The Jernigan Family Remembers

From the Editor: During the memorial service Dr. Jernigan's wife Mary Ellen, his brother Lloyd, and his daughter Marie each spoke of the man they had known and loved:

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Kenneth and Mary Ellen Jernigan

Mary Ellen Jernigan

In the months, the weeks, the days before his death, Dr. Jernigan and I talked of many things—one of which was that this gathering which has brought us together today would soon occur and that this time it would be I not he standing before you at the microphone. So we talked about what to do. I made a suggestion or two, which he vetoed. "Let others do that, or you do it later. What you must try to do on this day—what people will want you to do; what I want you to do is to talk about me— me as you knew me." At the time it seemed a fairly simple directive. It seemed less so as I began to think about carrying it out.

For I was not yet twenty-one when I first met Dr. Jernigan, and the whole of my adult life is his creation. My very first encounter came in the form of a vibrant booming voice on the other end of a telephone line: "I understand you have just been initiated into Phi Beta Kappa. That tells me one of two things— you've either got some brains, or you're very good at bluffing people into believing you do. If you've got the time and inclination to find out which, I do." Well I had the time and inclination, and I was hooked. Thirty-three years have passed— years in which I had the good fortune to share in a special way the life and work of this unusual man.

I will leave it to others to recite the facts and accomplishment of five decades of inspired service and leadership—to chronicle, to evaluate, to place in historical perspective.

My task is something else, and I would frame it like this:

In the all too brief year that has passed since Dr. Jernigan's illness first became apparent, there has been an enormous outpouring of sentiment. It has come from across this country and from abroad. It has come from blind people, yes. But it has come from an astonishingly large number of sighted people also. And the message—sometimes expressed with supremely literate eloquence; sometimes with elegant simplicity; sometimes with halting difficulty—has been essentially the same and very basic: this man made a real difference in my life; the world is a better place for his having lived in it. So what I have been asking myself is why—why did this man have such a universally profound effect upon so many?

First I thought, Well, it's obvious. You look at how he lived. Next I thought, No! It's obvious. You look at how he died. And finally I said, Wait! It's the same thing. It was when that thought crystallized that the answers began to come. When a man knows he has but a year to live, how he chooses to spend that year tells you something. And if it happens that he chooses to spend that year as he spent the rest of his years, it tells you even more.

So let us look together at Dr. Jernigan's last year.

When we do, we see a man who spent his birthday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Valentine's Day in the hospital and made them joyous occasions for all; a man who, having been told in the morning to expect to die within the year, spent the afternoon comforting and reassuring those around him; who on that same day brought together the delegates of the North America/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union by conference telephone to arrange an orderly transition to a new President; and who later that same evening initiated a vast exploration of all possible alternative therapies—facing the future with hope and belief and insisting that the rest of us do so also.

Over the next two weeks he assembled the collective leadership of the organized blind movement and began making far-ranging, long-term plans for the years to come. Immediately he began a grueling regimen to fight the disease—facing with resolute discipline each day's conglomeration of needles, pills, vitamins, supplements, intravenous tubing, breathing machines, detoxification procedures, and of course the ever-present nausea. He did what he had to do and took care to shield others from knowing the physical agony of it all.

With the construction of three levels of magnificent sky decks, he brought to final completion the twenty-year-long transformation of a once dilapidated South Baltimore factory building into the sparkling facility we now know as the National Center for the Blind and then startled us all with a bold new vision to undertake the construction of the National Research and Training Institute for the Blind—a 175,000-square-foot, five-story building which will position us to take full advantage of the opportunities which will abound in the coming millennium.

He summoned the strength to cause the first million dollars to be committed to the capital campaign and to oversee preparation of the detailed architectural plan for the new facility. He commissioned construction of the three-dimensional model you will see on display today. He examined the model with his own hands, making final adjustments to the plans as he did so.

He fought his way back from a nearly fatal bacterial infection, donned his tuxedo, selected and served to good friends the finest wines from his cellar, and returned the next day for another round at the North Carolina clinic. He edited two final Kernel Books—volume number 14, Gray Pancakes and Gold Horses, and volume 15, To Touch the Untouchable Dream.

Not wanting any part of our home ever to become inaccessible to him, he added an elevator, taking great delight in designing it to appear as if it had always been part of the 154-year-old structure. Since he could now reach the roof by the new elevator, he built a deck there. And while he was at it, he revamped the heating and air conditioning system and installed for me a restaurant-capacity stove complete with an indoor gas grill.

He added to his collections: wines, liqueurs, coins, music boxes, old time radio tapes, and most especially his carved onyx glasses. He negotiated and signed contracts at first-class hotels for the year 2000 and 2001 National Conventions—keeping the single room rates still under $60.

