by Dick Davis
From the Editor: Dick Davis started his work with blind people in 1971 at the Iowa Commission for the Blind when it was led by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. Dick has served with distinction in many roles in Iowa, New Mexico, and Minnesota. He currently serves as the assistant director for employment programs at BLIND, Inc. and here is what he has to say about his boss and his friend, Shawn Mayo:
For the past ten years Shawn Mayo has been the executive director of BLIND, Incorporated, but I’m sad to say she’ll be leaving at the end of December. I started working with her thirteen years ago in 2000, and she’s become one of my closest friends since that time. Joyce Scanlan, BLIND, Inc.’s founding executive director, recruited Shawn as her successor because of her moral strength, intelligence, and vast network of friends, a network she had developed as president of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS).
At the time Shawn came to work at BLIND, she was completing her NABS presidency, and, although I’d known her only briefly when she was a BLIND, Inc. student and afterward, it was obvious she was the real thing. Her charisma was such that one student, who kept asking her to marry him, said, “I don’t know her at all, but I really like her!”
As executive director of BLIND, Inc. she carried these strengths with her—she ran meetings well, was strong without being overbearing, and had the respect and love of the students. Before becoming executive director, Shawn worked for BLIND, Inc. for several years as assistant director for outreach and marketing, life skills instructor, and summer programs coordinator. She knew BLIND, Inc. both from a student and a staff perspective. Under Joyce’s mentorship, she continued to grow. I also helped shape her.
Shawn is a quick learner, and her strengths continued to emerge: a deep-seated compassion toward others, the highest personal integrity, an intuitive grasp of problems and ability to solve them, an analytical nature that went to the core of things, the charisma mentioned above, and a sense of humor that everyone came to love. She showed herself to be strong too, and, if she made up her mind to do (or not do) something, incredibly stubborn.
She demonstrated excellent money management skills—fiscally conservative when necessary and generous the rest of the time. In fact, she more than tripled the income of BLIND, Inc. and built a cash reserve while simultaneously raising funds to make repairs to the historic Charles S. Pillsbury Mansion that is our home for classes.
Shawn accomplished many other things from 2003, when Joyce retired and she became executive director, to the present. She successfully addressed a breakdown in Minnesota student referrals by bringing in more students from other states and getting the department commissioner to take corrective action. When a state shutdown threatened funding for student training, she testified in court alongside the Minnesota Attorney General, who was impressed by her case, and convinced the judge to continue funding for BLIND, Inc.
Under her leadership BLIND, Inc. developed the country’s only fully integrated English language learner (ELL)/adjustment to blindness training program for blind immigrants and refugees, gained BLIND, Inc.’s first federal contract, and oversaw the creation of the Code Master, the most modern Braille learning system in the country and recipient of the 2013 Bolotin Award and the 2012 Touch of Genius Award. In fact, BLIND, Inc. has been part of receiving not one but two Bolotin Awards since she’s been director.
Most important, she has worked to build a team of committed Federationists. We have all taken the belief Shawn has in blind people and given our love and commitment to them as she has taught and shown us to do through her example. Countless students have followed her lead and joined the National Federation of the Blind and become involved at all levels of the organization throughout the country. As one does at our NFB centers, she had the students to her house, where the kids in our summer programs learned to light a grill and the adult students, after walking nearly six miles to her home under sleepshades, were welcomed with friendship and a steak dinner.
There’s a lot more I could say about her accomplishments, but her record speaks for itself. BLIND, Inc. today is a nationally and internationally recognized training center, known for its family culture, its innovation, and its overall excellence. It is now in the best financial and programmatic shape it has ever been in. If there’s a good time for her to move on, it’s now, and she has good reasons to do so.
Shawn lost her eyesight at age 17 because of leukemia. The drugs that saved her life gave her arthritis, which she’s had for years. Let me say here that she’s one of the toughest and most upbeat people I know. She’s thought for some time that, while still loving her work at BLIND, Inc. and still loving the Federation, a climate a little less severe than Minnesota's would be more comfortable for her.
This fall Shawn’s partner, Emily Wharton, developer of the Code Master Braille System, was offered and accepted the director of technology position at the Iowa Department for the Blind (IDB). Emily is from Iowa and is a graduate of the IDB Orientation Center. She began her new job at the end of October, and Shawn will join her around the turn of the year. This will eventually give Shawn the opportunity to have a house with enough land to own a horse again, one of her lifetime goals. She’ll also be much closer to her and Emily’s families.
I came to BLIND, Inc. in 2000 from State Services for the Blind (SSB), where I’d been assistant commissioner (director) for over seven years. I lost my job because of my resistance and that of the NFB of Minnesota to two department attempts to merge SSB with the general rehabilitation agency. It was such a miserable experience that, by the time I left that job, Minnesota was the last place I wanted to be. However, I agreed to stay until the last of our kids had graduated from high school.
Joyce Scanlan created the position of assistant director for employment programs in order to encourage me to stay in Minnesota, but it was Shawn who ultimately convinced me. I came to like her so much that I decided to spend the remainder of my career helping to make hers a success. One thing each of us in the second generation of the NFB needs to do is pave the way for an orderly transition to younger leadership. Along the way I became very attached to BLIND, Inc. It’s a wonderful place to work, with a devoted staff and great students.
When Shawn told me finally that she’d decided to move, I’d already invested thirteen years of my life helping her be a successful executive director. It was a hard blow for me to take. But nothing good is ever lost, and I knew that what I’d taught her, and my efforts on behalf of BLIND, Inc., would both continue. When she asked if I’d be interim director until a permanent one could be found, I of course agreed. She had the hard task of breaking the news to our board, staff, and students. Those were painful discussions, with tears all around.
Shawn recommended me to the BLIND, Inc. board of directors as her choice for interim director, and the board agreed. I’ll lead BLIND, Inc., assist in the search and interviewing process for a permanent director, and train that individual. Even though she’ll be in another state, Shawn has agreed to advise me and the new director.
Executive director of an NFB training center is a significant position within the Federation, and therefore we cannot just hire someone off the street. The director must be an individual with leadership experience in the NFB, a deep understanding of blindness and blind people, and administrative experience sufficient to run a nationally acknowledged training program. So we have been looking carefully, working through Dr. Maurer and our network of Federation friends. I’m happy to announce that Dan Wenzel, formerly of Colorado, then Wisconsin, and most recently Maryland, has just accepted the position. More about him in a later article.
Like all our new hires, Dan will go through our regular staff training program, and I’ll work with him until he’s thoroughly learned how BLIND, Inc. operates. We won’t have the three years that Joyce was able to devote to Shawn’s training, but the training period will be sufficient. At that point I’ll return to my old position and continue to support Dan until I’m ready to retire. It’ll be a big job, but I love challenges and am looking forward to it.
While we’re all very sad to see Shawn leave BLIND, Inc., we know she’s ready for her new life. Expect more great things from her in the future. As far as BLIND, Inc. goes, she’ll always love us and be there for us, as we will for her. She’ll always be part of the Federation and will pass her knowledge and love of it along to others, wherever she lives or works. If you would like to keep in contact with her, her personal email is <[email protected]>.