[PHOTO/CAPTION: Peggy Elliott and Dr. Jernigan]

Peggy Elliott

From the Editor: Peggy Elliott was a student at the adult rehabilitation program in Iowa while Dr. Jernigan was the director of the Commission for the Blind. She is now an attorney and Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind and President of the Iowa affiliate. This is what she writes:

A few weeks ago in Iowa we had a whole day during which the wind blew at thirty-five to forty-five miles per hour with gusts up to sixty. It was a very unusual weather day. Have you ever noticed how such days affect people? Sure, they fuss a little. But they are energized, more alert, more focused, more interested in talking to one another and in helping one another. Conversing with Dr. Jernigan was like that. You never knew what to expect, but it was always thought-provoking and stimulating, and the effects stayed with you long after the conversation concluded.

For years I struggled to explain and describe Dr. Jernigan to friends who had not met him. Then I happened to read the words that capture for me the essence of the man. I found them in what is known as "Plato's Seventh Letter," one of the few personal letters we have from the great Greek philosopher who lived over 2,000 years ago. Plato was one of humanity's greatest teachers. He talks of the few young men seeking wisdom who have the mere, tiny spark of philosophy within them and who, after long discussion and interaction with wiser men, find that their spark has been fanned into the bright flame of wisdom. For Plato teaching involves transfer of knowledge over time and in conversation. Said another way, teaching is always a community activity, done by and among people who know each other and live together.

When I first read this description of teaching and learning, I knew I had found the perfect description of Dr. Jernigan. Unlike Plato Dr. Jernigan believed that all of us have the tiny spark of philosophy within us. He believed that it was his personal responsibility to fan each spark, to discuss and demonstrate and offer explanations until the spark grew and brightened into a flame. He did this, day in and day out, person after person, friend and stranger alike, every minute of every day of his life—when he was tired, when he didn't feel well. He did it using great subjects and small. He did it as naturally and determinedly as he breathed. And most of the time he did it with individual blind people, one at a time, urging, cajoling, challenging, joking, always in an effort to fan the spark. He taught because he profoundly believed that this was the way to change the world and to strengthen the Federation in its mission of change.

From the whorls of his fingerprints to the roots of his hair to the tips of his toes, Dr. Jernigan was a teacher. He understood what Plato discovered: that true teaching is a state of mind that sets good examples and fosters discussion among a group of people who develop and regularly strengthen the flame of knowledge among them. True teaching is an ongoing human activity in which the spark of one is fanned by the brightness of another's flame, while two brightly burning flames intensify and encourage each other. Federationists and friends who learned from Dr. Jernigan learned the two most important lessons of life: if you stop learning, life is dull, and words without people to enliven them are boring. Dr. Jernigan was never dull, nor was he ever boring.

People sometimes wonder why the Federation does not have wrenching, divisive debates and votes—why we seem to agree with one another and to work for the same goals. It's from Dr. Jernigan's constant instruction and his teaching us to teach and to learn and to do both, always with each other. We work hard to think things through together, to work with an idea until we work out its meaning, its implications, its consequences and then to teach others about it. To us the Federation is like the multiplication table; you don't see kids in school debating the answers to 12 times 8 and 9 times 6. You see them straining and stretching to learn them. To Dr. Jernigan and to us, the Federation is the same; using his methods, we work things out together. Why would we then want to debate what we've all just learned and internalized?

Teaching was his core, and lighting fires in others was his daily task. His most noticeable qualities—like his constant quest for knowledge, his thirst for clarity, and his leadership— were all in service of his real life mission: to teach. Dr. Jernigan deeply loved his fellow human beings and urgently wanted each of us to know, to grow, to become better and happier people. His intense yearning to convince each of us that we did have the spark and to fan that spark into the bright, high flame of knowledgeable, useful human beings drove all his other work. His need to teach changed all blind people.

Dr. Jernigan taught in many ways. He set the example; he created and fostered discussion; he strengthened and deepened the community he led. Remembering the ways he did this can help us to continue his work.

