Braille Monitor                                                                                                   July 2004

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The Ties That Bind

by Kevan Worley

Kevan Worley
Kevan Worley

From the Editor: Kevan Worley is first vice president of the NFB of Colorado and a successful businessman. He and his wife Bridget have recently adopted a young son. The following story is reprinted from To Reach for the Stars, the twenty-fifth in the NFB's Kernel Book series of paperbacks. It begins with President Maurer's introduction:

Kevan Worley lives in Aurora, Colorado. He is president of the National Association of Blind Merchants. In his story, "The Ties That Bind," Kevan shares with us a vivid picture of the loving family environment in which he grew up. We come to see, however, that something more than the richness of his family's love was needed. He found that something in the National Federation of the Blind. Here is Kevan's story:

It's funny the things you remember from your childhood. Sitting in my office comparing long-distance rates, I found myself daydreaming about a family trip we took when I was five or six. We were always on some sort of adventure, vacation, outing, or transfer.

My father, Sergeant Jim Worley, was transferred every year or two, and no matter where we were, he made sure we saw the sights: Arizona to France, Kansas to Germany. This particular trip was to South Bend, Indiana, to visit my father's parents--loving people, who adopted him from an orphanage when he was five. They were members of the same Protestant denomination as my mother's family, and both sets of parents raised their children with a strong sense of family and church. If there were relatives within three hundred miles, there was no way we would miss seeing them.

My mom and dad met at a church camp when they were in their late teens. They married not long after high school graduation. My dad then joined the army and was sent to Bad Kreuznach, Germany, where I was born in 1956. My mother endured sixteen hours of labor in a hospital far from any family except her husband. When I finally entered the world after a difficult delivery, I was totally blind. But that is the start of another, longer story. This story is about a daydream and the way memories tie your life together and make you whole.

We were traveling from Ft. Hachuca, Arizona, to Ft. Sheridan, Illinois, when Dad decided to detour to South Bend to see his parents. The detour itself meant little to me. What was important was the new suits my brother and I were wearing and the chance for others to see us in them. My parents had bought them for us to wear to church, but these were no ordinary church suits. These were western outfits, complete with bolo ties.

The bolo string ties were the neatest things my little hands had ever seen. I was fascinated by the metal-feeling tips and the way the round turquoise bolo moved up and down like a pulley. Better yet was the way my relatives would ooh and aah over my appearance. I was stylin'. But perhaps the coolest part of all was that I could put the tie on myself. The knots on my father's ties remained a mystery to me despite my best efforts, but the bolo tie was mine to put on or remove as I wished.

It's funny the things you remember--the way memories seem tied to one another, connecting people and events in ways you never quite expect. Years after I had outgrown the western suit, while I was attending fourth grade at the Illinois residential school for the blind, my grandfather on my mother's side passed away. He had been a wonderful man, and I was very sad.

The social worker called me to his office to give me the news. He kindly explained that Mrs. Bishop, my favorite housemother, had packed my suit and would take me to the bus station. I would catch a bus to Lincoln, where my relatives would meet me and take me to the funeral the next day. My ears perked up at the mention of my relatives, because I knew I would get to stay at my Aunt Betty's house. I was very sad, but fourth graders have their priorities, and my Aunt Betty made the best French toast of anyone in the world.

The next morning, after ten slices of French toast, I had to put on my suit and prepare for the funeral. Well, somehow Mrs. Bishop had found and packed a regular long men's tie, not a clip-on tie. I was confused. I wanted to look nice for the funeral to make my mom and grandma proud of me, but I didn't know how to tie a tie. I was all mixed up and embarrassed, fumbling with this long tie and thinking of my grandpa and how much I would miss him.

When I was four, he and my grandma had driven me from their home in Ottawa, Illinois, to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. They were hoping the great doctors at that world-famous clinic could restore my sight. I don't think I cared very much about being able to see. What I remember was the trip in my grandpa's Nash, wrestling with him at the motel every night before bedtime, and his buying me a cup of coffee. My grandma said, "Don't you give my Kevie-Dale coffee! It will stunt his growth!"

