Dr. Jernigan and Jim Omvig
Through the Hands of Such
by James H. Omvig
From the Editor: Jim Omvig is an attorney who worked for some years with Dr. Jernigan in Iowa and who then went on to have a distinguished career in law. What follows is the entire speech he prepared for the memorial service.
He gave us hope where there had been only hopelessness; joy where there had been only sadness; confidence where there had been only doubt; and enthusiasm for life where there had been only despair. He gave us something else too, and he burned it into our very souls: "We know who we are, and we will never go back!"
It is a privilege of a very special order for me to speak to you here today, to rejoice in the life and work of Kenneth Jernigan. First, I was honored simply to know and work closely with Dr. Jernigan for nearly forty years. But, even more than that, my own life has been blessed by my relationship with him, for I was one of the lucky ones, one of those who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
My wife Sharon, who happens to be sighted, is as blessed as I. She met him as a young woman of nineteen; and, as she puts it, "He raised me up."
In my own case I was living in Iowa when Dr. Jernigan came into the state and opened the new Adult Orientation and Adjustment Center using the National Federation of the Blind's philosophy. I was one of the very early students in this remarkable attitude factory, and my life was changed forever. Through his kind, loving and patient tutelage, I acquired a passion for life and that burning desire not merely to survive, but to succeed.
Many can attest to his brilliance, to his passion for justice for the blind, and to the fact that for more than thirty years he was the prime mover in pushing back the frontiers of ignorance about blindness. But today I would like to show you a side of Dr. Jernigan not many people saw, by telling you several seemingly unrelated stories. Then I will finish by talking briefly with you about giving.
It was only many years after I had met Dr. Jernigan (when I was older and obviously a whole lot wiser) that I had an astonishing revelation: Dr. Jernigan loved me and believed in me long before I either hoped or believed in myself. When I met him in 1960, I had sat at home for almost eight yearsthis following my graduation from a wretched, regressive residential school for the blind. I had been in his office for about two minutes when Dr. Jernigan asked, "Are you blind?"
"Oh, no sir," I said. "I'm just a little hard of seeing." But he wouldn't let me off the hook with that kind of foolishness. So he asked, "How many fingers am I holding up?"
I was so ashamed of being blind that I didn't have the guts to tell him that I couldn't see him at all, so I guessed, obviously incorrectly, for he then said, "My friend, you are blind; you are a blind person." At that point I was convinced that this was one mean man.
He then explained his definition of blindness to me, but the interview didn't get any easier. Soon, when he learned that I was twenty-five years old, he said, "The chances are that you'll live for another fifty years. What are you going to do with all of that time?" He continued, "The choice is yours. Either you can come here as a student and learn to deal with your blindness, or you can go back home and sit. You should think about the fact, though, that a man can wear out the seats of a lot of trousers in fifty years."
I was stunned to silence by this grim prospect, but by and by he explained the Center's programs to me and offered me the chance to be one of his students, and the rest is history. Thank God I had enough sense to take the chance.
Now to a series of other stories. While I was a student in the Iowa Center, I learned both just how hard Dr. Jernigan worked (he usually put in more than a hundred hours a week) and also just how much he loved personally working with and teaching students. For example, we students lived right in the Commission building, and so did he. As students we typically worked from 6:00 in the morning until around 11:00 at night, five days a week. So we looked forward to sleeping in on Saturdays.
But it was common, at around 6:00 on a Saturday morning, to be awakened by a ferocious banging on our doors and a hearty, "Look alive in there. You can sleep when you get old! Breakfast is ready!" And we would go to the Jernigan apartment for breakfast. This gave Dr. Jernigan another hour or two to teach and motivate before he got on with the rest of his day.
It was following times like these around his dining room table or sitting in his living room or after 6:00 a.m. gym class or in his office that he also had one-on-one talks with us: peaceful, frank, and instructive. Those of us who were lucky enough to be his students will always feel deep gratitude for these special times.
And Dr. Jernigan also loved grammar, so he offered us a chance to attend his grammar class one night a week: another hour or two a week of motivating and teaching.
