by Fred Wurtzel and Gary Wunder
From the Editor: Recently several people suggested that I interview George Wurtzel whenever I talked about the need to address employment opportunities for blind folks whose passion is not found in books, letters, and working at a desk. One of the people who was most enthusiastic about publicizing the off-the-beaten-path work that George Wurtzel has done is none other than his brother Fred, known for being a longtime leader in the National Federation of the Blind. Fred and I have decided to work jointly to create this article, and it is in his voice that most of it will be presented. Here is what Fred has to say, with an occasional sentence thrown in by yours truly:
When I received Gary's notes on my brother, Gary wrote in his email to me, "I might not want to hire George to work for me, but I would certainly enjoy watching someone else do it, enjoying both his creativity and their failed attempts to manage him." I am totally impressed with our editor's ability to accurately portray the essence of a person in a sentence. This is why he is the editor, and this is a great way to begin this story.
What do you say about a broad-shouldered, six-foot-six person with a huge bushy white beard, a full head of curly dark hair, who wears bib overalls, has an engaging smile, and an easy infectious laugh? What if that person was on the first American expedition to cross-country ski across Lapland? What do you say about a person who has been an auto mechanic, a bicycle mechanic, a commercial woodworker in three states, was a partner/baker in a bakery, owned and rode Arabian horses in endurance rides, makes props for the film industry, has had exhibits in modern art museums, and teaches blind people to do woodworking? What do you say about this person when you learn he was born with little eyesight and has been totally blind since age nineteen? What do you say if the editor of the Braille Monitor asks you to write about this person, and this person happens to be your brother?
Dr. Joshua Miele of Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute says, "He is a bad-ass blind guy."
I feel a need to begin by explaining why I want to tell my brother's story to the Braille Monitor. Among things I love are my brother and the National Federation of the Blind. They share a fierce need to be independent and, some people say, a reluctance to compromise, arguably to their occasional disadvantage. I do not share the misgivings, but I certainly observe the fierceness in our common need for independence.
George Wurtzel <http://www.gmwurtzel.com/> has always been an adventurer, and it hasn't always been easy for him or those around him. The presence of young George was always accompanied by some kind of sound. It wasn't a radio or a record player; it was tapping, banging, chiseling, sawing, scraping, or running feet. Motion is a signature word for George.
When he started riding a bicycle on the street, he could certainly hear moving vehicles and could detect most of them that were stopped, but he did have a problem with the postal worker. When we were children the postman would deliver mail using a push cart with a bag strapped to it. He and the cart didn't make much noise, and more than once my brother ran into that cart, spilling its sorted contents on the street and leaving the postman not only to reload and re-sort, but also to chase his newly freed letters as they were taken by the wind.
The postman was a fine guy, but George's behavior did not go unchallenged. The postman confronted my mother, openly questioning the propriety of a blind kid riding a bike and suggesting that she bolt down the cycle so George would no longer be a public menace. Mom's reply was that locking up the bike would do no good since her son would only cut the bolts. "This is just one of the problems when you have children raised by a father who loves tools and has a child who is eager to learn to use them," George remembers her saying.
Now comes the age-old debate about nature and nurture. Growing up with George, I know about his innate and irrepressible curiosity. Our parents were hands-on folks, having grown up in farm families as most people of their age did. They were skilled at things like cooking, mechanics, baking, and foraging for wild berries, mushrooms, and asparagus. One of their favorite pastimes was playing cards with family and friends. We had an active and social environment in our early years.
We were expected to be outside as long as the sun was up and only return indoors for food (bathroom breaks were optional, us being boys and all and living in the countryside most of our childhood). In our earliest years we lived on three acres in Thomas Township, Michigan. Our father's excavating business occupied a lot of the three acres with dump trucks, bulldozers, backhoes, dragline cranes, and innumerable other machines and fun stuff to play on. Late afternoons were always interesting with the crews returning, doing machine maintenance like greasing the crawler tracks on the bulldozers and cranes, loading equipment onto the lowboy trailer to prepare for the next day's work—and the banter, always the banter among the crew. I learned lots of words that my teachers were not real impressed with. During the day we had the run of the area with discarded underground gasoline storage tanks that were maybe ten feet in diameter. What a challenge to climb up on them and to hear and feel the really cool, deep bass sound they make when struck with just the right object. In addition we played on piles of used tires, catch basins, old abandoned trucks, and so on. Have you ever seen a fire hydrant out of the ground? It was a paradise for two curious boys.