My grandpa was a union man, a shop steward at Libby Owens Ford. He got up very early to go to work at the factory. When I was visiting them, he would leave me something to find in his lunch pail when he came home from work. Then we would watch "Highway Patrol" or "Wagon Train" together.

When I was very little, about three, he took me by the hand to run around the backyard. While we were running, I stepped on a bee. I've heard family stories that he felt terrible about it. I always figured it was all right to feel a little bad about your grandson stepping on a bee. After all, it was a painful experience. But I learned that he was upset because I was a little blind boy, and he thought he should have been more cautious with me.

Knowing that hurt, because I wouldn't have wanted him to be any more cautious. Roughhousing with Grandpa was when I forgot about caution and lost myself in the fun of being alive. Those were the times I was free to be fearless and unrestrained and full of laughter. Caution was something I experienced from most of the adults in my life, but with Grandpa I could just be a playful little boy.

My Aunt Betty eventually found me a clip-on tie. After she handed it to me, she mumbled, "That school! Why would they send a blind kid home with a regular tie?" I remember thinking that a clip-on tie was good enough for a nine-year-old, and I wanted to mumble back, "Why don't you let me cut my own French toast? They do at school."

It's funny the way one recollection leads to another as I sit here daydreaming. In high school I once got my father to show me how to tie a tie. Now my dad, the gung-ho first sergeant that he was, truly believed that I should be able to do anything and that blindness should not stop me. This time, however, his impatience or mine kept the lesson from going very far. I took the tie he tied, pulled the knot down, and kept it tied all the time. Eventually the knot became grungy looking and crooked, but it served my purpose.

Teenage sons and their fathers have peculiar relationships, so I never asked him to show me again. I realize now he would gladly have taken the time. I guess I always thought there was a huge gulf between my dad and me--the two-tour Vietnam soldier and his war-moratorium son. It's a funny thing though; Dad flew out to see me wrestle many times.

Once during my freshman year of high school he was in transit to a new duty station and popped in to visit me at the school for the blind. We went to see Alice's Restaurant, the Arlo Guthrie anti-draft film. He said he liked it and even laughed in a couple of places, but I doubt he really liked it very much. In fact I'm not sure that I would think much of it now, thirty years later. Maybe I should have spent that time with him learning to tie a tie.

No, that would not have been cool. As a young man I sometimes found myself all tied up inside, masking my deficiencies by acting cool. I had difficulty untangling my high expectations from the lower ones set by family, friends, and teachers. I don't know how much of that confusion was part of growing up blind and how much was normal teenage angst.

Many years later, after I found the National Federation of the Blind and attended one of our great training centers to untangle those insecurities, I had a conversation with Dr. Marc Maurer in his office at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. He mentioned that he wore a necktie to school every day when he attended Notre Dame University.

By the time of this conversation, I had found some success as a businessman and community activist, but even so I remember thinking, "You wore a tie in the early seventies, every day at college? What a nerd!" But then I caught myself and thought, "No, what strength of character. What sense of self not to be distracted by a false need to impress, to cover up, to fit in."

Maybe that's why Dr. Maurer is now the president of the largest, most dynamic organization of blind people in the world. Perhaps that is why he became a successful lawyer and why he is well known as a teacher, advocate, and role model. While some of that strength of character must have come from inside himself and from his family, I suspect he would give much of the credit to Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, his mentor and teacher. I imagine Dr. Jernigan helped Marc Maurer untangle his doubts about what a blind man could become with brains, drive, pride, and humility. Maybe Dr. Jernigan taught the young Marc Maurer how to tie a tie. I don't know. I've never asked.

I know who finally taught me: Ray McGeorge, a founding member of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. I met him at the Colorado Center for the Blind, an adjustment-to-blindness training center for adults, founded on Federation philosophy. It was blind people training blind people--the kind of role modeling that has made our NFB training centers so successful at changing lives. Ray's wife Diane, founder of the Colorado Center, reached out and persuaded me to give the center a try.