A wonderfully mellow side of Dr. Jernigan could be seen at holiday time. We always had a Center Christmas party, and it was never complete without his reading to us in Braille. He loved to build a great fire, sit near it, and read the Christmas Story from the Bible, "The Gift of the Magi," "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," and other Christmas favorites. Those too were warm and wonderful times which will never be forgotten.
Ever wonder about this last name business either at the Iowa Commission or in the Federation? There is a story behind that too. It all started shortly after Dr. Jernigan came to work in Iowa as Director in March of 1958. He hadn't been there long when he observed a troubling practice: the sighted staff members were addressed by their last names while the blind employees were called by their first names. Being a man of justice, he knew that he must do something to save the situation. He could either have everyone use first names or last. He opted for last, from the Director right through the table of organization to the janitor. He believed that the bankrupt Commission for the Blind with its beleaguered staff needed to find waysanything he could use to bring about a feeling of pride and prestige. He thought that using last names might help. It worked.
And the financially bankrupt agency wasn't bankrupt very long, either. Success in the programs paid great dividends, but some other minor ingredients helped too. For instance, in the late 1950's and early 1960's, many of the Iowa state legislators loved poker, and they played a night or two a week. Now it so happened that Dr. Jernigan loved to play poker too, and he was good at it. Soon he was engaged in weekly games with members of the legislative leadership. He won so frequently that, before long, the legislators refused to let him deal the cards. They were convinced that he was able to feel the Braille dots while he dealt and thus to know their hands. To their way of thinking, how else could one explain that a blind man beat them so regularly?
These contacts, together with his obvious intellect and charisma and later the success of the program, soon resulted in unparalleled legislative support. For almost twenty years the Commission got virtually every dime of legislative funding it requested.
In addition to his counseling with and teaching students, Dr. Jernigan also often became involved in school and job placement activities. Let me tell you a little of the story of Curtis Willoughby, one of my fellow Center students in 1961. In casual conversation one day, Dr. Jernigan asked Curt what he planned to do as a career. Curt replied that he didn't know. Dr. Jernigan said, "I understand that you're good with electronics. I thought you'd probably pursue that as a career."
Curtis replied, "I'd actually like to become an electrical engineer, but my teachers at the school for the blind said a blind person couldn't do that."
Dr. Jernigan replied, "Look, I don't know any blind electrical engineersat least any who went through school as a blind personbut if that's what you want to do, then try."
Curtis did try, but Iowa State University officials then refused to admit him. As they put it, "This program is extremely difficult even for sighted students. We can't imagine how a blind person could possibly get through it."
Eventually Dr. Jernigan became involved in the struggle. He argued, "Look, all that Curtis wants is the chance to tryno special treatment, no favors, just a chance. If he succeedsand I believe that he willthat will be great. If he fails, then flunk him out just like you would flunk out any other poor student." School officials relented, Curtis was admitted, and the rest of his story too is history. Curtis has worked successfully ever since as an electrical engineer.
Then there is the story of Judy Young. She was the first totally blind public elementary school teacher to teach sighted children in both Iowa and North Dakota. When Judy was hired by the principal of Des Moines' Urbandale Elementary School, some irate Urbandale parents were so outraged about the hiring of a blind person to teach their kids that they actually pulled those children out of school. However, when reason prevailed, the kids came back, and by the end of that first year there was almost universal agreement that Judy Young was the best teacher their children had ever had.
But, as Paul Harvey says, "Let me tell you the rest of the story." After Judy's graduation from the Orientation Center, she had no difficulty being accepted at the University of Iowa, and she did well. But when she announced her intention of going into elementary education, the door was closed. Unenlightened school officials absolutely refused to let Judy in. In their minds it was one thing for a blind teacher to work in a high school, perhaps teaching social studies, but it was quite another thingindeed, an impossible taskfor a blind person to teach elementary education to sighted children.
Everything came to a head at a meeting which Dr. Jernigan attended along with school officials in Iowa City on a Sunday evening. (Just as an aside, imagine today a state agency director at a Sunday evening meeting 120 miles from home advocating for the rights of an agency client.)
