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Mary Ellen Gabias

Mary Ellen Gabias

From the Editor: I first met Mary Ellen Reihing, now Gabias, the year after the leadership seminar which she describes at the opening of her recollection about Dr. Jernigan. She was by then an unusually poised and wise young woman. The fruits of Dr. Jernigan's careful tending were already beginning to make themselves known in her actions and words. This is what she says:

When I was a young woman of twenty-one, I thought of myself as a college kid. I knew I was good at school work, but I had trouble imagining myself shouldering adult responsibilities. As a result of the work I had done organizing students in my state, I had been elected secretary of the national student division in 1973. But in my mind this was all practice; responsibility for the Federation belonged to the National President, Board Members, state leaders—to the real adults. So, when Dr. Jernigan called to invite me to a leadership seminar in Des Moines over the 1973 Labor Day weekend, I was expecting a course for students. I read the literature I was sent as if I were preparing for an exam.

It didn't take me long to realize that this was no academic exercise. Nor was it a practice session for some future date when I might grow up and do some leading. Dr. Jernigan thought of me as both an adult and a responsible colleague. Others had told me I was an adult; he was the first person I had ever met who seemed thoroughly to believe it. He made it absolutely clear that every person at the seminar was expected to carry part of the load—even scared, college-kid me.

Dr. Jernigan knew I was feeling overwhelmed. He did everything he could to reassure me at the same time he was presenting me with the toughest challenge I had ever faced. He went out of his way to make me feel I belonged.

On the first night in Des Moines we went to a restaurant where customers chose and prepared their own steaks. Another seminarian—a woman with more courage and honesty than I possessed—told him before we went that she didn't want to grill her own steak. She said she had never learned to grill them properly. She knew that other blind people could do it, but not she. "Don't worry," Dr. Jernigan replied. "You'll do just fine. I'll show you what you need to know. Grilling steaks is fun. How do you feel about grilling a steak, Mary Ellen?"

I had probably eaten fewer than ten steaks in my life! Not only had I never grilled one, I was not even sure whether I would know how a good steak should taste. I was embarrassed to admit my ignorance, but I knew it would be readily apparent as soon as we got to the restaurant. So I answered Dr. Jernigan's question in what seemed to me to be the safest way possible. "Well, sir," I replied, "I've never grilled a steak, but there's no harm in trying."

"There's no virtue in it, either," was his astonishing reply. "There's nothing more obnoxious than a blind person who's so touchy about his independence that he won't accept help when doing so would be more efficient and graceful. That sort of behavior says more about insecurity than independence." Someone showed me how to grill my steak, but that evening is memorable because of what it gave me to chew over in my mind. Dr. Jernigan was not a person who could be satisfied with a glib, safe, and self-serving answer.

The next day we started before eight in the morning and finished at ten in the evening. Dr. Jernigan showed me a thick stack of index cards with items he meant to cover. From time to time during the three days of the seminar he would walk over to my chair and show me how many items we had completed and how much was still left to do. There was more to do than we could possibly get done. That's the way it always is in the Federation. We worked hard, laughed a lot, and cried sometimes.

The experience changed the way I thought about myself. I began to understand that Dr. Jernigan could not carry the load alone. He could write and speak about blindness better than anyone else; his thinking was innovative; his courage was beyond question; but he also needed my help. He had shown me what the Federation meant to blind people. He had given the deepest and best part of himself to the movement. He had ceased to be an intimidating stranger and become a trusted friend.

I started work at the National Center for the Blind in October, 1982. Dr. Jernigan knew how to make hard work fun. The staff called themselves the citizens and met from time to time to celebrate birthdays and to decide on crucial matters like what brand of peanut butter we would buy for the lunch room. Citizens of the Center, like citizens the world over, paid taxes. There was a great deal of politicking to get the commodities various people wanted. Dr. Jernigan made alliances and brokered deals. Sometimes his side won, but not always.

Citizens who left items on the lunchroom counters or tables were subject to small fines that went into the treasury with the taxes. This boosted revenues and kept the lunchroom tidy. More than once a gleeful voice came over the public address system: "Dr. Jernigan, please retrieve your possession from the lunch room and pay your fine." He paid without a murmur of protest, but he also never missed an opportunity to collect fines from his colleagues.

