Details and Patterns:
A Beloved Teacher Remembered
by Ramona Walhof
Always keep this fact in mind:
The old cow's tail hangs down behind.
Although it's muddy and full of burrs,
The old cow loves it because it's hers.
What a vivid picture! What a useful lesson! And how very typical of Dr. Jernigan to use such a little poem as a teaching tool.
I was most fortunate to meet Dr. Jernigan at a young age, about the time I graduated from high school. Through the years he has been mentor, a second father, a colleague, an employer, and a dear friend. His loss to me personally is immense. I know that I share this feeling with thousands of others. So we meet here to honor and remember this amazing man.
Dr. Jernigan was one of the most colorful personalities of the twentieth century, one of the best thinkers in the land, and one of the most compassionate people of our time. More than that, he practiced and taught a kind of self-discipline that is rare. I thank God for sending him to us. And I thank God for the privilege to have known and learned from him.
Dr. Jernigan caused us to try to do the things we really believed would be impossible individually and collectively. He helped us dream of things that were brand new. He led us to understand how to make the changes we desperately wanted and those we had not dared to hope for. He truly cared about thousands of individuals around the world and reached out in different ways to more people than most of us can comprehend. In return we loved him. It seems a little thing, but Dr. Jernigan took strength and determination from the support and loyalty we offered.
There are so many special times to remember. I think of being invited to his apartment for breakfast on Sunday mornings when I was a student at the Iowa Orientation Center and the discussions at the breakfast table about things like brains in their eggs or tongue in their sandwiches. I remember being sent back to make bigger hamburgers to be grilled on the roof.
I recall a discussion about whether girls should wear pants to the local amusement park. Then there was the time that I was invited to dinner at the Mayflower Hotel in early 1965 before the National Convention in Washington, D.C. That was the night I was introduced to a yard of beer and to the D.C. Chapter of the NFB.
In 1967 in Los Angeles I went to see Dr. Jernigan. We were forming the Student Division, and there were three college students from other states at that convention, but there were a whole bunch of Iowans. I said to Dr. Jernigan, "How many people from Iowa would it be reasonable to put on the Board of the Student Division?" thinking he would say two. But he didn't. He said, "Three." It was the beginning of a lot of learning for all of us, and we grew in the Student Division.
I remember his pride when the Library of Congress ordered all the copies we had printed of our brand new, very first edition of the Handbook for Blind College Students.
Dr. Jernigan's teaching methods were as varied as everything else. One day I was told that I needed to learn to play better. He told me that my sister knew how to play better than I did. He said that, when she had taught him to rat his hair, she had been playing and did it well. I thought back to the day when my sister, Susan Ford, and I were both in college and had been riding in the back seat of Dr. Jernigan's car. He asked Susan if (I'm sure this wasn't the first time) she wanted to teach him to rat his hair. Sitting behind him, she took a comb out of her purse and reached forward and began to work on Dr. Jernigan's hair. She told him she could do a better job if he didn't wear so much hair oil. Of course we were all doubled over with laughter. Then she had to comb out all the rats so he would be presentable for whatever we were going to do. I accused him of flirting with Susan to encourage what she was doing. He didn't deny it. He responded as you might expect. "Define flirting."
Dr. Jernigan taught us to "lick our calves over" when we were not thorough. He taught us to use the carrot and the stick. He taught us to consider both the spirit and the letter of the law. He taught us new words such as omphaloskepsis. He taught us how to eat an elephant one bite at a time. He taught us grammar to discipline our minds. He taught us generosity, boldness, and gentleness and tried to show us when to use which. Dr. Jernigan left us a trust to carry on the work of building the Federation and advancing opportunities for the blind. During many conversations recently and long ago, he said that the best way to love him is to carry on the work of the National Federation of the Blind and to reach out to other blind people. And he meant it.
Every moment with Dr. Jernigan was fascinating. His curiosity was compelling. Discovery for him was a delight; whether he found a talking toy or a new story or poem or (best of all) the discovery of a keen young mind, he enjoyed the find.
If Dr. Jernigan could find a way to help, he did. In 1972 my husband was suffering from diabetic kidney disease. Kidney transplants were only experimental at that time. We had two babies under the age of two and no money. It was a hard time, and Dr. Jernigan understood. He told us he needed us at the convention that year and that he would find the funds for us to attend. He said that it would not be a loan but that we should pay the money to someone else at some future time when we could and found someone who needed the help. He wanted us to go to the convention, and we wanted to go. As it happened, my husband died before that convention. I needed a job, and Dr. Jernigan offered me the work I needed. I know that similar offers for financial help have been made to others, and I know that the response has often been exactly as Dr. Jernigan wished. We have passed on the assistance to others when we could and when the need was there.
Dr. Jernigan insisted that every detail was important. But he never lost sight of patterns and trends. This is the combination that made him so effective as a friend and teacher but also made him the world's greatest leader in the organization that is the strongest force in progress for the blind.
We have known and appreciated the generosity and love he offered. We must keep it uppermost in our hearts and minds as we continue to do as he asked: build the movement for the blind of this and coming generations.
The heritage Dr. Jernigan left us has already affected millions of people, both blind and sighted. It is as wonderful as the man himself. We shall cherish him in this work, in the literature he left us, and in our hearts. His spirit will always be with us. We shall follow his guidance with force when we must, with creativity and energy, but most of all with love for each other and joy in our work. As long as we continue to follow his example and these directives, we honor Dr. Jernigan. We want to do it. We must. And we will. In a very real sense we, the members of the National Federation of the Blind, working together building a better world for the blind today and in the future as we go ahead with our leader Dr. Maurer, are a large part of his legacy. I have a feeling he knows we are carrying out the lessons he taught us. Let us make him proud.