He served as National Convention Chairman at his forty-seventh consecutive National Federation of the Blind convention— a convention he described as very nearly perfect and during which he spoke to the Parents Seminar, the Scholarship Class, the Engineers Division, the Cultural Exchange and International Program Committee, and the Resolutions Committee; roamed the Exhibit Hall; delivered a major address; gave an award at the Banquet; presented the audit and financial reports; and was moved to tears by Lloyd Rasmussen's singing of the Technology Song.

He re-examined his relationship with God, a process which led us both to the Catholic Church, and more specifically to St. Joseph's Monastery Parish and to Father Gregory Paul.

Then, with the fading of summer into early fall, came also the fading of any reasonable hope for survival. As the weakness and pain increased, he accepted what was to come with dignity and grace and with the utmost care and concern for those around him, for the organization he had spent his life serving, and for the broader field whose unity and advancement he had done so much to promote. He pulled forth reserves of strength to complete the things he wanted to finish:

He saw to the final details of the construction project at our home, organizing a massive top-to-bottom, inside-and-out cleaning project, taking particular delight in learning that the front steps, which had always been thought to be a nondescript, blackish stone, were really gleaming white marble underneath, and insisting that they be shown off to all.

He visited with friends and colleagues who came to say good-bye, and as always he fed people—in our dining room, in our yard, on our roof, at the National Center, at his favorite restaurants when he could manage the strength to go out and with carry-out from those same restaurants when he became unable to leave home. He took enormous pleasure in serving his most prized wines and feeding his friends.

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Mrs. Jernigan's favorite picture of
Dr. Jernigan, 1985

He hosted a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration for Dr. and Mrs. Maurer though he himself was too weak to attend. He spent a last night at the National Center for the Blind, conducted a seminar for leaders of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, and the next morning took one final walk on the new Skydeck.

When, through a fluke in the medical system, he learned that the cancer had spread throughout his bones before his own physician received the report, he found himself gently breaking the news to the doctor and offering consolation. Upon learning that the sculptor who had been commissioned to create a bronze bust of him had (out of concern for his failing strength) been told he must work entirely from photographs, he insisted on dressing in full regalia and sitting for him in person.

He sent Dr. Maurer and me to Atlanta to make preparations for next summer's convention, giving us detailed instructions as to what to do. He selected and had wrapped the presents he wanted to give this Christmas. He called Ernie Imhoff to thank him for a beautifully perceptive article in the Baltimore Sun.

He inquired daily about the well-being of his kittens and gave instructions for their care. He moved both of our birthdays forward so as not to miss them. He talked and planned with me and Dr. and Mrs. Maurer about what he hoped for David and Dianna in the years to come.

He spent large blocks of time with his brother Lloyd, with whom he shared an ever-stronger bond and for whose character, accomplishments, and integrity he had a deep and abiding respect. He shared a last precious evening with his daughter Marie (Toinette as he always called her) and her husband Tony Cobb.

He had long, unhurried conversations with our President, Marc Maurer, in whom he had total, complete, and absolute trust; and in whose development and emergence as the widely-respected leader of the organized blind movement he took an unremitting joy—believing to the very depth of his being that whatever part he himself had played in that development and emergence was his own most cherished achievement.

He willed himself the strength to travel to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to receive the Winston Gordon Award. There, in that beautiful setting, surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues, he made what he knew and we all knew would be his last public appearance. Though weak and in visible pain, he strode to the podium, where with a touch of humor, with elegance and simplicity, he spoke to us as he always did—of the brightness of the future.

This was Dr. Jernigan's last year. Do we find in it an answer? Why the great impact of this man? This man who had the supreme confidence and grace to die exactly as he had lived?

Yes! I think we do. We find it in hope and belief, energy and intellect, planning and purpose, discipline and drudgery, care and compassion, loyalty and love. But above all we find it in an infectious joy that took each and every moment of life and made of it a treasure to be shared with others.

To the question, "Do you miss him?" the answer is of course, excruciatingly so. Every minute. Every day. But the answer also is, how can I? He taught me to think, and he is present in every thought I have. He taught me to love, and he is present in everything I love. Under God's guidance he formed and shaped and molded the world I live in and those who live in it, and it and they are all around me—vibrant and alive—as is he in each of us and in the work he left us to finish.

As for those treasured moments: here is one for us all to share. Near death, in a voice weak, but clear with conviction Dr. Jernigan said these things:

I have lived to see the plans for our new building far enough along to know that it will be done.

I have lived to see unity on our own terms in the blindness field in North America.

I have lived to see Marc Maurer come into the full maturity of leadership.

As I draw to the end, I don't feel I've left any loose ends.

I am content. I am at peace.

But what about us? Can we be at peace about this? Perhaps not all of the time and not just yet. But neither can we fail to carry forward the legacy he left us—to live with joy, to make of life's moments treasures to be shared. He would expect us to do no less.

And so I close with the words of this American Indian verse—one the two of us read together and found of comfort:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.

I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on the ripened grain.

I am the gentle Autumn's rain.

When you awaken in the morning hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled


I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry:

I am not there,

I did not die!