Dr. Jernigan had gone to Iowa City to persuade officials to let Judy in. However, these officials first remained steadfast in their discriminatory determination to keep her out. Faced with this stubborn resistance, Dr. Jernigan finally said, "If that's the way you want it, fine. You should know, though, that I'm going to hold a press conference tomorrow morning in Des Moines to announce to the public that the State University of Iowa discriminates against its blind students. Frankly, I don't think you'll like that very much, and I can guarantee you that the public of Iowa won't like it at all. But if that's the way you want to have it, then so be it."
Dr. Jernigan's suggestion struck a nerve, and miraculously, right then and there, these officials became enlightened and understood that the bright and competent Judy really ought to have a chance. Again, this is the stuff which distinguished Dr. Jernigan from his director peers. Judy Young was extremely successful at teaching both in Iowa and, following her marriage, in North Dakota. Sadly, she died as a young woman, leaving behind a husband and three small children.
One last student story must be told. In the early 1970's a student named Jim Speed enrolled in the Center. Jim's was a unique case. He was around 6 feet, 9 inches tall and had come to Iowa to play basketball at the University of Iowa. All had agreed that he was a future All-American. However, during the first week of practice Jim became ill, and within a few days he was permanently, totally blind. He enrolled in the Center shortly thereafter, but it was difficult for him. First, of course, his entire NBA career with its potentially huge salary was gone. But also, almost everyone in Des Moines knew of his story and recognized him on the streets. They constantly stopped him to pat him on the back and to tell him how sorry they were for his terrible plight.
These two factors took their toll, and before long Jim was utterly down-hearted and discouraged. He became one of the most negative students the Center had ever had. Even more, this negativity began to rub off on the twenty or twenty-five others who were students at the time. Nothing we tried helped. Finally Dr. Jernigan called Jim into his office one day. "Jim," he said, "the time has come when we can't treat you with kid gloves any longer. You have two, and only two, choices. Either you pack up and leave today or tell me you want to stay. But, understand me, if you stay, you will be happy!
Jim grumbled, "If I choose to stay, are you saying I have to fake being happy?"
"That's exactly what I mean," said Dr. Jernigan. "Look here, Jim, it's one thing if you choose to throw away your own life, but I can't stand by and let you hurt these other students."
Since going home would have been a dismal prospect for Jim, he chose to stay, and he did fake it. The immediate change both in Jim and also in the other students was remarkable. Five or six weeks later Dr. Jernigan was awakened at around midnight one Saturday evening, not by Jim, but by another student. This poor fellow said, "I'm sorry to wake you at this time of night, but Jim Speed wants to see you in his room."
Dr. Jernigan thought, "What in the world has gone wrong now?" But he pulled on his robe and went to Jim's room. "Jim," he said, "I understand you need to see me."
Speed said, "Yah, I have something to tell you. I've faked being happy for so long now, that I just realized somethingI really am happy!"
Dr. Jernigan said, "That's wonderful, but don't you suppose you could have waited and told me in the morning?"
Jim said, "I could have, but I just wanted you to be the first to know!"
Jim Speed is working today as a rehabilitation counselor.
These and hundreds of other stories define the Dr. Kenneth Jernigan a lot of people didn't know. I could also have told you, for example, of the new, young staff membernot studentCommission staff member who, when he was arrested for possession of drugs on a Saturday night, called Dr. Jernigan rather than a lawyer or his parents for help. Or I could have told you of how, when he was speaking to some bored high school students one day, he flipped up and walked on his hands around the stage, "To capture their attention." It worked. However, in the interest of time, these few stories I have told will have to do.
Let me conclude with this: one of Dr. Jernigan's favorite teaching books is The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. His passage on giving speaks volumes about the life and work of Kenneth Jernigan. Gibran writes:
"You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
"There are those who give little of the much which they haveand they give that for recognition; and their hidden desire makes these gifts unwholesome.
"There are those who have little, and give it all. These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
"There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward. And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
"And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor do they give with mindfulness of virtue; they give as in yonder valley the flower breathes its fragrance into space.
"Through the hands of such as these, God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.
"For it is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding."
Dr. Jernigan, surely God has spoken through your hands, and from behind your eyes He has smiled richly upon the earth. God bless you.