Braille Monitor                                                 March 2011

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The Ties That Bind

by Barbara Pierce

Barbara PierceFor some time now Ramona Walhof has been working on a possible book highlighting the life and work of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. While longtime Federationists are familiar with his work as a leader, teacher, and mentor, many members of the general public do not know his name and cannot appreciate the wisdom and inspiration found in a thorough review of his work, philosophy, and commitment to others.

Ramona Walhof has graciously given the Braille Monitor some of the articles contributed for this book, and we hope that, by publishing them, we will enhance the possibility that a commercial book chronicling the life and work of this great man will be published. We also hope that bringing some of these articles to the attention of younger Federationists and new members will ensure that Dr. Jernigan’s work will continue to inspire others in the same way he inspired those of us fortunate enough to have known him during his life.

What follows is a splendid article by the former editor of the Monitor with a moving introduction by Ramona. She has captured in her remarks everything I try to bring to readers to let them know how lucky we are to share a common bond and commitment in the National Federation of the Blind. Here are Ramona’s introduction and Barbara’s reflection on the influence Dr. Kenneth Jernigan had on her life:

Note: Barbara Pierce has worked tirelessly in the National Federation of the Blind for more than thirty-five years. She is an articulate, thoughtful, and charming spokeswoman for the organization in Ohio, where she lives, and throughout the country. Here she describes her relationship with Dr. Jernigan while he lived. After his death she has continued to move ahead with the NFB under President Marc Maurer’s guidance. She is perhaps best known as editor of the largest and most influential magazine in work with the blind, the Braille Monitor. However, she has also worked actively for decades as a member of the NFB scholarship and resolutions committees; assisted parents of blind children; served as president of the NFB of Ohio; and represented the NFB president at conferences inside and outside of the Federation. Pierce has handled press relations at national conventions, Washington seminars, NFB demonstrations, and numerous other events.      

Barbara and her husband Bob raised three children, spent Bob’s sabbaticals in England, and held positions of leadership in their church, and they are well known as contributing citizens in Oberlin and beyond. In the following pages Barbara describes herself and her relationship with Kenneth Jernigan. Her comments demonstrate how and why she is one of the people who learned from him to continue to build and refine opportunities for the blind around the world.         

I consider that I knew Dr. Jernigan from January of 1974 until his death. That January was the first time I listened to recordings of his speeches, and doing so gave me the feeling that I had met the mind and spirit of this remarkable man. It was not until that June that I actually had direct contact with him. I had written him a letter. I am not sure how I expected him to respond, but it was certainly not the long, thoughtful, prompt letter I received. I could not have been more surprised or delighted if the letter had come from the president of the United States or the queen of England. That was always my experience of Dr. Jernigan--a man who gave and expected more of himself and me than I did.

Part of his genius was challenging the people around him to do more than they thought themselves capable of. For example, he told me fairly early in my life as a Federationist that he wanted me to begin representing the NFB in media interviews. This was unsettling news, but, since he had assigned me the job, I began reading the Braille Monitor even more carefully and listening to presidential releases with great attention. Then I went out and did my best. You always wanted to do your best for him because he always gave his best to all of us, and that best was very good indeed.

Living as he did on the public stage, every evolution in his thought, every change in a lifetime of behavior became public property. I remember his reflections in print when he concluded that he must walk a picket line. As one who came of age in the sixties, I found nothing perturbing about picketing, but I was powerfully impressed at Dr. Jernigan’s willingness to rethink his long-held values and to reveal his conclusions with everyone who read the Braille Monitor. When I became the Monitor editor, I tried to draw on his example as I found myself telling thousands of readers my personal and professional struggle to grow. I have come to understand that such honesty and openness help to strengthen the ties that bind this movement together as a family whose members genuinely care for and respect each other.

