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Dr. tenBroek (left) and Dr. Jernigan examine blueprints in 1961.

The Early Years

Federation Leader Appointed Director of Iowa Commission for the Blind
by Jacobus tenBroek

From the Editor: Instructive as it may be to compile the
recollections and assessments of a man's life at its close, it is
also useful to look back to discover what his mentor and
colleagues thought of his accomplishments and abilities early in
his career. It is salutary and humbling to consider what might
have been said of us or what may be said of us at the age of
thirty-one. The year that Kenneth Jernigan turned thirty-two in
November, Jacobus tenBroek had occasion to write about him in the
pages of the Braille Monitor. His words were eloquent, admiring,
and indicative of the Federation leader Dr. Jernigan would
become. This is what he said

Last month Kenneth Jernigan, a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind, was appointed director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. This appointment was not only appropriate—it was significant.

In his new position Mr. Jernigan has charge of all Iowa programs for the blind with the exception of public assistance and the state school for the blind. Among the services under his direction are vocational rehabilitation, vending stands, home industries, home teaching, the distribution of Talking Books, and registration of blind persons in the state.

There are, of course, many Federationists who hold positions in state and other administrative agencies. Some of these are the directors of their agencies. There are, in addition, numerous agency heads who are favorably disposed toward the organized blind. They did not go from the movement to their administrative positions; they came to, or at least towards, the movement from an intelligent discharge of their administrative responsibilities. The distinctive factor in the Jernigan appointment is that now a National Federation leader and member of its Board of Directors has been selected to serve as the head of a state agency for the blind. Mr. Jernigan's appointment is indeed a tribute to the independent and enlightened judgment of the Iowa Commission.

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Dr. tenBroek (left) and Dr. Jernigan examine blueprints in 1961.

There is a good deal of loose and self-adulatory talk among certain AAWB leaders about their professional status and an alleged lack of professionalism among the organized blind. This talk may be examined from two sides: how professional are the agency leaders and workers; how unprofessional are the organized blind. Whatever answer may be given to the first question, there are many in the organized blind movement whose knowledge about blindness and the substance of administration of programs for the blind can only be described as professional. So too as to their attitudes; their caliber; their bearing; and, in many cases, their careers and duties. In the present case Kenneth Jernigan has been a professional in all these senses of the term for many years. The honor and the responsibility have especially fittingly gone to Kenneth Jernigan. Few readers of the Braille Monitor and fewer members of the Federation need to be reminded of the character of this man and of the quality of his achievements. Since his entrance into the movement nearly a decade ago—and especially since his election to the NFB Board of Directors in 1952--no one of us has labored more unstintingly or battled more courageously for the advancement of our common cause.

To enumerate all of Kenneth's contributions would be to trespass upon space limitations. I might recount a few of the highlights of his career as a Federationist leader. He is, first of all, the only member who has served on all the NFB's survey teams—those which canvassed the state programs for the blind of Colorado and Arkansas in 1955 and of Nevada in 1956, at the request of their respective governors, and set in motion a chain reaction of liberalization and reform whose effects will be felt for years to come. Kenneth was also the chairman of two of our most thoroughly successful National Conventions—those of Nashville in 1952 and San Francisco in 1956. He has given selflessly of his time and inexhaustible energy to cross and recross the country in the interests of Federation unity, harmony, and democracy—and has performed miracles of diplomacy and arbitration in situations which might best be described as those of peacemaking, problem solving, and troubleshooting. More lastingly important than even this has been his consistent contribution to the over-all leadership, expansion, and sustained course of the movement.

Much of Kenneth's most valuable activity on our behalf, indeed, has been carried on behind the scenes. It is not widely known, for example, that he is the author of those indispensable guidebooks of our movement: "What Is the National Federation of the Blind?" and "Who Are the Blind Who Lead the Blind?" He is, additionally, the author of many Federation documents that have gone unbylined. He has represented the NFB, informally as well as formally, at numerous outside conventions and gatherings throughout the country. His speeches and reports on the floor of the National Convention, year in and year out, have been both widely anticipated events and uniformly applauded successes.

