Dr. Jernigan and Larry McKeever walking together
at the 1998 Convention in Dallas
Larry A. McKeever
I first met Kenneth Jernigan in the mid-1960's. I had been reading for the Iowa Library for several years, and when I returned from Australia, I began work at a classical music station in Des Moines.
Shortly after that Dr. Jernigan called and wondered if this off-beat station would be interested in a program of poetry. Our friendship began with the production of those programs. I was immediately impressed with his knowledgenot only of poetry but of people and the world. His dedication to the Federation was apparent from the beginning.
Later that year Jim Valiant, Dr. Jernigan's administrative assistant at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, resigned to return to Maryland. Dr. Jernigan and I discussed the possibility of my assuming that position. After an intense interview and testing I was hired and attended my first NFB convention in Washington. We eventually decided that this was not the right position for me, so I assumed another job at the Commission. Mary Ellen Anderson, now Jernigan, joined the staff at that time. That was the beginning of my friendship with both of these remarkable people, a friendship which has lasted to this day.
Early in 1968 I started a recording studio. Not too long after that Dr. Jernigan called saying that the person who had been recording the conventions was retiring. He wondered if I was interested in that job as well as recording and producing the Braille Monitor. I began reading the Monitor and working closely with Dr. Jernigan, who usually read the articles he had written. My last Braille Monitor and Convention recording were done just as the studio at the National Center opened.
I remember the discussions about the difficult situation in Iowa in 1978--whether to stay and fight the nay-sayers or move the NFB offices. When Dr. Jernigan decided to go to Baltimore, I was saddened, but I agreed with the decision. I also remember the first time I went to Baltimore. The NFB occupied a smallish office on St. Paul Street with boxes and furniture everywhere. What a difference between that tiny space and the magnificent headquarters today at the National Center for the Blind! Kenneth Jernigan was the worker, the dreamer, and always the builder.
Speaking of building, later Dr. Jernigan called me to Baltimore to discuss building a recording studio at the National Center. We planned the rooms and the settings just as they exist today. Once they were built, I came again to Baltimore to equip the studio and help find someone to run it.
Everyone is familiar with Dr. Jernigan's dislike of flying. Many have heard a description of the eventful flight that Dr. Jernigan, Iowa Commission Librarian Mrs. Florence Grannis, and I made to Boise, Idaho, in the early 1970'sparticularly Dr. Jernigan's embellished version of that trip. But fewer knew of two other flights we made in the single-engine plane I flew. Before the Idaho trip Dr. Jernigan, Mrs. Grannis, and I flew into Chicago for a meeting. After landing my back gave out. By the time their meeting was over I was not fit to fly. So we quickly went to Midway airport to get a commercial flight. It was Dr. Jernigan's ministrations that got me safely back to Des Moines. (I recovered the plane a few days later.)
Dr. Jernigan kept sufficient faith in my piloting ability to make one later trip to Tennessee. This one was uneventful. But on the way I was able to acquaint him with the operation of the airplane, the radios, and the air system. I remain convinced that, if something had happened to me on that flight, with the help of another plane to talk him down he could have landed the airplane safely if not prettily.
For the past three years I have been privileged to serve as personal assistant to Dr. Jernigan at National Conventions. I was with him most of the time, attending sessions, travelling between meetings, and helping wherever needed. I also helped supply the Jernigan Suite, did necessary errands, and on occasion brought dignitaries to the convention. It's impossible to describe the wide-ranging discussions we had in our walks between meetings and after the day's work was done.
By the time we reached Dallas last summer, Dr. Jernigan had fought lung cancer for nearly a year and was tired from the illness and the treatments. But he carried on in convention sessions very nearly at the top of his form. Doing so took a great deal out of him. On the Saturday after convention, as I was leaving, he took my hand and said: "Mr. McKeever, if I don't make it to next year, find someone else to work for and tip one for me." I assured him at the time that I would tip several for him, and I will.
I feel distinctly blessed to have known Kenneth Jernigan. Tens of thousands will miss him because of the attitudes he changed. Thousands more will miss him because of the opportunities he made available. I will miss him because he was my friend.