by Tom Bickford
From the Editor: At the 2013 convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, Tom Bickford, a member of the National Federation of the Blind since the 1950s, related what he has gotten through his contact with the people and the programs of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what he said:
What is it that you get in the mail the most? Bills! Bills, advertising, direct requests for money. Yeah, you guys know. It was true sixty years ago—fifty years?—I don't know. In the early 1950s I was a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The state of California had a program to pay people to read my textbooks to me. The man who ran that program was Bob Campbell. You'll see his name in Federation history. He was also the president of the Federation affiliate, and it was obvious that he was using his student list to send out Federation information. We'll just forgive him for that.
Toward the end of my college career I was talking with my rehab counselor, and he said, "You ought to go up to this orientation center in Oakland. They could teach you some independent travel skills." I had to admit he was right. So at the end of the school year I went up to Oakland. The most important person I met there was Kenneth Jernigan. He was still in his late twenties then. He was not the formal administrator of the program; he was the inspirational and philosophical leader, though. His ideas were what really made the program go. He taught a number of classes. Every morning he'd come over and work out with us in the gym, and I mean work! I can't name all the classes he taught. He taught a class called Business Methods and Procedures. Originally, it was just that, how to run a business. He'd done it himself. By the time I got there the class was about issues of blindness.
"How do you feel about yourself as a blind person, and what do you think you can do?" And we came in, most of us, feeling pretty insecure. And then, "What do you think of other blind people? What do you think they can do? What do you think of the sighted public? What do they think you can do?" We covered all that specifically and in general. He'd pick on a particular student he thought was in a place in the development of his confidence, and he'd say: "Now Jack, how do you think of this? I'll set up a situation here. How do you justify that? Can't you think of something else? Why do you say that? What do you think of this other factor over here?" And he worked us over. I was not exempt from those work-over jobs. He did so many things to make us think about our positioning the development of our confidence and independence.
I took other classes while I was there, one in cooking. I learned how to use kitchen equipment. I learned how ingredients work with each other. Over the years, when I lived by myself, I cooked for myself. Later on, when I got married, my wife and I had two daughters, but she wasn't always home, so I would cook for my family. And I can cook more than rum balls. There's a fruit cake over there from Barbara Pierce's recipe, and it's properly aged. It has brandy in it. That'll help it age.
The other class I took that really made a difference in my life was cane travel: formally, two hours every morning, two hours every afternoon, and that was just the beginning. Any time we were walking around the building, the community, alone, with other students, we were using our canes, and that's the way to do it.
Over the years people were asking me, "Gee, that's amazing how you travel. How do you do that?" I got tired of answering. I decided to write it down. Well, I got to writing, and I wrote this and that. After a while I realized, "I have a book here." So I sent my notes over to Dr. Jernigan (by that time we were both here in Maryland), and he said, "Yeah, go ahead and write the book."
So I'm sitting on the sofa with a Braillewriter on my lap, Braille paper on my left, Braille paper on my right. I didn't have any computer skills at that time. It pays to have friends; Lloyd and Judy Rasmussen came to my rescue. We ran off a few copies, and we gave one to Debbie Brown. Debbie says, "You didn't think about this. Why don't you include this issue?" So I did.
We sent it over to Mr. Jernigan, and his answer was, "All right, the next time you send this to me, I want a copy in Braille, a copy in print, and a copy in digital form." So we did. We did a little more editing, and now we have Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane: Instructions in Cane Travel for Blind People. The Federation made me a published author.
Now let me go back to California in the 1950s. Mr. Jernigan was also president of the local chapter of the Federation, and we learned how the Federation worked. We wrote letters to Congress. We wrote letters to our state legislature. We got involved with anyone who was blind in the Bay area. We went up to Sacramento to sit in on legislative hearings. We went to the state conventions, and we got involved in those.
Well, speaking of conventions, 1957 came along; the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind was in New Orleans, Louisiana. I couldn't find anyone to go with me, so I went by myself by Greyhound bus—three-and-a-half days. Now that's a long trip to go without a bath. I know other people have taken even longer trips and have even brought their children with them, but that was my first long trip. I learned a lot about the South. I learned a lot about the Federation. I especially learned a lot about myself, and that's another thing the Federation can do for you.
At that convention Ken Jernigan wanted to introduce an official membership pin. He had six copies with him, and he gave them out. He had three left over. Someone said, "Auction them off!" The last one went five-ten-fifteen-seventeen dollars to Tom Bickford. I have it right here on my lapel next to my Whozit pin.
My program at the orientation center was through, so I went back to my home area in Southern California. I joined the local chapter: The Associated Blind of South East Los Angeles County—what a name. I joined in and participated, and after a while they elected me secretary. I realized later that was my first office in the Federation.