Later on, after we moved to northern Michigan, and our father was selling the kinds of equipment that he had owned as a contractor, we lived on eighty acres with woods and fields. George and I bought a 1950 Dodge and a 1953 Chrysler New Yorker for twenty or thirty dollars each. We proceeded to take the body off the Chrysler and make a dune buggy out of it, and we amused our friends by driving the Dodge through the fields at high rates of speed. I had some vision then.
So, was it our genes that made George the adventurous entrepreneur, or was it our parent's hands-off style of parenting, or was it the teachers and adults we encountered? If you are a parent and reading this, I hope you consider these questions. Forget what CNN or Crunchy Moms say; let your kids run free to go on adventures. Everyone will be better off for it.
Although George appreciates academia, office jobs, and the so-called information age in which we live, they have never been his cup of tea. He is what most of us call a hands-on kind of guy, but with George the term is not figurative but exceedingly literal. "I learn by doing, by touching, by trying it myself. And, you know, I'm not alone in this. Lots of blind people are just like me—they aren't suited to a desk job, but they are ready for some good, honest, physical work."
As I said, our father was a small business owner during our very young days. He owned an excavating business. Our kitchen was the office where the workers met in the morning for the day's assignments. Talk of machines, excavating, leveling, ditches, sewer lines to be installed—all were part of our morning conversation at the breakfast table.
One time my father found out that one of his employees was taking the long way home so he could add extra time to his paycheck. This was an ongoing problem. When this employee came in one morning, George, only about four years old, said, "My daddy is going to fire you." I guess this prepared George for his future of managing employees in his various businesses.
George's story is more than a blue collar versus white collar career discussion. If one considers George's thought process, it transcends these artificial definitions. Some people would say that George is eclectic; others would say he has simple common sense born of his view of life. He is a synthesizer. He creates new space and concepts out of thought and creativity through tools, wood, flour, spices, and agriculture, all contained in his mind and born out of a rich experiential base. What bothers some people is that George refuses to make overly-simple blanket assumptions about doctrinal issues. Chair caning, piano tuning, and door-to-door sales have been stereotypic professions for blind people. Now the pendulum has swung and many if not most counselors are guiding blind people away from jobs that have traditionally been good paying. Even the Randolph-Sheppard program, arguably one of the best employment programs for the blind, has trouble getting counselors to refer potential businessmen to it because it is one of those stereotypical blind guy jobs, even though some blind people are making six-figure incomes. Dogmatism just isn't in George's personality, unless it concerns the proper care and use of tools.
George does not frown on what some dismissively call the traditional blind jobs. "If they create real American money, I like them. We should argue when people say that the traditional blind jobs are the only ones blind people can do, but we should never argue that, because we have done them in the past, we shouldn't now see them as good, honorable, and lucrative jobs.”
One of the highest values of the National Federation of the Blind is developing positive blind role models to demonstrate first-hand that blindness is not what holds us back. As George says, "In years past schools for the blind, at least the Michigan School for the Blind, had many blind teachers. One of these served as a positive blind role model for me. Frank Rosnoski taught many manual skills, including shoe repair and chair caning. Another role model was Jesse Manly, who taught piano tuning. Many of us made good money as students during evenings and weekends pursuing these occupations. Frank Rosnoski could carve a chain from a single piece of wood or a ball in a cage. He was an inspiration for me, showing me that a blind person could not only be skilled at woodworking, but could earn a living doing so. I had no skill or interest in piano tuning, though it paid very well."
He continued, "Almost everyone would like to work for what they get. They may take public money, may believe they deserve it because some disability has befallen them, may tell themselves they are just getting back what they or someone else has paid in, but no one feels as good about taking money as they do about earning it.
"I have argued and fought against sheltered workshops for their exploitation of the blind. They have long been a thorn in my side. But I am not opposed to creating environments that pay blind people a real and meaningful wage,” George stated with passion evident in his voice.