Dr. Jernigan often taught by learning. He was on a lifetime quest for knowledge. Of course he was a devoted lifetime reader. His literacy led to his vast vocabulary, his commitment to Braille, his ability to reach for and find the right quotation for any situation. His erudition extended far beyond the written word into the living, breathing human mind and heart. When he conversed with people, he listened, stretching to hear what others were thinking and feeling. I never found a subject in which he was not interested except possibly music, a subject more of taste than most others. But even with music he would surprise you. I once heard him give a speech, quoting and analyzing the protest music of the sixties, something I would have thought he had never heard. And many of us have experienced his astonishing collection of tunes used as a wake-up device at the National Center for the Blind.

He was always the first to find new foods, both in restaurants and prepared by him in his home. And he dearly loved trying new wines. One of my fondest memories is of a large dinner at his house during which we covered the labels of seven kinds of wine and taste-tested them throughout dinner. One that was pretty raw to begin with breathed its way into a pleasant, nutty-flavored table wine picked by him, Mrs. Jernigan, and me. When the labels were uncovered, our choice was an inexpensive Argentine wine that rivaled the pricier ones for taste and blend with good food. He was overjoyed to make such a find.

Dr. Jernigan didn't stop with mere data acquisition. From his reading and his conversations he remembered and joined facts into structures through which the world could be better understood. Something he learned in 1956, for example, would fit with something he observed in 1978, and the link produced actions in 1997. He taught this habit of mind—reading, listening, analyzing—to those around him as well. I don't remember a National Board meeting which didn't conclude with his asking me sometime in a hallway or at the side of a room: "What did you learn this weekend?" The answer no doubt told him something about me; it also provided him with information about what others thought was important or interesting or new. He constantly sought to learn so that he could better understand the world around him and act effectively in it. He believed that knowledge resides in both books and humans; he avidly read and studied both.

I'll tell just a couple of the many stories I remember. Dr. Jernigan told me about receiving a call from a well-known Protestant bishop in Des Moines requesting an appointment without revealing why. The bishop proposed a project on which the two worked fruitfully and through which they became friendly. One day they were chatting, and the bishop mentioned that he had been afraid of Dr. Jernigan's reputation when he first made contact to propose collaboration. Dr. Jernigan was astonished since he believed that he had been the one nervous about the bishop's reputation. They had a good laugh over their unfounded mutual trepidation. Dr. Jernigan told me always to remember that the other guy is probably much more scared of you than you are of him or her. It works wonders for your effectiveness and is probably often true as well. Part of his greatness was his ability to notice both facts and feelings in himself and in others and to remember, learn from, and openly discuss them. He was never afraid to feel or to examine and talk about those feelings.

Another example is much more recent, after Dr. Jernigan had largely settled his feud with computers. He initially hated them. I privately thought this emotion flowed from his intense love of humanity, leading him to find computers boring. After a time he incorporated them into his world view as machines useful in the grinding and repetitive tasks that are hard for humans to do accurately. I was taken off guard one day when he told me that he was having a dispute with a high-level computer programmer. The programmer was perfectly happy to program machines to recognize the ones and zeros that constitute computer code, but he refused to admit the logical extension of the ones and zeros to humankind. Dr. Jernigan asserted that any question can be reduced to a yes-or-no inquiry. The programmer had rejected this concept, arguing that human events are comprised of shades of gray. Dr. Jernigan replied that gray is still made up of black and white and that, if a question could not be answered by yes or no, the question simply had not been broken down into enough sub-questions and the human needed to go back and think more carefully about the pieces of the question. I remember laughing and saying to him that I agreed and to myself that, as usual, he had pierced through to both the basic truth and the human truth more quickly and more usefully than the expert had.

His quest for knowledge and for the truth, which is the proper linking of knowledge was contagious. A few people resented or were threatened by it; most of us were inspired and enriched by it.

Another quality that made Dr. Jernigan like an unusual weather day was his thirst for clarity. Not only did he yearn to know and to understand; he thirsted to communicate what he knew to others. His perfect grammar is legendary; I remember the head of the Jewish Braille Institute once commenting that Dr. Jernigan's speeches were the easiest works he ever translated into Hebrew because they were so pristine grammatically. Dr. Jernigan sought to teach others grammar as a good discipline but, more important, as the necessary vehicle for spoken and written clarity of communication.