His courage, humanity, integrity, and leadership notwithstanding, the most wide-reaching impact that Dr. Jernigan had on my life was his teaching me to use and appreciate language. I was an English major in college, so I already had a working knowledge of grammar and correct punctuation when I found the Federation. But I hated to write. I suspect that, even in my earliest days in the Federation, President Jernigan recognized that I could write a literate sentence, and he ensured that I would have plenty of opportunity to use that skill. He appointed me to the public relations committee and saw that I was invited to a PR seminar. I began helping to write press releases at national conventions and even coauthored a PR handbook. I was far from comfortable carrying out these assignments, but the NFB has always challenged its members to reach beyond their knowledge of themselves and their strengths to see what more they can accomplish.

By 1987 I had been chairing the PR committee for about seven years and had been president of the NFB of Ohio since 1984. I was working full time for Oberlin College—a job that I had found the courage to apply for, accept, and succeed in largely because of what the NFB had taught me about my ability to compete on terms of equality with my sighted colleagues. My husband and I had three growing children, a son at Yale and two daughters in high school. I was busy and happy and felt that I was doing my best to embody the Federation’s philosophy.

I was sitting in a 1987 convention session when Dr. Jernigan called me to the platform to speak to him. To my astonishment and dismay he asked me to try my hand at writing that year's convention round-up. He told me to study what he had written the year before and then give it a try. I was dubious about my ability to produce anything that would save him time, but again I did my best, and with a bit of first-aid he was able to use it.

In 1988, when Dr. Jernigan asked me to write the convention roundup for the second time, I should have been suspicious. After all, he had been telling the world that he had to find a Monitor editor because after ten years he could not continue to do that job along with all the other responsibilities he was carrying. I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking, but I had only a nebulous sinking feeling in my stomach when he asked me to come to Baltimore in August. His invitation in that visit to leave my job in order to become associate editor of the Braille Monitor made me a bit sick. I had never before done anything like editing. I did not think of myself as a writer, even though much of my Oberlin job was writing everything from letters to brochures. Deciding to accept his invitation was one of the braver decisions I have ever made. Looking back on it, it was also one of the best steps I have ever taken.

For almost ten years I had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Jernigan. Watching him write was fascinating. He usually began an article seated at his desk, his secretary in the chair across from him with a steno pad on her knee. After thinking a moment, he would dictate a title. He might throw out two or three suggestions before he got it right, but he never began writing without at least a working title. Then the sentences began coming, word by word, complete with correct punctuation. Soon the phone would ring. He would stop and deal with whatever the call brought; then he would ask to hear the last paragraph or, more often, everything he had written so far. He might well make changes or even rewrite or insert an entire sentence or paragraph. Eventually he might get up to pace around his office as he dictated or corrected text. I often marveled that his secretaries could decipher the layers of correction. So it went, interruption after interruption, hour after hour. Sometime late in that first day of observation he turned to me and said: "People think that those who write well throw long touchdown passes; they don't realize that we have to grind out our progress yard by yard on the ground, just like everybody else."

When he completed a draft or a day's work on a draft, he would ask for the text in Braille. That's what he took home to read over. The next day he was back, draft in hand, to read the text aloud and make the changes he had decided upon so his secretary could pencil them in on a print copy. He would listen carefully to his own voice as he read. His ear told him when a subtle alteration in the text would improve the work. "That will have a better ring," he would comment as he substituted a word, and, when you thought about it, he was right.

That was how he began teaching me to shape my own writing. Gradually I learned to avoid word repetition, the passive voice, and jargon words like "utilize" or "usage" instead of short, vigorous words like "use." Having seen the merciless rigor with which he edited his own writing, I found it exciting rather than depressing to watch him tinker with and rework my text. The process was always instructive.

Not until I began to train my successor did I fully appreciate how much faith, tact, and patience I had received at Dr. Jernigan’s gentle hands. He never tried to alter my voice. In fact he warned me that I must find my own voice and outlook. I could not, he warned, make myself into an imitation of him. I could only succeed as Monitor editor if I made myself independent. Then he had the discipline to keep his hands off my writing enough to let me find my own way, and gradually I did. He was so subtle and sure-handed that I was hardly aware of the training that was going on. Only once did he insist on a prohibition. He told me that I was forbidden to use the word “desperately” for an entire year. I realized that I was overusing the word, thereby undermining its impact. Even today I hardly ever use that word in my writing.

