Braille Monitor                                                 November 2012

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Bob Hunt Dies

From the Editor: We are indebted to Ed McDonald of West Virginia for this information about longtime Federationist Bob Hunt, who died on July 20, 2012. He was strong and independent at a time when blind people were expected to sit quietly and wait for someone to notice them. Ed McDonald has known and worked with everyone in the West Virginia affiliate for decades. Here are some of his memories of Bob Hunt:

Robert L. Hunt (May 22, 1924, to July 20, 2012), stands at the podium during the 1971 convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Dallas. To his left are Isabelle Grant of California and internationally known Rienzi Alagiyawanna from Ceylon, who was then first vice president of the International Federation of the Blind.Bob Hunt lost the vision in one eye and three fingers on his left hand at the age of eleven in an accident with a dynamite cap. He lost his remaining sight two years later. He earned a master’s degree from what is now Marshall University and did extensive work toward a doctorate at the University of West Virginia. As a young man fresh out of college, he earned his living as a merchant and cab dispatcher and even dabbled in the trucking business as a coal hauler. At the age of twenty-four he was elected to the first of two two-year terms in the West Virginia House of Delegates, representing his home county. Several years later he taught for two terms in the public schools of Lincoln County. Then in 1959 he joined the faculty of West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, where he served as a professor of history for nearly thirty-five years.

Bob joined the West Virginia Federation of the Blind (now the National Federation of the Blind of West Virginia) during the early 1960s. He was a leader of the newly formed Morgantown chapter while attending West Virginia University. He served as second vice president and then first vice president of the state affiliate before succeeding to the presidency upon the death of NFBWV pioneer Chris Cerone. He was then elected to the presidency in 1967 and held that position--except for one year--until 1979.

Since then he has remained active in the organization as a member of the board of directors, president of the Members at Large Chapter, and member of the legislative and agency relations committees as well as in various other capacities. His pioneering spirit of independence and self-confidence as a blind person; his keen sense of universal justice, equality, and human dignity; his strength as a leader; and his commitment to lifelong learning are just some of the personal qualities that made him worthy of respect and recognition--not just by the National Federation of the Blind, but by anyone who had the good fortune to know him as a student, a colleague, or a friend.

For example, consider the evolution of his spirit of independence and self-confidence as a blind person. At the time Bob lost his sight, the creation of a social action organization of blind Americans (the National Federation of the Blind) was still just a dream in the mind of a scholar and visionary named Jacobus tenBroek. Bob's parents had no National Organization of Parents of Blind Children to turn to for guidance about how to help their son who had suddenly become blind. The only blind person Bob himself had ever seen was a street musician with a tin cup attached to the neck of his instrument. Otherwise, during those pre-war depression days, opportunities for a blind person to live an independent and productive life--especially in rural West Virginia--were virtually nonexistent.

Neither of Bob's parents had even a high school diploma. Nevertheless, they recognized the importance of a good education and developing a strong sense of personal responsibility. They made sure their children did well in school and had chores to do at home. Even after the explosion had destroyed some of Bob's vision, they insisted that he remain in school and complete eighth grade. In addition, Bob's father, who worked as a coal miner, set a personal example of courage and determination by becoming involved in the labor union movement--an unpopular and sometimes even dangerous thing to do at that time.

Even after his father died prematurely in 1939 at the age of thirty-seven, his mother insisted that Bob continue his education at the West Virginia School for the Blind in Romney, the only viable educational option available to him at that time. Despite the school's strong academic program, it was at the School for the Blind that Bob first encountered attitudes of low expectations and inferiority regarding blind people--even the unspoken but very real notion that totally blind people were somehow inferior to those with so-called partial vision. But he also learned from his fellow students the many things that blind people really could do, and he discovered new and effective ways to bolster his own self-confidence. One of those techniques for building self-confidence involved what he described as "breaking the rules of the institution," a technique that he occasionally employed in his adult life as well. Things like venturing off campus without the requisite sighted guide; finding ways to buy beer at a downtown restaurant; and daring to walk across the railroad trestle that spanned the South Branch River--these activities were strictly forbidden by school rules. Nevertheless, engaging in such activities--even at some risk to one's safety--was one way for a blind teenager to assert his independence and strengthen confidence in his own inherent abilities.

Bob would be quick to remind us that behavior which others may regard as simply a display of self-assurance on the part of a sighted person may be interpreted as arrogance or conceit when displayed by a blind person. Nevertheless, this spirit of self-confidence--call it conceit if you want to--served him well after graduating from the School for the Blind. Pursuing a college education was not common among young blind people in those days, and the matter of starting a small business was even less common. But conducting a campaign, getting elected, and serving in the state legislature is still a pretty remarkable accomplishment for any young man in his early twenties--not to mention a young blind man in 1948.

In 1959, when Bob joined the faculty of West Virginia Wesleyan College, blind people throughout the nation were still struggling to secure the fundamental right to organize. Dr. tenBroek and a few others had worked their way into academia, but teaching at the college level was not, by any means, a common profession for blind people. It is therefore a testament to his persistence and determination as well as his academic credentials that Bob was able to secure such a position and make it his life's work for more than three decades.

He held his employer to the same standards of nondiscrimination that he would have expected from anyone else. Although he had not earned a PhD, he became eligible after fifteen years of teaching for advancement to the rank of full professor. Years passed, however, and he received no such advancement while colleagues in similar situations were becoming full professors. He recognized a blatant case of discrimination based on blindness and carefully considered how to respond. Finally--despite advice from friends and colleagues not to make waves, he decided to file a complaint with the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, a right that had been secured several years earlier through the efforts of the Federation. The Commission ruled in his favor, and the college complied.

It was virtually inevitable that Bob would become involved in the work of the National Federation of the Blind. His father's example as a union miner taught him the value of collective action as a way to solve social and economic problems and bring about needed social change. His legislative experience taught him how to bring about change through the political system. What's more, that sense of independence and self-confidence assured him that the principles which the Federation fought for were indeed right. He led the organized blind movement well in West Virginia--expanding the membership and forming new chapters, raising the necessary funds to support the organization, raising public awareness of blindness issues and the accomplishments of blind people, and supporting the passage of vital legislation in such areas as basic human rights for blind West Virginians.

One of his crowning moments occurred when he confronted Governor Arch Moore in a public forum. While Moore addressed a statewide gathering leading up to the White House Conference on Disability, Bob challenged the governor's alleged acts of political cronyism that had seriously weakened the state's Randolph-Sheppard vending program, a major source of employment for blind West Virginians.

On a personal level, Bob and Ruth were successful in navigating the process of adopting two children. In the 1960's and even today, this is an area in which blind people often face unwarranted challenges and discrimination. Robert Hunt’s life stands as both a positive example and an inspiration for blind people everywhere. It seems almost prophetic that the letter L, the middle initial in his name, stands for Loyal. Throughout his life he remained loyal to those fundamental principles of equality and justice that sustained him and gave him the strength and determination to achieve so much.

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