Any blind person who wishes to understand himself or herself and the world in which we blind people live must read Dr. Jernigan's two speeches "Handicap or Characteristic" and "Concepts and Misconceptions." I don't bother to say read and understand because I don't think it's possible for a blind person to read these two speeches without understanding them. Dr. Jernigan takes basic concepts with which we all live and explains them in a way that changes the way each blind person looks at himself or herself and at the world. He didn't merely use his skill to tell others his own private thoughts. He used words to change people for the better.

Dr. Jernigan's thirst for clarity taught us the truth about ourselves and about blindness. The teaching was by no means static. He sought to give each of us the skill to understand words and to use them to help ourselves and others. And he demanded of each of us that we stop thinking only of ourselves, only of what we find easiest. He challenged us to remember all blind people and to think of them as capable and competent. Accepting an idea about blindness because it is easy or because we think some blind people are incompetent is to place a lower value on blind people, all blind people, than he was prepared to. He insisted that we recognize the strength of working out our views together rather than each of us believing individually that we have all knowledge and are always right. How many times have you heard him say that the convention is always right? He didn't just mean that it is the final authority of the Federation; he meant as well that we are all stronger when we work things out together, fan each other's flames, respect the brightness of others' insights as much as we do our own.

Dr. Jernigan often pointed out that essentially everyone in the blindness field uses the same language: independence, self-esteem, doing things for ourselves. To understand what another person or a proposal actually means regarding blind persons, he taught us to think beyond the words, to assess the context, to test what would be best for all blind people. And he taught us to put our conclusions into words that would analyze, persuade, criticize, soothe, as the situation demands.

For example, I recently read a reference to two-for-one air fares, that old proposal I had thought was dead under which a blind passenger could take another person along at no extra cost. Dr. Jernigan taught us to think beyond the greedy notion of getting something free to the consequences of adopting such a proposal: all sighted travelers would assume that we could not travel independently, a notion that would undoubtedly come to mind if they received an application for employment from a blind person. Moreover, we would come to believe the same of ourselves. Employment in the entire travel industry would be closed to us since who would want to hire a person who cannot get around? His style of thought—knowing what words mean, understanding what was being said, and then thinking about the unspoken consequences of the speech—is one he taught us to practice and apply to blindness issues today such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and services to blind college students through disabled students offices.

But talking about Dr. Jernigan's thirst for clarity is not complete without mentioning his voice. It was not just a voice; it was a musical instrument he used to enhance the blazing clarity of his carefully chosen words so that, when he spoke them, they plunged deep into the heart as well as the mind. Dr. Jernigan's thirst for clarity was a fierce determination to harness techniques to assure clear and effective communication. He deeply loved the truth and wanted to share it as widely as he could.

Yet another quality that comes to mind is Dr. Jernigan's insistence on personal responsibility. Many people mistakenly call this his lifetime of leadership, but it was truly and only his sense of duty to himself and to others. He never asked others to do what he himself would not do. Many times I joined him with a cleaning rag in the Federation's office in Iowa or the Center in Baltimore. When other methods of persuasion failed, he was the first to walk the picket line, seeking public recognition for an issue in which he believed the blind were being harmed by acts hidden from the public through obscurity or the protestations of those who would rather take care of us than help us learn to take care of ourselves. NAC comes readily to mind.

His insistence on taking personal responsibility was sometimes misunderstood as ego or the wish to be a dictator by those whom his talent threatened. Such characterizations are as far from the truth as Mars is from Pluto. Dr. Jernigan's leadership came from inside, from his profound sense of responsibility. If he was the first to identify a problem—and he often was—if he was the first to think of solutions—and he usually was—then he should be the first to act upon his knowledge and the first to seek others to work with him to bring about change.

We've all heard the story about the chapter near his home in California. He was told that it consisted of old blind people and a few helpless ones and that he didn't need to bother attending. His work at the state and national levels was sufficient. He began attending anyway and found good people who didn't know what to do to cause change and who were delighted to follow his lead. He developed programs, raised funds, attracted lively new people, and built the chapter to over a hundred people and the happening place for the blind of the Bay Area. He did it because he thought he should.