When around George there is usually some kind of smell. It is the fragrance of wood shavings or sawdust, the nose-twitching smell of some kind of wood finish, the industrial odors of motor oil, WD-40 or gasoline. If you are lucky enough to get in his kitchen, there will be wonderful aromas of lovingly made brothy or creamy soups, the homey and delectable smells of fresh bread baking, or the aromatic vapors of a pot of chili simmering that promises a welcoming mealtime.
When George operated his countertop business, he provided lunch for his employees. This was an economic move to keep his employees close by so they returned on time to work, but it also was a way to share his hospitality, his creative cooking skills, and his concern for others.
At age nineteen George started his own woodworking shop in Traverse City, Michigan. "For the first two years I worked a full-time job from eight to four at a bicycle and ski repair shop, which gave me money to support my habit—woodworking. In doing that I became a bicycle technician, fixing and repairing bicycles. This was a great job for me as a blind person—put the bicycle up on a rack, figure out what was wrong, repair it, and, sometimes at the peril of other people, I'd go riding to test my work."
In this job George also learned to repair and mount ski bindings and was good enough that he was invited to Las Vegas by Salomon, the seller of running shoes, skis, and snowboarding equipment to work the national ski show in its booth. "All of the emphasis on the safety of ski binding equipment was driven by insurance companies who would get sued if an accident could be traced to mechanical problems with the skis and their bindings. In order for me to qualify, I had to take a test for certification. The test involved looking at forty ski bindings and determining which one of those forty was constructed correctly. In my group of test takers, I was the only one to find the ski bindings that had no problem. Lots of us found the thirty-nine that had problems, but I was the only one to find the pair that was put together correctly. I think the difference may be that most folks come in looking for problems, but I am an optimist and tend to assume that things are okay until I find that they aren't."
But back in Traverse City, having no money to pay rent for his part-time business, George made a deal with the owner of a commercial office building to use the unrentable space in the basement for his woodworking shop. "For the right to use that space, I cleaned his bathrooms, cleaned his hallways, and shoveled his snow. Because of my job and the building's business hours, I had to do these office building jobs after five in the evening. So, after working from eight to four in the bicycle shop and five until nine or ten at the office building, I could work at making products in the shop."
In about two years George bought his own building. The business was open for a little over nine years, but after buying some new machinery and adding to his original building, he was forced to close in 1982 when the economy crashed and interest rates were sky-high at 20 percent. This meant that the building industry came to a screeching halt. Losing the business took almost everything George had. "You know you are poor when you can move all of your belongings halfway across the country on a Greyhound bus."
What he left behind in Traverse City was a lot of classic woodwork in a renovated historic county courthouse, beautifully made store fixtures in many of Traverse City's gift shops and retail stores, Traverse City's longest bar in a bowling alley, and beautiful furniture in people's homes that they will pass on to their children. The city is richer than it was when he came there and shared some of his passion and creativity to earn his daily bread.
George moved to Hickory, North Carolina, to get a degree in furniture production management from Catawba Valley Community College. "The reason for going back to school was that my failure in Traverse City led to the recognition that I needed more skills to be a successful business person," he said.
While at Catawba College he was hired for a temporary job assembling upholstered couches for a furniture sample maker. North Carolina hosts the headquarters of a number of major furniture companies. Companies have samples made of their new designs to develop manufacturing systems and to show to their customer buyers. It was a rush job and the owner needed people who could use tools and knew about upholstered furniture.
"It surprised me that I actually got a job in North Carolina. The owner hired six people and let five of them go at the end of the job; he kept me. I was working with guys who were the best of the best. There were no slackers. I am very good at setting up machines and am not satisfied until they are perfect. Good enough is not good enough."
After learning his trade George went to work with people who were creating a kitchen cabinet manufacturing plant. "The reason I was hired to start a European-style cabinet factory is that there is no room for error in European cabinet manufacturing. Precision is absolutely mandatory if the cabinets are to come out right. There is no tolerance for slop. They owned the building, and I was responsible for purchasing the machinery, equipment, and tools. I set up the plant, trained the employees, and started seeing production go out the door." But George does not always play well with others, so he and his partners separated after a couple of years. "One of the partners I got along with quite well, but the other partner and I had a personality conflict, and, in addition, I wanted and thought I deserved more money."
