Marsha Dyer and Dr. Jernigan sitting
on the platform at National Convention
Of Grammar Lessons and
Gold Tie Chains
by Marsha Dyer
From the Editor: When I became Associate Editor of the Braille Monitor, I began spending significant stretches of time in Dr. Jernigan's office, watching him conduct business and particularly observing him write: letters, memos, and especially articles. He dictated them, and though he often reread and polished the text using a Braille copy of his original dictation, he turned out amazingly superb copy sitting at his desk or pacing around his office. His secretary would frantically take dictation and read back the text on demand. He would make changes or cross out a sentence and begin again. I couldn't imagine how anyone ever kept it all straight and transcribed it.
The women who worked through the years as Dr. Jernigan's secretaries came to know him and his preferences in a way that very few other people had the opportunity to. Mrs. Dyercalm, efficient, warm, and conscientiouswas Dr. Jernigan's secretary for the last two years of his life. In the following article she remembers what it was like to work hour in and hour out with one of the most remarkable men of his day.
I first walked through the doors of 1800 Johnson Street in late September, 1990. I had an employment interview with Mr. Anthony Cobb. The initial meeting went fairly well, and about a week later Mr. Cobb asked me to return for a second interview. This time, he said, I was to meet with Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. I had no idea how to interact with a blind person, so I was more than a little nervous about this second interview.
I remember sitting in the lobby on the day of my appointment. A very distinguished looking older man came around the corner to enter the lobby area. I thought to myself, if this isn't Dr. Jernigan, it should be. And, of course, it was. He was wearing a tailored suit, white long-collared starched shirt with cuff-linked sleeves, four-point starched handkerchief in his breast pocket, silk tie, gold tie chain, and an NFB pin in his lapel. (Dr. Jernigan later referred to this as his uniform.) He stopped as he came around the corner and simply said "Mrs. Dyer?" I said that I was Mrs. Dyer, and I went over to shake his out-stretched hand. He then asked me to follow him to his office, and off we went.
Dr. Jernigan's office, I discovered, was a lot like himvery structured and masculine. His office had a dark maroon leather sofa against one wall with two matching chairs against the facing wall. And there was this wonderful smell of fine after-shave in the air. He sat behind his desk and offered me the chair which sits directly in front of his desk. He explained to me about the NFB and what the organization was aboutand then he asked me a few questions: "What, do you think, is the circumference of the earth?" "When did the Civil War start and where?" "What is the longest river in the United States?" "Who wrote Gone With The Wind?" "How do you spell supersede?" It went on for what seemed like hours but must have been only a few minutes.
Dr. Jernigan then did something I never saw him do again. He stood up, got his cane (which he always kept in the corner behind his desk)--and dropped it on the floor. He hesitated for a few seconds and then picked it up. Looking back, I think he dropped his cane on purpose to see what I would do about it. I did nothing. And I got the position.
I moved from the Records Center and became Dr. Jernigan's personal secretary in October, 1996. I suppose I have witnessed most of his distinguishing qualities at one time or another. I knew him to be gentle, firm, forceful, persuasive, kind, and giving; and he could be downright shrewd when it came to bargaining for convention room rates. But I never saw him truly angry about something or anybody. Maybe that is one of the reasons why he never had a single headache in his entire life. He was a firm believer in doing what you were able to do, and if it didn't work, then try something else. He loved to set a game plan in motion and to see if it turned out the way he thought it should. It usually did. Two of his many truly remarkable gifts were timing and intellect, and he exercised these with delight and gusto on many occasions.
Dr. Jernigan was a noted English and history scholar. One day, when I had been working at the Federation for about three years, I said something like this: "Now there's only you and me." I was asked what I thought was incorrect with the sentence I had just said. I replied that I didn't realize anything had been wrong with it. That little 6-word sentence led to a year's tutelage with Dr. Jernigan in grammar lessons. He enjoyed every minute of our weekly late Tuesday-afternoon sessions because he was a born instructor. I can't say I enjoyed them completely, but I was amazed that he would take his time to teach me, and I was very grateful for that. Dr. Jernigan's philosophy with grammar was that if a person can express himself or herself properly, it followed that the person's thought patterns would also be more distinct.
Dr. Jernigan enjoyed fine wine (I think he was partial to red wines, especially Cabernets), and he collected old radio programs, such as "Vic and Sade." He and Mrs. Jernigan delighted in planning elaborate dinner parties or having people over for cookouts, where Dr. Jernigan would charge up the grill and cook the most delicious, mouth-watering steaks you would ever hope to eat. One of his great passions was giving blind children the opportunity and right to learn Braille if they wanted or needed it. Another was developing the plans and drawings for our new building. He also liked to browse through catalogs and purchase unusual objects and gifts. He enjoyed lemon only in his iced tea and a little cream in his Starbuck's Sumatra coffee. He had a wonderful way of making you feel as if what you were saying to him was the most important thing on his mind. And it was. If he discovered something that he liked, such as hair cream, he would buy a life-time supply of it. And he was forever offering me the candy he kept on his desk. "Mrs. Dyer," he would say with a twinkle in his eye, "if you don't eat this candy, I'm going to have to throw it away." It's a wonder I didn't gain fifty pounds. Oh, how I miss him.
It is a well-known fact that Dr. Jernigan did not enjoy traveling in an airplane, to put it mildly. But travel he did. In recent years various Federation and World Blind Union meetings kept him and Mrs. Jernigan away a great deal of the time. In 1997, before he became ill, they were out of the office a total of 109 days on business trips. And this total did not include all of the day trips he made. But even when Dr. Jernigan took a day trip, he didn't stop working. Somebody else would drive, and I would accompany him; we would work on mail or he would dictate a speech or article to me on the way to wherever he was going.
When Dr. Jernigan's health worsened to the point that he could no longer come into the office, he would call me and ask me to come to his house and work. Mrs. Jernigan had set up an office in their bedroom, and we would work, sometimes for five hours, sometimes only for a half hour, depending on how well he felt. He dictated his last letter to Mrs. Jernigan less than a week before he died.
One of Dr. Jernigan's favorite sonnets is titled "Remember" by Christina Rossetti:
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, Better by far you should forget and smile Than that you should remember and be sad.
I read somewhere that the measure of a man is not gauged by how many people he loved, but by how many people loved him. I will remember Dr. Jernigan with love and gratitude, as thousands of other people all over the worldblind and sighted alikewill also remember him. And "be that as it may," we will all try very hard not to be sad.