He went on to apply himself to work with the blind in earnest and, quite simply, transformed it. What he personally saw as flaws he eliminated, and what he perceived as opportunities he developed. In California he began the re-thinking of orientation and adjustment training, which he completed in Iowa. Though he was administering a multi-million-dollar agency there with numerous programs, he visited each class of the orientation center whenever he was in the building. We students hoped he would come and approve when we were doing well; we dreaded his coming if we were having an off day.

The key to his success was his personal involvement as a role model and spur. Living in the building where the center was located gave him the chance to do early morning work-outs with reluctant, sleepy students or to invite us for dinner. I remember refusing the first dinner invitation he offered, and he immediately asked me to come the next night. I refused. He asked about the night after that one and pointed out that he was going to keep asking until I accepted. I quickly came to treasure each invitation and to connive for more. He insisted on personal contact and on pushing himself and us to try new things like cutting firewood or barbecuing burgers or jogging on downtown Des Moines's dawn sidewalks. Doing so day in and day out, he changed our lives and also changed work with the blind.

Before his arrival Iowa had no library for the blind. Dr. Jernigan founded one, and it rapidly became the best in the world because he always wanted more and more books and more and more Braille. His personal devotion to reading yielded an internationally famous library that set the standard for consumer responsiveness and creation of books. He changed rehab. Blind people seeking work were asked what they wanted to do, never told what few options were available. At first this was revolutionary and unheard-of. Now it is federal law. Believing deeply in blind people himself, he applied his thoughts to programs for the blind and made his personal beliefs into the professional standards of good practice today.

Dr. Jernigan reserved his scorn for the whiner and the critic. He could not understand how someone could know that personal change is possible and choose to complain about his or her lot instead of investing time and effort to change and grow. Neither could he understand how anyone could criticize and stop there. Whether the critic was aiming at the Federation or at agencies for the blind or something else, his constant query was:

What have you done to change what you don't like? Words without action were incomprehensible to him. The responsibility to act was as sacred to him as the duty to think before acting.

Yet Dr. Jernigan also believed that he had a responsibility to treat all others with politeness and courtesy even if they were not doing so to him. He reserved his scorn for the generic, as you can read in the conclusion to his towering 1971 convention banquet speech. I remember many discussions with him in which I said that someone had "made me mad." He would chide me, saying leaders do not have the luxury of anger. The leader's job is to lead everybody, even people who make one mad.

I remember once at a National Convention an ill-tempered member chose to heckle Dr. Jernigan from the floor while he was presiding. She was entirely out of order, but Dr. Jernigan asked her to go to a mike. She replied nastily that he could perfectly well hear her and that it was inconvenient for her to go to a mike. She then re-commenced the heckling. Dr. Jernigan several times tried to engage her in discussion. She was having none of it. The rest of us could not hear her and, from his amplified comments, didn't want to. We wanted her to shut up. Dr. Jernigan finally snapped and told the woman in no uncertain terms to be seated and be quiet. We all applauded. This happened shortly before the lunch break.

Dr. Jernigan opened the afternoon session in his quietest, most earnest tone by saying that something had happened before lunch that had never happened before and for which he was very sorry. He humbly apologized to the woman and to the rest of us for losing his temper and showing anger while presiding. He went into great detail about his error and his regret. I remember at first thinking, as I had that morning, that I was just glad the woman had been silenced. As I listened, I understood his deeper meaning—he himself had failed his own standard and was compelled to explain and apologize.

Since that day I have used his standard as my own in chairing, believing that I should treat people as they ought to be treated and not as they sometimes deserve. Neither he nor I agreed with the woman's point nor her method for making it nor her long record of doing nothing but criticizing others. But he taught me that I could disagree with a person while treating her at all times with courtesy. My duty was to maintain that rule even if others broke it.

Dr. Jernigan's habit of leadership sprang from his deep sense of personal responsibility. He blamed himself if things went wrong, planned ahead to avoid problems, and worked to convince others to join him in both identifying the problem and agreeing on the solution. We know why he was our leader: he blamed himself more, planned better, and worked harder than anyone else.