Then there were the Braille lessons. I mastered the Braille code as a teenager, but I never bothered to work on reading speed. Decoding those little dots was slow and hard, and I never saw anyone read quickly. Not until I listened to those speeches in 1974 did I realize that it was possible to read Braille at speaking speed and faster. And not until I began working closely with Dr. Jernigan did anyone suggest that there was any point in my trying to make up the deficit in my education rather than complaining about it.

As usual, Dr. Jernigan didn't just suggest that I do something about it. When I hesitantly asked whether he thought I could increase my speed, he offered to help. That was the beginning of a remarkable period of investigation and discovery. Dr. Jernigan undertook to analyze how he used his hands when he read. He taught me to anchor my left hand and read the first few words of each line with that index finger while the rest of the hand marked the place and held on to the page--a handy skill when reading standing up. Meanwhile he explained that the right index finger reads the right two thirds of the line, and the middle and ring fingers travel lightly across the space at the top of the line, keeping place and gathering information about the tops of the letters. He would often interrupt his own proofreading to point out some detail his ring finger had discovered.

Unfortunately I don't think I increased speed as rapidly as Dr. Jernigan expected, but he was always optimistic and encouraging. Despite the important matters constantly demanding his attention, he regularly inquired whether I was continuing to read every day and how my speed was coming.

I can attribute many, many of the skills I use every day without thinking about them to my years of close observation of Dr. Jernigan. When I conduct a meeting efficiently and fairly, when I comfort a newly blind person or give hope to the parent of a blind child, when I write a difficult letter or quickly turn a mediocre article into one that may inspire readers, when I wend my way through political mine fields to help rescue a chapter or affiliate—I recognize that I have my mentor and very dear friend to thank for these skills. But mostly I treasure the memories I have of watching him work and write so that we can all continue to share in his wisdom and commitment to helping blind people.

My work in the Federation under Dr. Jernigan’s guidance and after his death included several kinds of activity. In 2000 and 2001 we devoted a good number of pages in the Braille Monitor to the activities of Erik Weihenmayer, the amazing blind mountain climber who finally summited Mt. Everest on May 25, 2001. The Monitor story that recounted the final stage of the adventure was “Weihenmayer Reaches the Top,” which appeared in the July 2001 issue. I wasn’t at Base Camp, but I was linked by email and satellite phone to the climbers and helped to keep them in touch with the thousands of people around the world who were following their adventure. NFB President Maurer assigned me to work with the team, the PR firm marketing the climb, and those working on the Website. In my memory I can’t separate the various components of that responsibility. I only know that the relief and pleasure I felt when I learned that nineteen members of the team had made it to the top and had all returned to the highest camp in safety was like nothing I have ever felt before or since.

Preparing the January/February 1999 issue of the Monitor was the hardest editorial work I have ever done. That was the obituary issue for my beloved friend and mentor, Kenneth Jernigan. I wanted it to capture the essence of the man, and nothing that anyone could have written could have done him justice. For me, as for many others of my generation, he represented the best in us. He embodied our highest ideals, our most determined and principled positions. He was my friend and the blind person whose good opinion has meant the most to me. He taught me to think politically and to write with clarity. I wanted that issue to represent all of that. I am certain that I fell short of my goal, but I also know that reading that issue will give anyone who did not know the man the best understanding of who he was and what he stood for.

The last letter I wrote to Dr. Jernigan, September 11, 1998, just a month before he died, contained my heartfelt promise to him and to myself. I have done my best to keep that pledge.

“We who love you will continue to nurture and build the organization you have given your life to define and strengthen. The time and thought and love you have poured into shaping me, I promise I will pass on as best I can to those who come after me. You believed in me at a time in my life when I hardly dared believe in myself. I promise you now that I will do my best to pass on what you have given me—the love, the commitment, the wisdom, the patient concern, and the dedication. To whatever degree I possess these things, I will offer them to the movement you have built and taught me to cherish.”

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