
Dick Edlund was a tough-minded human being who was always filled with good humor. He told me one time that somebody asked him how many people worked in the state office building in Topeka, where he was serving as a member of the legislature. His response was, “Oh, about half.”
Dick was a joyous man with an unshakeable faith in the goodness of humanity and the possibility of building a brighter tomorrow. His friends were legion, and he was always hoping to find another one. He would help you in case of need, and he would ask you to join him if a fight was imminent. His mind was good, but his spirit was great. To relax with him was a pleasure. To plan a campaign with him was an inspiration. To engage in combat along with him was to have superb judgment and unshakable determination at your back. He made his life worth living, and you were left in no doubt that yours was better because of knowing him.
Stephen O. Benson: As a member of the national scholarship committee for twenty-four years, I took seriously my responsibility to introduce each day’s mentee to as many national leaders as possible as well as members whose careers or experience matched the scholarship winner’s aspirations or whose advice and counsel could make a difference in the student’s future. On the first day of convention I would take my winner to the exhibit hall and introduce him or her to the NFB through our literature, after which we would adjourn to some quiet place and talk about the agenda and the literature we had gathered. On one occasion the first person we met was Dick Edlund, long after he had left the national board but while he was still serving in the Kansas legislature. I introduced my mentee to Dick and said, “Here is a man who doesn’t know any jokes.”
To which Dick replied, quick as a flash, “Except the one about the little boy, seated on his grandfather’s lap listening to a fairy story that began with ‘Once upon a time.’”
After which the little boy said, “Grandpa, do all fairy stories begin with ‘Once upon a time?’”
The grandfather replied, “All except the one that begins, ‘When I’m elected….’”
Dick had an unlimited supply of jokes and stories; and why wouldn’t he? He had a lifetime of wonderful experiences from which to draw. Dick was not flashy or flamboyant, but you couldn’t talk with him for any length of time without concluding that here was a man whose calm, confident demeanor revealed enormous confidence and genuine care for his fellow man. He had much to contribute, and he did so without reservation. One could learn an awful lot from Dick Edlund. His contribution to the Federation and to the people of Kansas will be missed tremendously. I will miss him, but with great pleasure I celebrate having known him, having shared a libation or two, and having the knowledge that here was a man who lived the Federation philosophy in everything he did, from owning an airport, to cutting glass in his hardware store, to helping to organize sheltered shop workers, and to blazing trails in the Kansas state legislature.
I have but one regret with respect to Dick Edlund, and that is that everybody now coming into the National Federation of the Blind can’t sit down and talk with and learn from a guy I always regarded as a star. Rest in peace, Dick. We all can do the same for having known you.
Gary Wunder: Dick Edlund was one of the primary people responsible for getting me involved in the Federation, for teaching me, and for believing in me when some others didn't. Dick had been hospitalized since sometime in early October, and his last few days were spent in hospice care.
Many of us remember when Dick was our longtime national treasurer and the state president in Kansas. He also served three terms, from 1990 to 1996, in the Kansas legislature and was a champion for sheltered shop workers and a goodwill ambassador for all blind people. Dick meant so very much to me that it is hard to know where to start, and I'm sure that many of you have similar feelings.
Norma Crosby: We will remember the great times we had working with Dick on sheltered workshop issues. When Dick was the treasurer of this organization, he always had time to talk with everyone. I can recall occasions when we planned to have dinner in Washington or at a national convention with Dick, but it just didn't always happen because so many people swarmed around him to tell a story or to listen to one of his. He had lots of them, and they were always good.
He will be missed in our household. I am sorry that many of our young members haven't had the chance to meet him. When Dick was in good health, Dr. Jernigan relied on him a great deal, and he was a wonderful advocate for blind people whether or not they were members of the NFB. When blind shop workers were being paid nothing, he helped to change that. They respected him because he helped to make a real difference in their lives. He was vitally important to the effort to obtain union representation at the Lighthouse of Houston. My husband Glenn was president of the NFB of Texas when the workers decided to establish a collective bargaining unit. Glenn was eager to help, but he will tell you that Richard was the glue that held everything together.
His body is no longer living, but his spirit will endure as long as this organization continues to fight for the little guy who just needs a hand up.