by Jim Omvig
From the Editor: Jim Omvig is one of the longtime leaders of the National Federation of the Blind. He has served as the director of both the Orientation and Adjustment Center operated by the Iowa Commission for the Blind, and the Alaska Center for Blind and Deaf Adults. His pioneering work at the Social Security Administration, his work with the National Association of Insurance Comissioners, and his contributions as an author only hint at the depth and commitment he has to better the lives of blind people, a passion he has demonstrated for more than fifty years.
Jim and his wife Sharon now live in Des Moines, Iowa. Here is what he has to say about a gifted Iowan who was encouraged to follow her dreams, who had the courage to do it, and whose work has been recognized by the University of Iowa with a scholarship lovingly endowed by members of her family:
It has been said that "The key to immortality is living a life worth remembering." Such a life was lived (all too briefly) by a young Dunkerton, Iowa, woman named Judy Young (she later became Judy Saunders). Because of the purposeful life she lived, the University of Iowa School of Education has established a scholarship, the Judith Young Saunders Scholarship in her name and memory. My wife Sharon and I recently attended the 2013 awards presentation. What a marvelous experience it was.
As longtime Monitor readers know, Judy was totally blind. She was an Iowa Commission for the Blind, Kenneth Jernigan student in the early 1960s, and like many of us she believed Dr. Jernigan absolutely when he said, "Judy, you can be anything you want to be."
Following her Jernigan "empowerment," the bold young Judy decided that she wanted to teach young children in the public schools, but she soon learned that, to that point in our history, no blind elementary teachers were working in Iowa. Then, to make matters worse, it wasn't much later that she learned to her dismay that the University of Iowa refused to accept blind students at all into its School of Education. Its administrators and faculty argued that one must have sight in order to teach young children competently and safely. (For the complete Judy Young Saunders story and what Kenneth Jernigan did to get her the opportunity for acceptance into the University of Iowa's School of Education and then to get her the opportunity for her first public school teaching job, see the article, “An Affectionate Validation,” in the November 1995 issue of the Braille Monitor.)
Judy did complete her Jernigan training; she did get into the University of Iowa; she did complete the School of Education's rigorous programs successfully; and then she did become Iowa's first blind elementary public school classroom teacher. In 1967 she traveled to Los Angeles to attend the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind. While there, she met a young blind chiropractor from North Dakota by the name of Curtis Saunders. Eventually they married; Judy moved to North Dakota; and, before long, what do you know?--Judy became North Dakota's first blind elementary public school teacher, too. Wow, what an amazing accomplishment!
The popular couple soon had three children—all boys. Life was good in Devils Lake, North Dakota. Also before long Judy began providing incredible inspiration for the many blind public school teachers who were to come after her. Then tragedy struck. Judy developed cancer, and she died in 1981, at the age of thirty-six. Only a few short years later (1994), Curt also developed cancer, and he too died rather quickly.
By 1995 Judy's remarkable story had become ancient history and almost folklore in the National Federation of the Blind, when I made a trip from Tucson to do some staff training for Minnesota State Services for the Blind in Minneapolis. But, on my flight home to Tucson, I had an amazing experience. By chance I sat beside a young Minneapolis businessman named Mark Hewitson. Judy Young Saunders had been his fourth-grade teacher in Devils Lake, North Dakota. I had always known what a wonderful teacher she had been and also what a tremendous role model she was for the blind who would come after her in the blind civil rights movement. I had often used her success story in teaching and stimulating others. But what a heartwarming experience it was to have my personal knowledge validated by one of her enthusiastic and appreciative students. We had a joyous talk on our trip from Minneapolis to Arizona.
It was this experience that moved me to write the article, “An Affectionate Validation.” But now you need to know, as Paul Harvey used to say, "The rest of the story." For Judy's story doesn't end with the 1995 Braille Monitor article either. Judy's mother Kathryn continued to be a loyal Federationist and a Braille Monitor reader long after Judy's death. She saw the article, and, after she read it, she circulated it throughout the entire Young family. Eventually the article and the Braille Monitor itself became the impetus for the establishment at the University of Iowa of the Judith Young Saunders Scholarship.
The scholarship was established and funded in 2011 by Judy's uncle, James H. (Jim) Burke, and her brother, Richard J. Young. Jim Burke tells me that the family had always been proud of Judy and her many achievements (she was the family hero), but it was only when they read the Monitor article that they understood that Judy was actually an American hero. They decided then and there that it would be appropriate to create and fund a scholarship in Judy's memory for future blind students in the School of Education at the U of I.
Late last year I had to be in Iowa City for some medical care. Though Jim Burke and I had spoken by phone several times through the years, we had never met in person. So Sharon and I took this opportunity to get together with him for lunch. Jim is one very proud uncle. He told us that a scholarship luncheon and award ceremony would take place on Friday, April 5. He said that the dean of the School of Education, Dr. Colangelo, hosts this event each year both to honor the donors of the scholarships and to announce and recognize the new winners. He asked Sharon and me to come, and of course we were honored to do so.
So on April 5 we drove the 120 miles from Des Moines to Iowa City to attend and participate in the event. It was a fine affair. Sharon and I were proud to be able to sit with Uncle Jim Burke and the 2013 Judith Young Saunders Scholarship winner, Ashley Kielty, who is earning her master’s degree in English and Spanish at the U of I. She was blinded in one eye in an automobile accident.
We also had a very special surprise. I wrote earlier that Judy had three sons. Her middle son Mark, who lives and works in the Minneapolis area, was able to attend and participate. He was on a business trip from Minneapolis to Chicago and was able to squeeze in both a visit with his great uncle and attendance at the awards luncheon as a part of his trip.
Sharon tells me that Mark looks remarkably like his mom and that he is one handsome young man. His attendance and participation made our day complete. Talking with Mark, we learned much more than we had already known about Judy and her life. This should conclude the saga of Judy Young Saunders, and perhaps it will, but perhaps it won't either. What a wonderful tribute it would be both to Judy and to the Braille Monitor if, like “Validation,” this story were to motivate a family member or friend from another family to establish a similar university scholarship in the name and memory of yet another blind American hero! Who knows? Strange and unusual things do happen, don't they?
Finally, Jim and Richard, we of the National Federation of the Blind wish to thank you sincerely for establishing and funding the Judith Young Saunders Scholarship at the University of Iowa. What a fine expression of generosity, kindness, and love your action was. And Judy, as I remember and think about you, I shall never forget the emotions and words of that former student of yours when he said at the end of our plane ride together, "Without a doubt, she was the best teacher I ever had; I just loved her!"
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