Soon George started another company of his own: SellAmerica. His first engagement was with a company selling woodworking routers used for a variety of woodworking applications, including putting finished edges on tables, picture frames, and a multitude of other functions (nothing to do with computers). "The business I contracted with wanted me to do marketing, but my goal was to become an independent representative and work with several companies selling other products to different businesses."
George's business morphed into something different when his mother suggested he make a pretty box for his veteran father's interment flag. The triangular box was attractive and could be displayed either open or closed. She showed it to a neighbor who knew someone in the funeral home business. He in turn showed it to the director of the funeral home, who said, "No one is doing anything like this. This is a great idea." So George built some prototypes, did some horse trading with a photographer, created a brochure, and had about a hundred of them printed up and distributed them by hand and by mail. His company began selling to local funeral homes. Within two years he had 2,200 accounts coast to coast and was making about 17 percent on every box he sold. After seeking and being awarded a contract from both the army and the air force that he could not fulfill without the capital, George began looking for an investor. In that search he found someone more interested in purchasing the company than investing in it. "I won't say how much I sold it for, but it allowed me to be a bum for a while. I believe it was Mark Twain who said that ‘money doesn't bring you happiness; it just allows you to purchase the type of misery you most prefer.’" [Our sources suggests it was actually English comic Spike Millligan.]
In North Carolina George had a lady friend who owned a bakery, so he spent a couple of days each week working there—baking, making soup, and building up the dessert business in local resorts. He spent a couple of days working in his shop, and spent the rest of his time buying, raising, training, and selling Arabian horses. Horses were a passion he had from early childhood. In summers during high school he worked shoveling manure for a local horse raiser in Traverse City, Michigan, in order to earn a little money and mostly to be around horses. All of these part-time jobs he did for three or four years before he decided he needed to go back to work.
George moved back to Lansing, Michigan, and started a business in an abandoned storefront which he and some partners renovated. Its purpose was designing, building, and selling kitchen cabinets. The business also included a unit dedicated to countertop fabrication. "In true George Wurtzel style, as my business grew, I decided I liked working by myself more than I did with others, so we split the cabinet sales business off from the countertop business, it being the one I took."
When anyone spends even a short amount of time with George, they will come to associate him with flavors. It might be some warm whole wheat or sourdough bread from the oven. He might offer a newly discovered craft beer, a particular love of his. He has a signature Key lime pie. Simple things like oatmeal and pancakes are always something special. Quality fresh ingredients skillfully and creatively prepared with George's attention to detail are hallmarks of his culinary presentations.
In the early 2000's when the economy, including the building and remodeling sector, started to fall apart, George closed this business and went to work as the executive director for Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, where he had been serving as a board member. His job was to run a camp for blind children, and this he did for about five years, something of a record for George.
During this time George brought the camp program to a new level of excellence and learned that he liked teaching, and especially teaching young blind people. In 2009 the camp won the prestigious Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award for outstanding programs serving blind people. George acted on his idea to combine art and cooking by designing and having the campers build an outdoor clay oven for baking pizzas and bread. He hired Steve Handschu, a nationally known blind artist, to oversee the design and construction of a dragon-shaped oven later named Smorge. The campers were the primary designers and builders under Steve's and George's oversight.
After working there George moved to Minneapolis, where he worked for BLIND Incorporated. "I told my brother in an email that if I made it a year, I'd be surprised, and I actually worked there for about two-and-a-half years. I was really proud of myself, and besides, I really needed the money. ... I'm a really creative person, and I really don't like being pinned in. I can be a difficult employee because I'm really strong in my opinions, and eventually those opinions have caused me or my employers to say that it is time for me to move on. ... I've always wanted to have complete control over my life and what I did, and I believe that everybody should have that.
"My rub with much of rehab is that too often you have this thirty-year-old person telling a forty-year-old that we're going to make you a desk jockey, when that forty-year-old’s skills, talents, and abilities are in his hands and not in his academic ability. Luckily for me, when I was a young person in rehab, we had two or three people known as job developers whose jobs were industry-based. They didn't have fancy degrees, but they knew how to go out to a factory, look at those jobs, show the factory how a blind person could do them, and then teach the blind person what they needed to know to get and hold a position there. Now you have rehabilitation agencies in the country that are so focused on getting people degrees that they know nothing about blue collar work. I meet too many rehab workers who are just dumbfounded at what I do, and they say, 'How do you do what you do?' And I find myself asking, 'How can you do what you do without knowing this?'