In those years there was a group of people inside the Federation who wanted to get rid of Dr. tenBroek. They were jealous of his long time as president; they wanted to take the Federation off in a different direction. That was the civil war, and some of it got nasty. I was in on that, and I gave and received blows. They never did get rid of Dr. tenBroek, and, after five years of fighting it, they finally went off and formed their own organization. That was the American Council of the Blind. Yeah, they like to fight.
In 1958 Ken Jernigan went to Iowa to be the director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, and he was mighty successful. He worked sixteen-hour days, making friends here and there: with the legislators, with the Temple Sisterhood, with anyone who had any chance to help him out in his work to help the blind.
I heard about Dr. Schluntz, the blind chiropractor. By then he was already a millionaire. I thought some of those Iowans were doing pretty well. Mr. Jernigan called me up one morning from Iowa—I was still in California—and he said, "Tom, how would you like to come to Iowa and be a rehab counselor for me?" I most certainly would! So I got to Iowa in January of '59. Now I can talk Federation; I can live Federation; but I'm not the right kind of person to be a rehab counselor. It's not my nature. It became more obvious and more obvious, and we parted company on very cordial terms. We both knew it wasn't going to work, and he actually introduced me to a program at the University of Iowa that was for rehabilitation counselors. I can go to class, I can study, I can pass tests, but I'm still not a rehabilitation counselor.
All right, the next big opportunity that came along was to go to Washington, DC to study Russian language and go to work for one of the security agencies. It happened again. I can study Russian; I can learn it passably well; and I passed the tests. But I didn't pass the big test: security clearance. About half of the students did. I was in the half that did not, so I had to go off and find a job somewhere else.
While I was there, I joined the local chapter of the Federation, and I participated, and after a while they elected me president. Now I'm going to say this: I'm not the only former president in this room. Orlo Nichols was also serving his term for a while. His job moved from Washington to Baltimore, so he followed the job. That's why.
While I was there, there were two men who were refused admittance to a movie theater because they had guide dogs. Oh no. How do we fight that? They were from Arlington. I thought, the congressman from Arlington is right here in Washington, Joel Broyhill. I got a copy of the Model White Cane law from Dr. tenBroek, and I gave it to Broyhill. Well, he wasn't going back to Arlington. He introduced it into Congress. All right, I'm in the Federation. I know what to do. I got a list of the other members of his committee (the Committee on the District of Columbia), and at the next convention of the National Federation of the Blind I went to the president of each state with a congressman on that committee, and I said, "We are asking you to ask your congressman to support this bill, and here's a letter outlining what we want him to do." The Federation came through. When I got back to Washington, Broyhill was amazed: "I've got people from all across this country supporting this bill."
All right, the next step was to get members of my chapter to write up testimony. We had hearings in the House committee. We had hearings in the Senate committee. It was passed by Congress. It was signed by the president.
Now we have Public Law 92-515. It's a civil rights law for the blind and physically handicapped. Since then it has been superseded by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but that's all right with me. I don't mind; that gives the whole country better protections.
I got married in 1968. That spring Dr. tenBroek died, and Ken Jernigan, as vice president, succeeded to the presidency. The national convention was in Des Moines. During that convention two New Yorkers brought in a song they wanted to be the official National Federation of the Blind song, "Glory, Glory Federation." A lot of us know that. Just as we were about to vote on that, a young woman came running up the center aisle saying, "But I have a song too!" Mr. Jernigan says, "All right, we'll have a contest. We'll have a committee. Anyone who has a song can send it in to the committee, and we'll vote on it next year in South Carolina."
My wife gave me an elbow in the ribs and said, "You ought to be on that committee." Oh well, that's what wives are for. I know what to do; I know how things go. I wrote a note in Braille and gave it to one of Mr. Jernigan's staff members I knew, and he passed it along.
Next morning from the podium: "We'll have a committee, and it will be chaired by Tom Bickford." I hadn't expected that one. We had some good submissions. We had some not so good submissions. Now we've got a whole song book. There's Mary Ellen Thompson, who worked on the song book for us.
I've come down to the end. The Federation has given me my life! What do I give in return? Money? Sure, give money. It takes money to run this thing. But how much do you give? That's between you and your conscience and your bank balance. What else do you give? Give your time. Look around this room: so many people. Half of these people are giving their time to make this program go. Give your talents. I have some. I don't have all. But give your time, give your talents, give your imagination, give your enthusiasm. I assure you that, in trying to do this, it has all come back to me—with interest. And now I'm deeper in debt than I was before. So I give more to try to pay off the debt, and it keeps coming back with interest. It's a debt that I will never pay off, but it's a debt that I will bear willingly, all my life.
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