Up until that point I'd bounced around quite a bit--from radio job to rock-and-roll band, from short attempts at college to long stretches of unemployment and occasional part-time telemarketing. It wasn't until I was thirty-two years old that the NFB's Colorado Center gave me the opportunity to confront my failures, my self-doubt, and my lack of understanding about myself as a person who happened to be blind.

At the center I learned alternative techniques of living as a blind person. But even more than that, I was made whole by those who, through their example, showed me it was respectable to be blind. They taught me I could have a full, competitive, and happy life if I chose to go after it. Whether I was rock climbing or making a quiche, job shadowing or teaching blind high school students to light a campfire, even cooking a turkey dinner for thirty all by myself, they were there to support me. They built me up when I doubted my ability and got me going again when I faltered. And Ray McGeorge made me tie a tie.

A group of students and I were heading out to the bus stop, talking about the things we wished we had learned as blind children. I casually mentioned wishing I had learned to tie a tie. Ray McGeorge overheard and said, "I can teach you to do that right now."

As I hurried away from the center, I told him I would appreciate the lesson. Perhaps we could get together sometime before I graduated. Ray replied slowly, drawing out his words as he always does, "I don't see why we can't get started right now." It was past 4:30 in the afternoon, and I was ready to get back to the apartment. Ray was saying, "I'll see if we can't find a tie around here, and we'll just fix you right up." He's retired now, but at that time he had been a machinist for about thirty-five years. I was sure he must be tired from a hard day at work and certainly he would not be able to find a tie. But as I stepped up to the bus stop on Broadway, I heard Ray's distinct low voice behind me. "Come on, Kevan, this shouldn't take long. Let's get to it."

With busses going by every ten minutes, Ray stood behind me, patiently showing me how to make the knot. He had me do it until I not only got it right but could do it again and again. "We need to do it so you will never forget this time," he said. And then he added, "Maybe someday you will show some other young man how to tie a tie."

It's funny the way the people, events, and lessons of a life fuse to create the person you become. I am now the project manager for M & K Food Service in Aurora, Colorado. I wear a tie everyday. In fact, over the past six or seven years in the food business, I have collected over a hundred food-related ties. I enjoy collecting them, tying them so the knot is just right. It's a matter of pride and self-respect in a simple, very basic way.

It's good to look back and discover that the bonds you've made with others are what tie your life together--bonds like those with my parents and grandparents, and the teachers and house parents at the school for the blind, who did have love and expectations. And I'll never forget Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and Dr. Marc Maurer, who each took a personal interest in me, counseling me and helping me set standards.

Of course there's Diane McGeorge, the dynamic blind lady of my parents' generation who set out to teach us to know and accept ourselves. And then there's Ray McGeorge, who said, "We are going to teach you to tie this tie, no matter how long it takes, and even if you would rather get on the bus."

I find myself thinking of Ray almost every morning as I tie my tie and head out the door for work. Ray reminds me of my grandpa, a man of quiet strength, wit, and patience. Ray was a factory man, too. Not long ago I taught two young boys how to tie a tie before their first job interviews, sharing some of Ray's knowledge and confidence, passing along to others a little of the love, self-esteem, and zest for life the Federation has so generously given to me.

The NFB, through all of its people, teaches lessons big and small about what blindness is, what it is not, and what it can be. Whether changing society's misconceptions or inspiring a young man through the act of teaching him to tie a tie on a street corner as the next bus rolls by, that's how a family of blind and sighted people work together to share the ties that bind.

Postscript: At the 1999 NFB National Convention in Atlanta there was a fund-raising auction. At that auction I had the good fortune to be high bidder on the bow tie Dr. Maurer wore to the convention banquet in 1986, the year he was elected president. I was proud to purchase this memento, not only making a contribution to our national organization, but claiming a symbol of my own coming of age. The trouble is, I never learned to tie a bow tie. Ray!

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