The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _July 1997

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Tom Bickford


Forty Years a Federationist

by Thomas Bickford

From the Editor: Tom Bickford has been a Federationist for many years. In many ways that experience has shaped and defined who he is and the gifts he has to offer in every part of his life. This is what he says about the enriching influence of the NFB in a person's life:

It was in October of 1956 that I first joined the National Federation of the Blind. Kenneth Jernigan was the president of the chapter in Oakland, California, at the time, and that is where I got a thorough grounding in Federationism. I didn't know what I was getting into, but the more I participated, the better it got for me.

You had better believe that we had an active chapter. We sold raffle tickets. We wrote letters to legislators. We traveled to the state capital to appear at hearings. We made friendly visits to nearby chapters. We participated in the NFB state conventions. On top of all that we got together for dinner parties. As you see, we were busy.

The most important part of these activities for me was a growing understanding that it was all being done by blind people. Meetings were chaired. Reports were given. Trips were taken. Activities were organized. I became part of all that, and I was just as blind as everybody else in the chapter.

My first National Convention was the next summer in New Orleans. Many members of the Federation know what a learning experience that can be for a young person. Three days by Trailways bus from Oakland to New Orleans was just the beginning. I had my first experience with that southern food called grits and observed racially segregated facilities for the first time. I had yet to learn how close that would come to my own life. I learned a lot about the Federation, but I learned even more about myself. I have missed more National Conventions than I have attended--some for good reasons and some for bad, but every one of those I attended was full of fun, fellowship, learning, and inspiration.

The thorough grounding in Federationism I got has stood me in good stead through the decades. I consider my achievements in and through the Federation as glory to the cause. I have enough ego to be glad when I hear my name spoken or find it published, but I know it is there because I stayed with the Federation, its principles, and its members. Over the years I have served as president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer in the chapters where I was a member as well as chairman and member of many committees. If I tell you of my three proudest achievements, you must believe that they are glory for the cause as well as for me.

In 1968 and 1969 I chaired the committee that presented several candidates for the NFB official song. The convention chose the "Battle Song," and that song has inspired us through the years. I am glad that we also inspired more people to write more songs, and now we have books full of songs.

In 1971 and 1972 I chaired a committee in Washington, D.C., which presented testimony before Congress that led to the passage of the White Cane Law covering the District of Columbia. It all started when I was trying to help two blind men through a discriminatory situation in a local movie theater. That led to contacting their local Congressman, to whom I sent a copy of Dr. tenBroek's Model White Cane Law. When it was all over I got a souvenir pen from the Nixon White House with the Presidential seal on it.

In 1992 I found myself explaining to a sighted friend some of the techniques I use to know when to get off the bus. I decided to write it down, and that was the beginning of Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane. I spent lots of evenings and weekends with my Braille writer on my lap, and I received lots of help from my Federation friends in the form of ideas and the physical production of the manuscript. In November of 1993 the Federation published the book, which I am delighted to say has already helped hundreds of people.

There is always more work to be done for the cause. How do you know what to do? The more you get involved, the more will come to your attention. If you can do more things and better than I have done, more power to you. There are gavels ready to be pounded; paper waiting for your ink or Braille; interviewers looking for subjects; cakes to be baked and sold; and always more people who need us and whom we need. If you need help, ask, and people and materials will be on your doorstep.

Lots of us collect quotations which we find helpful, so here is one for today. "An artist is not a special kind of person, but every person is a special kind of artist." I would add that all of us have more than one talent to bring to the cause. Sometimes I am just a warm body, sometimes a loud voice, maybe a not-so-perfect typist writing a letter, now and again a song leader at a picnic, or part of a brainstorming session deciding how to make use of someone ELSE 's talents. Some of these abilities I brought to the Federation, but others I developed after I joined. What kind of artist are you?