Profile of a Trailblazer
by Anthony Mannino
From the Editor: Tony Mannino, as he was known to his friends, was executive secretary of the American Brotherhood for the Blind in the 1960's. In February of 1963 he wrote a sparkling profile of Kenneth Jernigan in the Blind American, the temporary successor to the Braille Monitor. It provides interesting detail about Dr. Jernigan's early life. Here it is:
Late in 1962, at the Iowa state budget hearings held by the newly-elected governor, one agency head presented the reports and estimates of his department so convincingly that on the following day his presentation was prominently featured by news reporters who had attended the hearings. The official who had so impressed his listeners was Kenneth Jernigan, director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, delivering the annual report and budget proposals of the commission. The achievements and plans to which he had given such forceful expression were the climax of a concentrated effort in accomplishing the formidable task accepted by this blind leader in the field of rehabilitation.
On May 6, 1958, a blind man was asked to assume direction of the programs for the blind of an entire state. After many years of efforts by the organized blind to gain consultation and a voice in programs for the blind, it fell to Ken Jernigan to face the double test of proving his own ability as well as the soundness of the philosophy of the organized blind with respect to rehabilitation and related services.
When Ken stepped into the job, Iowa was dead last in the nation in rehabilitation of the blind. Today it stands in the front ranks of the states in this essential worka leap forward accomplished in just four years under Ken's direction. His philosophy proclaims that the real problem of blindness is not loss of eyesight but rather the misunderstanding and lack of information which accompany it. If a blind person has proper training and an opportunity to make use of it, blindness for him is only a physical nuisance. On the basis of his firm belief in these guiding precepts, Jernigan has rapidly built a state program geared to independence rather than dependency, to rehabilitation rather than resignation, and dedicated to the proposition that blind people are inherently normal, potentially equal, and thoroughly competent to lead their own lives and make their own way in competitive society. And he has proved his case with resounding success.
To understand the success of this bold program and the man responsible for it, we must go back a generation into the hills of Tennessee. The Jernigan family had lived in Tennessee for years, but the time came in the 1920's when economic pressures drove many of the back-country farmers into the cities. Kenneth's father was one of those who sought work in the factories in order to earn enough to return to his farm. He chose the automobile industry of Detroit, and it was there Ken was born in 1926.
The new baby had scarcely been made comfortable in his crib when the family moved back to the farm in Tennessee. Somehow modern conveniences and motorized farm machinery had not found their way to this edge of the Cumberland plateau, which was only fifty miles southeast of Nashville and almost completely inhabited by Anglo-Saxon people. They still clung to their ancient culture and their more or less primitive dwellings. Even today the mule-drawn plow has not entirely left the scene. Corn, hay, and milk were the chief agricultural products which gave this industrious folk their livelihood. Generation followed generation in the same pattern of life and endeavor.
But little Kenneth was different from the other folk. He had been born blind. However, this did not seem to create any great problem or concern in the Jernigan household. The child received a typical upbringing, and as he grew older, he assumed a few of the many chores which had to be done about the farm. Some of the heavier tasks he shared with his older brother, but bringing in wood for the stove and fireplaces and stacking board-lumber, which his father had shaped, were among his earliest prideful accomplishments. Playmates were few, besides his brother, but they all included Kenneth in their games. He recalls that some of the games were modified a little so that he could join the fun.
In January, 1933, at six years of age, Kenneth was taken to Nashville to be enrolled at the Tennessee School for the Blind. It was like going into another world suddenly faced with what seemed gigantic buildings, strange foods, mysterious steam heat, and electricity. Accustomed to getting up early, the youngster wandered away from the sleeping quarters on the very first morning and proceeded to get utterly lost. Unable to find his way back to the dormitory, he finally gave up and stretched out on the floor of one of the rooms he had wandered into to wait until someone found him. It was a miserable beginning for a boy fresh from a comfortable home environment.
But Ken liked school and the world it opened up for his growing mind. Now he could read books, books, and more books, all by himself. In preschool years he had always enjoyed having books read to him, and his first expressed desire at the school was to learn to read and write. He was not aware that it would have to be in Braille, and his first efforts to cope with the strange system were discouraging. In spite of his intense eagerness for reading and writing, Ken failed both of these subjects that first year. After that he never failed either of them again. Today he is one of the fastest Braille readers in the country, and his love for books and reading burns as brightly as ever.