"When I started at the Michigan School for the Blind, they had just quit raising chickens and teaching people how to take care of them and to do some animal husbandry. I don't know when the last time was that you priced free-range eggs, but they are $5 a dozen where I live, and it costs about three cents per egg to feed a chicken. There's really good money in that, but when I talk with people about this, they say, 'Do you really want blind people to go back to raising chickens?' And I say, 'Yes! If the blind person wants a career in agriculture and there is a likelihood there is money to be made. Nearly everyone eats eggs in some form or other every day.’
"Except for those times when I didn't want to work, I've had a job since I was thirteen years old, either working for myself or working for someone else. This is because I've developed a skillset that suits me well, and I've learned how to sell my skillset to people. When you run your own business, it's like having a job interview every week because you have to go out and sell yourself, whether it’s to a company or a potential customer. You get a guy who wants to build five or six confectionary stores, and you want to build all of his cabinetry for him. You have to go out and convince him that you can build the product the way he wants it, give him the quality that he wants, and do it in the timeframe that he wants. You know, he looks at you as a blind person and says, 'I don't know how the guy gets across the street, so can he do all this stuff for me?'”
This is something George has faced over and over again, but if you do the job long enough in a city like Traverse City, Michigan, people start to know you, your business starts to have a reputation, and then the company becomes the symbol of what you do rather than the blind man who leaves people with the question of whether or not he can do it. "It is hardest when starting out and actually gets easier as you get bigger.”
When we Americans wonder what the newest trend is, we look to California. George is currently working for the San Francisco Lighthouse. In an interview for this article Executive Director Bryan Bashin <http://lighthouse-sf.org/blog/lighthouse-names-bryan-bashin-as-new-executive-directorceo/> had a lot to say about the approach that organization has with respect to rehabilitation of blind people. "There is a need for outside-the-classroom informal learning, informal mentoring . . . one of the great opportunities is what comes in nature. When I took the job at the lighthouse, one of the reasons I did it was because the lighthouse has owned for sixty-five years this amazing camp on 311 acres in Napa with every fun thing and bit of infrastructure you can think of. So it was my dream to bring a critical group of blindness-positive people together and build that camp. That's what George is really at the center of--literally building that camp."
As George sees it, "My current job is the best retirement work one could have expected. Bryan Bashin engaged in some rather unfair recruiting practices. He called me on a day when it was minus eighteen in Minnesota and seventy-two degrees in San Francisco. The line that clinched the offer was, ‘You could be living here.’ Before my interview, I had met Bryan a couple of times at NFB conventions, but he says that when he considered what he wanted done, I was the only person on his radar. He has a grape-crushing building that was built in the 1920s. It is a two-story building with about 3,600 square feet, and he wants to convert it into a place where we can teach blind people fine arts. The entire top floor has become a woodworking shop, which contains all my tools, and the main floor of the building is going to become a pottery studio, a general sculpture area, a leather-working shop, and then we'll have a small gallery space for people to display and sell their stuff if they so desire."
Once the building is done, the San Francisco Society for the Blind will start teaching classes. "I can do some cursory instruction in pottery and in leather working, but we will find people whose professions are to do these things, and we will hire them as instructors. We have a stream of people going through here; some of them want to be good craftsmen for their own enjoyment, and others want to be good enough at the work to do it at a professional level and make a living as an artist or an artisan."
One of the things George hopes to have is big gardens and to raise the produce to feed the people who come during the summer. "We will teach people to be gardeners because, here again, look at the price of organic food in the stores. I've never met a vegetable yet that I couldn't recognize by touch, so why aren't we doing more of this? It's crazy not to be teaching these skills. Community-based farms make big money for the people running them. People subscribe to your garden service, and you give them the vegetables they want either by having them delivered or by having them come to pick up their order. You don't even have to leave the farm, and people will just bring you money."
