Kenneth Jernigan: A Personal Tribute
by James Gashel
I first met Dr. Jernigan on June 11, 1964, at approximately 3:30 p.m. It was a Friday afternoon, just two weeks to the day after I had graduated from high school. I was applying for services at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, and Dr. Jernigan was the director of that agency. In those days there was a great deal of tension between the agency he directed and the school for the blind which I had attended. So, you might say that Dr. Jernigan's reputation had preceded him, as far as I was concerned.
The people at the school for the blind had told me that Dr. Jernigan had a very domineering (they might have said "controlling") personality. At the time of our first meeting at his office in Des Moines, I was absolutely convinced that this description of him was not an exaggeration. Now, however, as I look back on those events in 1964, I would say that Dr. Jernigan displayed an air of confidence that I had never observed in the blind adults I had met until that time. It was also clear to me that he was full of insight. In fact, in all of the years since I first sat down for a talk with Dr. Jernigan, I have never met anyone who could evaluate a situation or size up a person as accurately as he could.
Although I definitely didn't think so in the beginning, I was truly blessed to become one of Dr. Jernigan's students. All of you know that he loved to lead our movement, but he also loved to teach. And when he taught us, he also had a great deal of fun with us too. For Dr. Jernigan and his students, learning about blindness and our potential was a full-time commitment. He kept us focused on that commitment, day in and day out.
When I say day in and day out, I mean from early morning until late at night. For Dr. Jernigan there was very little time to waste. So his day (and consequently our day) started about 5:00 a.m. when he knocked on the door to wake us up for morning gym class.
His greeting, which he delivered with unfailing gusto, was just about what you would expect: "Are you alive?" This was not a question. It was Dr. Jernigan's way of saying, "The world's passing you by--get with it." He may have thought the question was rhetorical, but there were definitely times when I considered responding in the negative. However, I never did.
So, as one of his students, I got with it. Now when you went to the gym, you had to try to do more than the teacher. Dr. Jernigan was the teacher. He had a way of letting you know that the expected standard of performance for the students was to exceed the performance of the teacher. He loved to show off for us too. He did this by punching the punching bag faster than the rest of us, walking on his hands clear across the room without falling or stopping, and jumping rope faster and longer than you can imagine. I actually think that jumping rope was his favorite way to put us to the test. He would have us jump in groups, because Dr. Jernigan always liked to do things in groups--you may have noticed this about him.
Now in jumping rope, Dr. Jernigan would have us form a line consisting of two, three, or even as many as four students; then he would head up the line. The idea was for all of us to jump a single rope together. Believe it or not, we could do it too. And during all of this activity there was Dr. Jernigan out in front pushing us to do more and doing more himself just to show us that we could do more.
Speaking of doing more, Dr. Jernigan had a wonderfully explicit way of teaching us that talking about what needed to be done, rather than doing it for ourselves, was not enough. For instance, when some of us were talking about how it was that the kitchens at the center were inadequate, he said, "Fine, build a new one." When we protested, saying that we had classes to go to every day, he said, "This is your class. You have nothing more important to do than to build the kitchen." So build the kitchen we did.
Now in those days at the center in Iowa, we were between teachers in the wood shop. So the crew that was building the kitchen had all of the equipment and all of the materials all to ourselves and no instructor. This was of no consequence to Dr. Jernigan. Our assignment was to build the kitchen. His assignment was to make sure that we did it.
So build the kitchen we did. And, although that particular assignment was completed many years ago, in a very real sense I have been building that kitchen, with Dr. Jernigan looking on, ever since. He is not here now, but the building is still going on. And the building will always go on. This will happen because Dr. Jernigan taught us the skills to be the architects and builders of the future for all blind people.
As I look out over this great convention hall today, I am absolutely convinced that we have the skills and the commitment to build for the future. And we also have the responsibility to do so. That too is what Dr. Jernigan taught us. When it comes to meeting responsibilities, Dr. Jernigan never failed us. Now that he is gone, we have the responsibility to be the leaders and builders of the future.
Dr. Jernigan has passed the baton to us. With the leadership of Dr. Maurer as our guide, we in our turn will not fail to meet our responsibilities. As the leaders of the present generation and the next, we must claim the future and finish the journey so all blind people can enjoy the freedom to which Dr. Jernigan devoted his life. His cause is our cause, and the mission will be fulfilled.
Michael Gosse and Patricia Miller hold stacks of the
new book and video about Dr. Jernigan.
Following the tributes, President Maurer announced that both a video and a book had been compiled as memorials to Dr. Jernigan's life. The video is a compilation of short clips and unforgettable moments in Dr. Jernigan's public life. The cassette edition of the book, titled Kenneth Jernigan: The Master, the Mission, the Movement, is narrated by Dr. Maurer, and, where possible, recordings of Dr. Jernigan's actual delivery of speeches have been included. Those present for the memorial service received both the video and print and cassette editions of the book as they left the convention hall. They may now be purchased from the Materials Center at the National Center for the Blind for video, $10; print book, $5; and cassette book, $7.
In closing, Dr. Maurer referred again to Dr. Jernigan's delight in making and
flying paper airplanes. Someone had given him a plane that Dr. Jernigan flew into the hall
at last year's convention. In turn he then presented the memento to Mrs. Jernigan.
Following a prolonged standing ovation, Mrs. Jernigan concluded the morning's activities
with these words:
Mary Ellen Jernigan holds aloft Dr. Jernigan's paper airplane,
which President Maurer presented to her.
These paper airplanes, Dr. Maurer, have come to symbolize many things for us--things Dr. Jernigan taught us. We take ourselves seriously for our work is serious. But we also know how to live with sparkle; he taught us that too. Somebody gave you this airplane, and it had to be someone's cherished personal treasure. Somebody gave it to you so that I could have it; he taught us things like that too. I will keep this airplane for all of us, to symbolize all that we are, all that we always will be.
This morning we have looked back, and we have remembered. Dr. Jernigan would have wanted us to do this; indeed, he would have expected us to do this. But now he would expect us to do something else; he would expect us to get on with it. [laughter and applause] So let us go this afternoon to the Coca-Cola Museum, to the CNN Center, and to Olympic Park. Let us conduct the Braille workshop for parents. Let us roam the exhibit hall. Let us gather around the swimming pool. Let us have a good dinner tonight. Let us plan how to raise eighteen million dollars. [applause] Let us build our new building. And let us do these things as he would have us do them, together, with joy in our hearts and a song on our lips.
As Federationists filed from the ballroom, volunteers handed out the books and video. Carrying away these tangible recollections of this dearly beloved man who set us free was both a comfort and an encouragement to follow his example. The gift was a memorable close to an unforgettable morning.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Marc Maurer delivers the 1999 banquet address]
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Mementos of the 1999 NFB Banquet:
left to right a replica of the bust of Dr. Jernigan, the picture on the front of the souvenir mug, the picture on its back, the votive candle, and the banquet ticket.]
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Diners in the Marquis Ballroom listen to the Banquet Address.]
[PHOTO/CAPTION: The five-hundred or so Federationists who enjoyed the banquet in the Imperial Ballroom had large-screen video on which to watch the proceedings. Spotters equipped with two-way radios made certain that nobody missed a door prize.]