There is one phase of Ken's education at the T. S. B. which he now wishes might have been different or might not have been at all. That was the emphasis placed on the study of music. From his own experience as well as his adult observation, he holds the firm opinion that musical training should not be imposed upon students who show little interest or talent for it. But the tradition at the school in his day, as at most other schools for the blind even today, demanded that every student be drilled in some form of music, whatever his lack of talent or interest.
Tradition must be served, and Ken found himself spending long hours of tedious study with the violin, beginning in the second grade. After three years he graduated into the band with a trombone and yet was stuck with the violin for another two years. In the band he soon forsook the tailgate (trombone) in favor of the alto horn, then (in desperate hope) the cornet, then the baritone horn, and finally a disastrous fling at the drums. He was quickly sent back to the brass section on the assumption, apparently, that he might have little talent but possessed plenty of brass. At long last, recognizing his profound lack of aptitude, Kenneth resigned from the band. As he recalls the event today, it was a great relief not only to him but also to B. P. Gap Rice, the bandleader!
Meanwhile he had dropped the violin lessons and shifted to the piano. Here again the effort turned out to be a waste of time because he was more interested in the mechanics of the piano than in its musical potential. When he resorted to taking the big instrument apart instead of playing it, the teacher was truly convinced that Ken would never be a musician.
The world had lost another hornblower, but it gained a craftsman. In 1944, while still in high school, Ken started to make and sell furniture. Using the money he earned on his father's farm during the summers, he bought tools and hardware. The logs were on the farm and at the sawmill nearby, so this was a practical venture for an ambitious young man. He proceeded to manufacture tables, smoking-stands, and floor lamps of original design. But he dared not attempt to do the staining and varnishing, because he had been led to believe that a blind person could not manage such delicate work. Only later did Ken learn that he could indeed do this work himself and do it well.
This experience furnished further proof to Ken Jernigan that the blind individual must avoid the pitfalls of premature acceptance of realistic advice as to the limitations of his abilities and capabilities. He firmly believes that orientation centers for the blind can render a most important service if they will teach and practice the basic truth that, given the opportunity, the average blind person can hold the average job in the average business or industry.
Young Mr. Jernigan graduated from high school in 1945 and immediately petitioned the state rehabilitation service for the chance to prepare himself for a career in law. He was advised against it. That fall, after a rugged six-week bout with appendicitis, he matriculated at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville. He did not find there all the encouragement he needed and hoped for; but the now strong and independent young man who had already taken a whirl at professional wrestling was not to be talked into negative horizons or limited objectives. His hunger for knowledge was altogether too compelling and his love of books too deep. His scholastic ability soon produced high grades, and the pattern of his college life was formed.
But it was not all study and lessons. Throwing himself into campus activities from the outset, Ken was soon elected to office in his class organization and to important positions in other student clubs. The college debating team especially attracted his attention, and he took part in some twenty-five inter-collegiate debates. He became president of the Speech Activities Club and a member of Pi Kappa Delta speech fraternity. In 1948, at the Southeastern Conference of the Pi Kappa Delta competition held at the University of South Carolina, Ken won first prize in extemporaneous speaking and original oratory.
In his junior year he was nominated as one of two candidates for student-body president. He lost in a very close election, but the very next year regained his political prestige by backing his roommate for a campus-wide office and winning. In his senior year at Tennessee Tech, he was named to the honored list of Who's Who in Colleges and Universities.
During his undergraduate days Ken started a vending business by selling candy, cigarettes, and chewing-gum out of his room. Later on he purchased a vending machine and, with permission gained from the college president, installed it in the science building. Before finishing college, he had expanded the business to an impressive string of vending machines placed in other buildings. Upon graduation Ken sold this profitable business to a fellow student, an ambitious sophomore named John Taylor, today the director of rehabilitation with the Iowa Commission for the Blind and a past President of the National Federation of the Blind.
After receiving his B. A. in social science, with a minor in English, from T.P.I., Ken went directly for graduate work to the Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville. There he majored in English and minored in history. This time his campus activities were centered upon the literary magazines. He accomplished a great deal of writing of articles and editorials and became editor of a new literary publication. Meanwhile he received his Master of Arts degree in the winter quarter of 1949 but remained to finish the school year with further studies.
