Sam Gleese, Board Member

Businessman and Ordained Minister

Sam GleeseIn 1947 Vicksburg, Mississippi, was not an ideal place for a black child to be born with congenital cataracts. For years no one even noticed that little Sam Gleese had difficulty seeing, least of all Sam himself. He simply assumed that everyone else saw things with the hazy imprecision that he did.

One day when he was in the second grade, the teacher in the segregated school he attended sent a note home asking his mother to come to school for a conference. To the Gleese family's astonishment she told them that Sam had significant difficulty seeing to read and do board work. By the fourth grade the bouts of surgery had begun. Glasses (which Sam hated and forgot to wear most of the time) were prescribed. But none of this effort enabled young Sam to make out much of what his friends could see. Then in 1962, when he was fifteen, Gleese underwent surgery that gave him enough vision to show him by comparison just how little he had seen until that time.

He graduated from high school in 1966 and enrolled that fall at Jackson State College, where he majored in business administration. Looking back, Gleese is sure that he was legally blind throughout these years, but he never considered that he might have anything in common with the blind students he saw on campus. His struggle was always to see, and that made him sighted. Occasionally he was forced to deal with his difficulty in reading, particularly when a fellow student or teacher pointed out what he seemed to be missing, but for the most part he denied his situation and resented those who tried to make him face his problem.

After graduation in 1970, Gleese joined a management training program conducted by K-Mart. Everyone agreed that he was excellent on the floor and dealing with employees, but, though he did not realize it, he was extremely unreliable in doing paperwork. He consistently put information on the wrong line. His supervisor confronted him with the problem and told him he had vision trouble. He hotly denied it, but within the year he was out of the program.

During the following years Gleese applied repeatedly for jobs that would use his business training. When he supplied information about his medical history and his vision, would-be employers lost interest. Finally in late 1972 he got a job as assistant night stock clerk with a grocery chain. He had a wife to support--he and Vanessa Smith had married in August of 1970--and he needed whatever job he could find. Gradually he worked his way up to assistant frozen food manager in the chain, though it wasn't easy.

Then in 1979 his retinas detached, and within a few weeks late in the year he had become almost totally blind. For a month or two he was profoundly depressed. His wife, however, refused to give up on him or his situation. Gradually Gleese began to realize that she was right. He could still provide for his family and find meaningful work to do. He just had to master the alternative methods used by blind people.

Early in 1980 he enrolled in an adult training center in Jackson, where he learned Braille, cane travel, and daily living skills. He is still remembered in the program for the speed with which he completed his training. By the following summer he was working as a volunteer counselor at the center, and in the fall, with the help of the state vocational rehabilitation agency, he and his wife Vanessa were working in their own tax preparation business.

It was difficult, however, to maintain a sufficient income year round, and the Gleeses had a daughter, Nicole, born in 1976, to think about. In 1983 he decided to try taking a job making mops in the area sheltered workshop for the blind. He worked there for two years until a staff member pointed out that he could do better for himself in the state's Randolph-Sheppard vending program, which had finally been opened to African Americans in 1980-81.

In January of 1985 Gleese was assigned the worst vending stand in the state of Mississippi. Because of his degree in business administration, his phenomenal record in personal rehabilitation, and his work history in the grocery business, officials decided that he needed no training but could learn the program in his own location. He spent two years in that facility, mastering the business and improving his techniques. Then during the next several years he had somewhat better locations. But in 1992 he bid on an excellent facility and then appealed the decision that awarded it to another vendor. Though the appeal decision, which eventually came down, did not give him personal redress, it did correct unfair practices that had plagued many vendors in Mississippi for years. In April of 1994 Sam, with the help of his wife Vanessa, became the manager of one of the largest food service operations in the state vending program.

Gleese has always been active in the Missionary Baptist Church. From 1973 to 1990 he taught the adult Sunday school class in his own church, and in 1980 he became a deacon. He was ordained to the ministry in November of 1992 and is now senior associate minister at the College Hill Baptist Church. He headed the scouting and the taping ministry. Currently he heads the members’ ministry and works with several other ministries.

Gleese first heard about the National Federation of the Blind in the early 1980s and attended his first national convention in 1983. He reports that from that moment he has been a committed Federationist. Vanessa has worked steadily beside him through the years as he has struggled to improve the lives of Mississippi's blind citizens. He became president of one of the state's local chapters in 1985, and the following year he was elected state president. He has continued to serve in that office ever since. Under his leadership the number of chapters in the Mississippi affiliate has nearly tripled.

In 1992 Gleese was first elected to the board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind, where he continues to serve with distinction. He has dedicated his life to educating the public, blind and sighted alike, about the abilities of blind people. According to him, too many people in Mississippi believe--as he did for many years--that blind people can do nothing and belong in rocking chairs and back rooms. Sam Gleese is making a difference everywhere he puts his hand.

In May of 1999 the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, chose Sam to serve as chairperson of the newly formed Mayor's Advisory Committee on Disabilities. In September of that year he was appointed and confirmed by the city council of Jackson as the first blind person to serve on the Jackson-Hinds Library administrative board. This board oversees the services of public libraries in each of the seven towns in the Hinds County area.

In August of 2000 Gleese retired from the vending program for health reasons. He served one year in the AmeriCorps volunteer program. The project with which he was associated encourages and enables people with disabilities to become fully involved in the community. The program is the only one of its kind in Mississippi and is staffed by disabled people. Sam explains that other AmeriCorps programs are designed to assist in education--tutoring and the like--but this program allowed him to increase his outreach to blind people and the general disability community. It provided yet one more way of living his Federationism and ministering to the people he has been called to serve.

In August of 2001 Gleese accepted a position as an independent living specialist with LIFE (Living Independence for Everyone) of central Mississippi. This position provided opportunities to work with adolescents with special health care needs between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one in Mississippi. The project, called Healthy Futures, was funded by a four-year grant through the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

In January of 2002 Gleese became the statewide project director for the Healthy Futures grant. This position enhanced his opportunity to serve all adolescents with special health care needs, including blind people.

On October 1, 2007, Sam was employed by the City of Jackson as its ADA compliance coordinator. In considering the position with the city, Sam saw an opportunity to have an even greater opportunity to positively influence the lives of the blind and other people with disabilities in Jackson. “I believe that the energy and commitment I bring to this job will set a benchmark for other cities to strive for and meet.”

Sam Gleese makes it clear by word and action that each advancement he has made through the years has been in large measure the result of the hope and determination the NFB has instilled in its members, and he makes it clear that he will do what he can to see that others enjoy a quality of life as good as or better than the one he has been privileged to live.