Braille Monitor August-September 1986
by Kenneth Jernigan
On Wednesday, June 18, 1986, I was sitting in my office at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore preparing for the upcoming NFB convention when I received a phone call from Diane McGeorge. She told me that she had just learned of the death of Audrey Tait, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Nevada, on Monday night, June 16. Of course, I had known for over a year that Audrey was gravely ill with cancer, but the news was still a shock. It stirred memories and called up scenes from the past.
I first met Audrey in 1954. The reason was the death of our Nevada President, Marion Keele. The affiliate was weak and struggling, and Dr. tenBroek sent me to meet with the members to assess the situation and help put things together.
How very long ago all of that seems to me now. It was the first time I had ever ridden on an airplane. The funeral was held at the Mormon Church in Las Vegas. The Bishop and I shared the pulpit, and both uf us gave our message to the assembled congregation. After the funeral the leaders of the affiliate and I met in my hotel room to talk about the future. Almost all of those who met with me that day are now gone. Of the entire group Audrey stood out as the stabilizing force. Before I flew back to California, our friendship was firmly established, and it continued without interruption until the day of Audrey's death.
Throughout the mid-1950's I made many trips to Nevada to help build the affiliate. Audrey was always present and always working. We went by car from Las Vegas to Reno and to other parts of the state many times. Whether it was meeting in the home of a newly found person in the evening or pushing a car on an icy morning, Audrey was always there--always doing her part. We organized a chapter in Reno, traveled to every part of the state to recruit members, and strengthened the Las Vegas Chapter.
By 1956 the Federation had become strong enough to be a major factor in determining how programs for the blind in the state should operate. Rehabilitation for the blind was part of the general rehabilitation agency, and we wanted to separate it into the Welfare Department. It was a tough battle (both in the Legislature and in the Governor's office), but we got the job done.
On a Sunday night (yes, it was really Sunday) I sat with Audrey and the other leaders of the affiliate in the Senate chamber to push the bill over the top. We were sitting immediately behind certain key senators, and they kept suggesting to us that they would like to help but that it was too late in the session to get the bill passed. We indicated that we intended to stay and that we had faith that they would find a means of doing what needed to be done. They did, and there was tremendous joy in our group. I went out into the hall of the State Capitol and called the Governor at his mansion to discuss the matter with him. You could do things like that in Nevada in those days. By that time the Governor was our friend, and the passage of our bill was a shared triumph.
Through the rest of the fifties and into the mid-1960's our Nevada affiliate was extremely strong. Audrey was its President, and the Governor and legislators worked with us to create what became the model programs for the blind of that day. From the time in the mid fifties when we got the rehabilitation program for the blind separated from the general rehab agency and established in the Welfare Department, our recommendations concerning who should be director of the agency had been followed. The system worked well until 1965.
It was at the national convention in Washington, D.C., in 1965 that Audrey and some of the other Nevada leaders asked me if I had recommendations as to who might be appointed state director in Nevada since a change was to be made. I told them that we did not have any Federationists at the time that I thought were both ready and available, but they wanted to find somebody who would approach the agency from the point of view of the blind consumer--so we searched our minds and considered second and third choices. Unfortunately we decided to recommend the man who now holds the position, Mervin Flander. Not only would he not have been appointed without Audrey's support--he would probably never even have known of the vacancy. As the summer and fall progressed, Flander was the soul of cordiality, and yes, obsequiousness to Audrey. She was state President, and he wanted the job as director of the agency. At the time we thought he was sincere. When he was hired, Audrey and the other members of the affiliate rejoiced and did everything they could to support and bolster him. No sooner was Flander entrenched than he turned on the affiliate and on Audrey personally. He fired her husband John, who was working as a supervisor in the program at the time, and he did everything he could to downgrade the agency and hurt the reputation of the Taits.
To John and Audrey it was a discouraging situation. They had spent effort and time and had put their reputation on the line to bring Flander to Nevada, and how he was trying to destroy them. As the years went by, the Federation in Nevada took heavy blows, but the Taits never wavered. They kept Federationism alive in the state and did what they could to see that the blind had opportunity and hope for the future. They built a Center in Las Vegas and made it a focal point for Federation activity in the southern part of the state.
I attended the 1983 Nevada convention in Las Vegas, and while I was there, I visited the Center. John and Audrey showed it to me with pride. They were soon to open a new addition, and they were planning new programs and activities. Of course, it had been discouraging to them when in the mid-1960's they saw the state programs they had worked to build subverted and ruined, but they built again--and this time with private means and beyond the reach of influence peddling and state custodialism. The influence of John and Audrey has been felt beyond the borders of Nevada. In the NFB Civil War of the late 1950's they were rock solid--quiet and unassuming but unshakable. Audrey served on the national Board of Directors for a number of years and was always a constructive force.
I grieve at the passing of Audrey Tait. She was not a brilliant speech maker; she had no great literary talent; but she was warm and honest and sincere--and she knew right from wrong and how to keep her word and who her friends were. I am sure that John will carry on in a position of leadership in the Nevada affiliate, and I know that he will (as Audrey did) give it his best. Both the Federation as an organization and I as an individual are poorer for the loss of Audrey Tait.