Dr. Kenneth Jernigan: My
Teacher, My Mentor, My Friend
by Nell Cardwell Carney
From the Editor: Dr. Nell Carney is one of the lucky people who can remember what it was like to have Dr. Jernigan as an English teacher at the Tennessee School for the Blind. She and he were friends for many years. Following are first a letter she wrote to him last year and then the remarks she prepared for presentation during the memorial service. Here they are:
Wilmington, North Carolina
February 19, 1998
Dr. Kenneth Jernigan
Dear Dr. Jernigan:
When I was a young student at the Tennessee School for the Blind, it was my good fortune to be placed in your English class. Before your arrival at the school, no one had challenged the students to perform at our maximum potential. All of that changed when you arrived. We needed a teacher, and you were there.
It wasn't very long before we realized that you were teaching us much more than English. You taught us that it was respectable to be blind. You taught us that with self-esteem and hard work we could attain any goals we set for ourselves. We needed a role model, and you were there.
As we grew older, many of us joined the organized blind movement in the 1960's. We joined you on the barricades although we were often frightened and felt inadequate to face the challenges. We looked to you, and you moved boldly forward, leading us onward. We needed a leader, and you were there.
There are no words to describe the influence that you personally have had on the lives of tens of thousands of blind people, young and old, rich and poor. Because of your belief in blind people, your personal encouragement, your leadership, and your relentless pursuit of opportunities and equality for blind people, many of us have achieved goals far beyond our grandest imagination. We needed a friend, and you were there.
I love you because of what you have meant to my life personally. I respect you for the great courage you have shown and continue to show in the face of tremendous challenge. I admire you for the leadership you have shown to the nation and world.
I pray every day for your recovery, your comfort, and your peace.
Nell C. Carney
Carney & Associates Consultants
I met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan when I was a young child at the Tennessee School for the Blind. He was the first successful blind person I had ever met. He was young and handsome and self-confident. It did not take the students long to learn that there was much more to Dr. Jernigan than dashing good looks and poise.
In his classroom we learned much more than English and communications skillswe learned the true meaning of responsibility. He taught us to be responsible for our own behavior and responsible for our own future. He taught us that it was respectable to be blind and that using alternative techniques so that we could be competitive with our sighted peers was the right thing to do.
Dr. Jernigan always insisted that we bring our slates and styluses to class. Periodically he would go from desk to desk and ask to see either one. If we didn't have one or both, we knew we were in trouble. He would punish us--not mean punishment. He would write a very long and complicated sentence and have us figure out the punctuation and then write it twenty-five times with the slate and stylus. Further, to make our minds work while we were physically writing, the sentence would always be a philosophical statement or a commentary on political or social events.
In Dr. Jernigan's classes we made speeches, had spelling contests, and memorized and recited Shakespeare and many English and American poets. One year he divided the student body into two groupsthe cats and the dogs. The dogs had cards that said "dog" and the cats had cards that said "cat." If a member of one group caught a member of the other group making a grammatical error, the offender had to give the person who caught the error a card. The group that ended up with the most cards from the opposing team won the game, and Dr. Jernigan had a cook-out for the group. We learned a lot of grammar that year.
When I was in the seventh grade, Dr. Jernigan called me in and told me that he had to decide who would get the award for English that year. He went on to say that I was probably his top English student, but he was not going to give the award to me because I would have many more chances since I was only in the seventh grade. I was so angry I left his classroom in a huff, slamming the door shut with all my might. He came behind me down the hallway and asked that I return to his room. Once inside the classroom he said to me, "You may leave now. Please close the door like the lady I know you are."
When Tennessee was organized in 1969 as an affiliate of the NFB, Dr. Jernigan suggested to me that I run for President. I did, and I won. He became my mentor and worked tirelessly with me to develop the leadership skills I needed to head the affiliate. It was during the organizing in Tennessee that the affiliate name "NFB of ______" was created.
In those days the Federation was not the mighty power it is today. Many of us were young and inexperienced, but Dr. Jernigan was our strength and our courage. No matter how harsh the battle nor how short the time, he was always there for me and many others whenever we needed him. He would say: "Meet me on the barricades, and we can make it all come true!" And we would rally around him although I can remember feeling afraid and unsure of myself. But he was there for us.
When Dr. Jernigan was in Iowa and I was in Tennessee, he used to come home for Christmas, and we would meet him at his family farm for dinner. He was as proud of that old farmhouse as if it had been a castle. He would show off little thingstables he had made, a toy he played with when he was a child. Once we were having dinner, and his aunt told how much Dr. Jernigan had liked boiled cabbage and boiled potatoes when he was a young child. His response was that he still liked them; he just couldn't ever get them.
Over the years I followed the Federation at various pacessometimes far, far behind. The times when I was distanced from the Federation, Dr. Jernigan would say to me every time we talked: "If I can help you in any way, all you have to do is call me." And I did many times, and he always responded with love and support. He was the best friend I have ever had.
When I was Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Dr. Jernigan and I talked often, but he never tried to tell me what to do. When I asked for his advice, he gave it thoughtfully. Together he and I decided that there should be a national policy about scholarships for blind students; so there is one today because of the support he gave to me in getting the policy into the federal policy manual.
During the four turbulent years I spent in Mississippi as Executive Director of the rehabilitation program, Dr. Jernigan was my strength and my support. I found it necessary to draw on his friendship many times, and he always responded with wisdom and caring.
When I was offered my present position, Superintendent of the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped, I telephoned Dr. Jernigan to tell him. He was very, very ill by then. But instead of talking about himself, he told me that I had made him very happy and very proud.
Dr. Jernigan taught me that it was respectable to be blind. He taught me to take responsibility for myself and for others. He taught me courage. He taught me the meaning of friendship. In the words of Peggy Pinder Elliott, "he taught me how to be."
The values that Dr. Jernigan taught me when I was a child at the Tennessee School for the Blind have been my guideposts throughout my lifetime. All that is good and acceptable about me I learned from him.
I look at the students on the campus here in Alamogordo; and I think, if I can give to one or two of them what Dr. Jernigan gave to me, my time here will have been well spent. As long as I live, his teaching will be here. His spirit is with each of us and among all of us.