Bashin commented about the Lighthouse, "I think as an organization that is concerned about employment of the blind, we have to look at the complete spectrum. We can't just be an organization that helps blind law students. We can't be an organization to cream-off-the-top people from the top universities. We have to provide different paths for people who want different things. So, yes, we do help blind attorneys, but we also have something we call employment emersion. There we work with individuals in a very intense multi-month process to learn all the techniques that blind people use to find jobs, secure jobs. Each job in employment emersion is one-on-one, so a person who has a desire to work, let's say in radio station advertising sales--we work with him or her to determine: how do you find these jobs? What are they called? How do you approach this? What if you have no experience? How do you disclose your disability? How do you build a network of people? This is far more than just the regular processes involved in pursuing job postings . . . There's a lot of work that goes into getting people to feel that they deserve a place at the table: the sense of teaching folks about our history and our collective mission and the legitimacy and the normality of being blind."
George observes that, "Other fields cry out for blind people to explore them. While at the bicycle store, I also learned to string tennis rackets. What benefit is that? Well a man who works for one of the William's sisters makes $300,000 stringing her rackets. Now you may not make that much, but you can string a racket in twenty minutes."
We asked George an uncomfortable question. “So how did you avoid falling into the trap of doing nothing and getting paid for it?"
"Well, for one thing I suffer from what the Germans and the Americans call ants in your pants. I can't sit still—I just can't. The second part is that I needed to have the money to do what my adventuresome side wanted to do—bicycling, backpacking, canoeing. All of these are things that require money. In 1974 I had a custom-made tandem bicycle built just for me. At the time it cost me $1,000. That's at least a $7,000 purchase today and maybe as much as $10,000 depending on what you want. Social Security does not supply enough jingle in one’s pockets for those kinds of things."
George did not set out to become a teacher. He said, "It wasn't until I was the director at Camp Tuhsmeheta that I realized that I had a talent and most important, a love of teaching woodworking. I work with every student as an individual. I begin with teaching measuring using a click rule and begin to form a picture of the student's skill set. My goal is to help every student get to the level they want, whether it is a simple hobby with simple tools or a full-blown shop making commercially marketable goods. This is their choice, not mine. My role is to help them to fulfill their dreams and needs."
I interviewed Dr. Joshua Miele (pronounced meelee) <http://www.ski.org/users/joshua-miele> for this article. Miele is a blind researcher at the Smith-Kettlewell Institute. The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute is a non-profit, independent research institute affiliated with and located adjacent to the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Dr. Miele does work with systems for blind people to gain access to complex data such as digital maps, tables, and other digital images, and uses touch and speech to simplify access to complex information so that blind people can do research, work, and learn in fields dependent on mathematical and graphical information.
Dr. Miele recently participated in a workshop conducted at the newly completed woodshop at the Enchanted Hills Camp facility. George has personally done a lot of the work to renovate the old building, and he also supervised the work of volunteers and tradespeople on the project. Miele’s view on careers for the blind is, "If you're not going to do it, it should be because you don't want to do it, not because you can't. I can't stand the idea of a brilliant physicist being forced to make brooms because that's his only option, but I also can't stand the idea of somebody who wants to work with her hands being forced into the knowledge market because some rehab counselor says that's her only choice.”
But Miele didn’t just learn about woodworking at that event. He learned much more from George, and, from the moment they met, as Miele puts it, “Just as much as learning about the tools and the wood, I feel like I learned about teaching from George. When I met him and we started talking, I had this immediate sense that I was dealing with somebody who was at the top of his game.”
Jason "JJ" Meddaugh <http://www.atguys.com/store/> is a blind entrepreneur who runs a company known as atguys.com. He attended the same woodworking class as Dr. Miele. He has known George for many years, since Jason was very young and a camper at Camp Tuhsmeheta. Jason is not likely to have any inflated opinions of George, having seen him in action in many settings and circumstances. “George's expectation for me was that, with enough practice and attention to detail, I could certainly become as good as him if I put my mind to it. And he has that expectation of all the students. He doesn't dumb anything down. He'll certainly break down complex concepts in a way that beginners understand if he needs to. The way he taught things, he would help you figure out a way to do it.
“Whether it's when he's teaching a woodworking class or sitting around a campfire telling stories about his travels or his life experiences, you get the feeling that nothing can get in his way.