The following fall young Jernigan returned to the Tennessee School for the Blind, this time as a teacher in the high school English department. The renewed personal contact with blind students, their aspirations, and problems stirred his determination to give them counseling to the best of his ability and toward bringing out the best of their abilities. Although he had achieved success with his own education, it was not in the field he really wanted to pursue. He could not forget that before entering college his deep desire to become an attorney had been smashed as not feasible by a traditional-minded rehabilitation officer. Ken discovered latertoo latethat the rehabilitation man had been far from correct in his stand. Blind persons were then studying law, others were already lawyers, and the field of law was not closed but wide open to trained blind individuals.
Ken vows today that he will never make this mistake in giving counsel to blind students. "We in rehabilitation have no right to make the choice for anybody as to what his vocation should be when that person is eager and motivated to try in a field of his choice," he maintains.
After he had mastered the routines of teaching and settled into various school activities, Ken became interested in organizational work with the blind. He joined the Nashville chapter of the then Tennessee Association for the Blind (which later became the Tennessee Federation of the Blind). He was elected to the vice presidency of the state affiliate in 1950 and to the presidency in 1951. Though he was extremely busy, Ken found time for several courses at summer school and later branched out into selling life insurance. This latter endeavor proved to be as profitable as teaching and soon became a rewarding part-time job. Meanwhile, through his participation in organizations of the blind, Ken began to have his first contacts with national figures in the organized blind movement. Outstanding among these was Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, founder and President of the National Federation of the Blind.
While Ken enjoyed teaching at the Tennessee School, he wanted to do more in this expanding field. In 1953 he left the school to accept a position at the Oakland Orientation Center in California. His work, especially in counseling and guidance, became more intensified through the closer contact with persons trying to regain their rightful place in society. His interest in the National Federation was also sharpened by the many projects undertaken for that organization. One of the major projects in which he played an important role while in California was the campaign to gain recognition and the right to credentials for blind teachers in that state. Stemming from this great initial effort, there are now almost fifty blind teachers employed in California through the teachings, guidance, advice, and encouragement received from Kenneth Jernigan. When he left Oakland to accept the leadership of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, the people who knew him were confident that he would fulfill that challenging assignment with outstanding success.
With the zest of a crusader, Ken plunged into the task of building up the Iowa programs for the blind. He found the commission housed in small and poorly equipped quarters, with a budget of only twenty thousand dollars. The entire staff consisted of six people. It was in all respects a dismal picture and a bleak prospect. But it did not remain so for long. Step by step, Ken skillfully planned and expanded the program, services, staff, and budget of the Commission. He argued up and down the state and won growing support for his programs. Today the Commission is housed in a fully equipped six-story building, serving more than four thousand blind Iowans. A budget of $400,000 is financing programs of rehabilitation, orientation, home teaching, home industries, vending stands, Braille library, and many other related services. Each of these programs is characterized by the dynamic director.
In a way, with each year of experience in work for the blind, Ken gained as much as he gave. With each passing year he has become more convinced that blindness need not serve as a hindrance in virtually any vocation. Admitting that sight is an advantage, he hastens to point out that there are numerous alternative techniques which, learned and utilized properly, provide the blind person with the equalizer.
Kenneth Jernigan has worked for what he believes in, and his preachment has been practiced with driving energy. Speaking with firm conviction, he declares: "If I were asked to sum up my philosophy of blindness in one sentence, I would say, `It is respectable to be blind.'" Few people would deny this in the abstract; but when we analyze what they really believe, we find that most of them are at first ashamed of blindness.
This blind leader is convinced that the dominant attitudes of society toward blindness place unwarranted limitations upon the blind person. Since social attitudes, unlike the physical fact of blindness, are open to change, he maintains that one of our principal functions should be to encourage proper attitudes toward blindness and the blind. Adequate knowledge, understanding, and recognition of talents must be brought to supplant traditional preconceptions, prejudices, and generalizations about the blind. From a climate of healthy social attitudes will emerge the opportunities and full rights of citizenship which should be the birthright of the blind. And they, in turn, will then carry their full and proper share of the responsibility of free and independent citizens in our democratic society.