Dr. Jernigan loved to entertain. Every year he invited the staff to his home for a picnic. We also had a potluck Christmas dinner. One year I made ratatouille. "Ratatouille," he said the word several times. Then he asked, "If you have just a little rattatouille, would you have mouse-atouille?"

He teased me a lot about my love of baseball, particularly my fondness for the Toledo Mudhens. "A coot can't mate with a mallard, but a mudhen can mate with either a coot or a mallard."

I wondered where in the world he had gotten that information about water fowl. "That shows that mudhens are very flexible," I responded.

"No, Miss Reihing," he answered. "That shows that mudhens are very promiscuous."

When I had been at the Center for a few weeks, someone called me with a good job listing in work with the blind. I called Dr. Jernigan, excited about the possibility of employment for a blind person.

"What does it pay?"

I had forgotten to get that basic data.

"Miss Reihing, you're going to have to lick your calf over. That's an expression I learned growing up on the farm in Tennessee. When a cow gives birth to a calf, she licks it clean. If she doesn't get the job done right the first time, she has to lick her calf over. Call the guy back and get me all the necessary information."

When I had done so and called him back with the complete information, he thanked me and then said, "You just wasted some poor person's PAC money." He never forgot that we were all accountable to blind people who sacrificed part of their meager SSI checks to help fund the Federation.

One day, when I was still very new on the staff, I told him I was afraid of making a mistake that would cause harm to a blind person. "You will, Miss Reihing. You can count on it. The only people who never get it wrong are the ones who do nothing."

When he was working, he worked very hard. When he wasn't working, he resisted working at all. One evening I was a guest at his home. The conversation around the dinner table was about politics, wine, the weather. I was thinking about something I was doing at work and asked him a question about it. He answered politely in one sentence and went back to discussing politics, wine, and the weather. Two more times I brought up questions about work with the same result. As the Bible says, "To everything there is a season."

Chapters and state affiliates frequently came to the National Center for the Blind to tour their property, talk to Dr. Jernigan and Dr. Maurer, buy aids and appliances, and enjoy good food and the excitement that comes from being at the nerve center of the National Federation of the Blind. Dr. Jernigan would often work late into the evening discussing the Federation with the members of the affiliates. At the end of a very long weekend he told a departing state affiliate that he was going to go and clean the bedroom and bathroom he had used while staying at the Center. One person said in an astonished tone, "He's the leader of the Federation, and he still cleans toilets!" Dr. Jernigan replied that it would be an irresponsible waste of the Federation's resources if he spent very much time cleaning toilets but that, if he was unwilling to spend some time cleaning, he didn't deserve to lead.

He was always teaching. Construction workers who helped with the remodeling at the Center frequently stopped me in the hall to tell a story about how Dr. Jernigan had noticed some flaw in their workmanship. They learned quickly that there was no room for sloppiness. One telephone installer grumbled, "I left less than a half inch of wire sticking out, and he noticed and asked me what it was for! I used to think that blind people didn't know what was going on because they couldn't see. I don't think that anymore."

Our opponents were often unnerved by his ability to change his approach when the situation warranted change. He could be unflinchingly confrontational when the rights of blind people were being trampled. He could also accept the need to work with people who disliked the Federation if doing so would safeguard the rights of blind people. I once asked him how he could keep from hating such snakes. "If a snake is going to bite you, you have to kill it. But you should always love the snake, even while you're killing it. A fat lot of good it does the snake, I suppose, but it does you a lot of good." Bitterness and hatred were not part of his character.

Dr. Jernigan was the first person outside of our immediate families to learn of my engagement to Paul Gabias. The growing Gabias family has continued to treasure his friendship. He was one of the people we called when our daughter Joanne was born with an infection that collapsed her lung and almost killed her. He rejoiced with us at her recovery and at the births of our sons Jeffrey and Philip.

Our fourth child, Elliott, was born on September 3--exactly twenty-five years after the First Seminar in Des Moines. Though he was weak and short of breath and knew his death was not far off, Dr. Jernigan rejoiced with us again. Without Dr. Jernigan's work, how many Federation families would never have come to be? The children of those families are truly his Federation grandchildren.

I'll miss Dr. Jernigan for the rest of my life. But I know the things he taught me will always be there to call upon, and my gratitude is even stronger than my grief.