“As an entrepreneur who has started my own business, George was one of the people I looked to, realizing I don't have to do things the way other people tell me to do them. I can make up my own rules if I want, and I will live and die by my own rules. George was one of the main people who encouraged me and gave me the mindset that I could create my own business, as opposed to just going to college and taking a job offered by someone else."
George is kinesthetic. George is all about textures and shapes. The way things feel in the hand or under the foot is an important factor in George's work. Many of his artistic objects have unusual shapes, and most include some highly finished surfaces. He often chooses woods that have unusual grains and grain patterns which can be felt. Other times he chooses very fine-grained woods with a satin finish. Curves are sensual and evocative in his decorative objects. Whether it is a utilitarian piece of furniture or a whimsical wine stopper, the tactile experience will always exquisitely fit the application.
I remember going with my father to the hospital in June of 1954 to pick up our mom and my new brother. I remember little trinkets mom brought from the hospital. Since then, I have known my brother's propensities, his quirks, and the unique person he is. He has an artistic streak. I am sure there are books about what compels someone to do art. Art is not as concrete as most of George's other endeavors. Not all his art pieces are functional, though all his functional pieces are certainly artistic.
One student of George's was an artist named Emilie Gossiaux <http://www.emiliegossiaux.com/>. Emilie has a hearing loss and was struck by a truck while cycling. She lost all her eyesight in the accident. She chose to attend BLIND Inc. to learn to live as a blind person while George was teaching there.
Emilee's artistic skills were well-developed before her accident. Now she needed to learn how to express herself in new ways or express herself in her former ways using alternative skills of blindness. It was up to George, along with the BLIND Inc. staff, to help Emilee figure out that she could do art as a blind person and then help her develop new techniques.
Here is what Emilee said in a speech about George's teaching, "This man has given me a priceless gift and showed me a valuable lesson: That sight has nothing to do with making art. It's the vision within that matters."
In an interview for this article, Emilie said, "When I went blind in 2010, I was very uncertain whether or not I could still be an artist or continue going to the art college, Cooper Union. Even though everyone I knew--my family, friends, and my doctors--were all very supportive and believed that I could still be an artist, I didn't believe in myself. So, I started to consider doing other things and dropping out of art school because I was very overwhelmed by everything and too scared to go back to school.
“When I met George in Minneapolis at BLIND Inc., I was so amazed and inspired by him and the work he does. We instantly became friends because I felt like we had a lot in common, and I appreciated everything I learned from him. He really believed in me, and knowing a person like George exists in the world gave me the courage to keep going to art school and making art. He showed me the skills to make objects and sculptures with my hands again, using chisels and a mallet for woodcarving. He also challenged me to think creatively and helped me make my visions for art in my head become physical and real. For that I am eternally grateful for George and his continued support. Thanks to George, I went back to Cooper Union and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts, and now I have a studio in New York City where I make sculptures and have shows. I hope one day I can do the same for another person, what George did for me."
Professionals, laypersons, and a lot of us blind folks often talk about careers that are good for blind people. From chair caning and piano tuning to psychology and social work, all perfectly wonderful professions in and of themselves, blind people have been herded into them because they are a simple fix, lots of blind people do them, and this makes work easy for teachers, guidance counselors, and for blind people who are unsure of themselves.Many people associate the roots of the NFB with Iowa. This is for good reason: Dr. Jernigan put into practice Federation philosophy there and proved that our ideas could produce superior results. Our deep roots go to California and even the Bay Area where Smith-Kettlewell and the San Francisco Lighthouse are. Dr. tenBroek and before him, a STEM person, math Professor Newel Perry, studied and developed the positive philosophy of blindness that is now one of the core principles of the National Federation of the Blind. The Bay Area seems to be a place for upstarts and sages to mix, mingle, and create change. Given the seventy-five years of our organization and the forty years preceding it, the Bay Area has certainly led a revolution in the field of rehabilitation for blind people. It hasn't stopped. With Bryan Bashin, Dr. Joshua Miele, George, and a lot of other rule breakers and entrepreneurs, the future is very bright indeed. George is living the life he wants and showing us all a path of our own. Whether high tech or primitive crafts, we can all see that it is not blindness that holds us back.