I have been taught by and worked beside Dr. Jernigan since I was a scared, newly-blinded teenager. I now have a blind teenage friend in Iowa who was born after Dr. Jernigan left Iowa and after he no longer served as our elected president. Of course she has met Dr. Jernigan, but she is now moving into the tough years of learning and growing, and she will have to do it without having him beside her as I did. Did he teach us well enough? Have we learned enough? I hope so for Kallie's sake.

It is now our job to do for others what he did for us and with us for so long, sometimes over our objections. It is now our turn to find in Kallie and others like her that spark of potential Dr. Jernigan believed is in all of us and to fan that spark into the flame of knowledge and personal responsibility. Dr. Jernigan's legacy to us is work and belief and the intense conviction that every blind person has that spark. I know Kallie does, and we're fanning it as fast as we can.

In the hearts and minds of all of us who loved him Dr. Jernigan fanned our sparks into a collection of flames that has lit the future of blind people with new possibilities. To keep those flames burning and to ignite others, each of us can study his gifts and his methods and incorporate them into our lives and works. He taught us to know who we are. He taught us to say that we will never go back. He also taught us to teach others and to learn from others and to continue solving problems together because, if we do not, the flames will dim and the light fade away. In another of his great banquet speeches, the one in 1983, Dr. Jernigan described the function of inertia as it applies to organizations. Read his words for both comfort and challenge.

They tell us what to do:

"Consider the word inertia. . . . When most of us think of inertia, we think of something not moving, something inert—and it is not just the physical but also the social. The dictionary tells us that inertia means "lack of skill, idleness, laziness." But this is only half of the meaning. There is the other half of the meaning. The full definition is this: things at rest tend to remain at rest, and things in motion tend to remain in motion, at a uniform rate and in a straight line. The only way to change the inertia of an object is by pressure. It is as hard to stop something which is moving as it is to start something which is not.

"When the blind came to organize in 1940, the situation was about as bad as it could possibly be. It was almost static. It was worse than static, for there was enough motion to tantalize but not enough to encourage or stimulate hope. At the pace of 1940 it would have taken generations (perhaps centuries) for the blind to achieve meaningful lives and real opportunity—and a promise which is measured by centuries is no promise at all. It is only a shadow and a mockery.

"Then everything changed. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and a handful of others organized the National Federation of the Blind. Suddenly it was not centuries but decades—and, yes, something for the blind of that generation, something for the blind then alive. In the beginning the force of inertia worked against us (things at rest tend to remain at rest); but pressure was applied, and the acceleration was noticeable and immediate. Of course, at first, the progress was slow (it always is). The situation was aggravated by the mass involved, for with a given pressure the build-up is always in direct proportion to the mass which has to be moved. And the mass which we had to move was tremendous. It was all of society—all of it (including ourselves): society—with its accumulated stereotypes, misconceptions, and prejudices; society—with its mistaken ideas and freaky notions about blindness going back to the dawn of history, ideas and notions imbedded in literature, locked in folk lore, and sanctified by tradition.

"We should keep in mind the basic principle: `The only way to change the inertia of an object is by pressure. It is as hard to stop something which is moving as it is to start something which is not.' That is the rule, and it is as immutable for organizations as for objects. By the terms of inertia no pressure is ever lost. For forty-three years we have worked and struggled to accelerate our movement and send it in a straight line toward freedom and independence. The efforts of tens of thousands of blind men and women have been spent for almost two generations to reach the current momentum. I can tell you from firsthand experience that during this time we have moved an awful lot of mass. It would take as much pressure and effort to stop our progress and push us back to 1940 as it has taken us to get where we are. . . . There is no force on earth that can do it. We can summon the strength to resist any conceivable pressure which would slow our acceleration and push us back. . . . Equality will not (perhaps cannot) be given to us. If we want it, we must take it. . . . We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens. We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. To the extent required, we will meet pressure with pressure and force with force. We know who we are, and we will never go back."

Every time we remember him, we must re-take that vow and with it re-commit ourselves to teaching and learning and solving. The very best way we can remember him is to say: "We know who we are, and we will never go back. We will seek the truth and we will speak the truth and we will take the responsibility to ourselves for linking words and actions. And above all we will teach and learn. We will keep it up until the job is done. We promise."