One of these in particular requires special mention: his address before the 1957 convention on "Programs for Local Chapters of the Federation." Few statements have more correctly portrayed and deeply instilled the conception of the Federation— made up as it is of local clubs, state affiliates, conventions, officers, and headquarters—as a single unified entity each part of which is the concern, responsibility, and local benefit of every individual member. By popular demand this analysis has been Brailled, taped, mimeographed, and distributed to Federationists throughout the length and breadth of the land. His 1955 study, "Employment of the Blind in the Teaching Profession," carried out for the California affiliate of the Federation, has been eagerly and broadly applied throughout the country in the increasingly successful campaign to break down the barriers to the hiring of blind teachers in the public schools. In fact, there is scarcely any aspect of our national movement over the past half-dozen years which has not benefited from the alert counsel and untiring devotion of time and talent which Ken has so willingly given.

I have said that his appointment to the directorship of the Iowa Commission is a tribute to the members of that enlightened agency. It is no less a tribute to the membership of the Iowa Association of the Blind, under the able leadership of Dr. H. F. Schluntz of Keystone, Iowa.

But in the end, of course, the credit for the appointment must go mainly to Ken Jernigan. His objective qualifications include upwards of a decade of counseling, administering, coordinating, teaching, and public relations, first with the School for the Blind in Nashville, Tennessee, and after 1953 with the Orientation Center for the Adult Blind in Oakland, California. But to these formal qualifications must be added such vital statistics as the following:

Totally blind from birth, raised on a rural farm in Tennessee, and educated in the Nashville School for the Blind, Kenneth went on to take a bachelor's degree in social science from the Tennessee Polytechnic Institute—graduating with the highest grades ever made by any student enrolled at the institution. In addition he somehow found time to become president of the Speech Activities Club, president of the Social Science Club, member of Cabinet Tech Christian Association, member of Pi Kappa Delta fraternity, winner of first prizes in Extemporaneous Speaking and Original Oratory at a Southeastern conference of the fraternity; to get a poem published in a nationwide anthology of college poetry; and to be elected to Who's Who Among Students in Colleges and Universities of America.

Following his graduation from Tennessee Polytechnic, Ken went on to take a master's degree in English from Peabody College in Nashville, plus an additional year of graduate study. Once again he found enough time aside from his studies to head various societies and win a variety of awards, including the Capt. Charles W. Browne Award in 1949.

I shall pass over lightly his brief career as a professional wrestler during the summer of 1945; his operation of a furniture shop the summer before, where he built all the furniture and managed the entire business; and his two-year livelihood as an insurance salesman prior to joining the staff of the Tennessee School for the Blind. But these diverse adventures and apprenticeships of his early career do serve graphically to illustrate Ken Jernigan's extraordinary vitality of personality and equally extraordinary drive and determination.

This appointment poses a critical question and gives the proper answer to it. Will the NFB give orders to Jernigan the administrator; or, alternatively, will Jernigan the administrator change his role in the Federation?

To pose this question at all presupposes some basic fallacies. It presupposes that the organized blind are on one side of the line; he and the agencies are on the other. It presupposes that the function of the agencies is to rule and that of the blind to obey. It presupposes that the agencies are professional and that the blind are unprofessional; that the agencies know what is best for the blind and the blind should accept it without question; that the agencies are custodians and caretakers and the blind are wards and charitable beneficiaries; that the agencies are the interpreters of the blind to the sighted community and the blind are incapable of speaking for themselves; that agencies exist because the blind are not full-fledged citizens with the right to compete for a home, a job, and to discharge the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. These are basic fallacies.

The basic truth is that there is no disharmony, conflict, or incompatibility between the two posts. The basic truth is that the blind are citizens, that they are not wards, that they are capable of speaking for themselves, and that they should and must be integrated into the governmental processes which evolve, structure, and administer programs bearing upon their welfare. The basic truth is that agencies administering these programs, committed to the democratic view of clients as human beings and as citizens, and joining them in the full expression of their capabilities have a vital role to play.

There is thus no matter of choosing between two masters moving in different directions. The common object can best be achieved through a close collaboration between the blind and the agencies serving them. The object cannot be achieved without that collaboration. Separate sources of authority, organizational patterns, and particular responsibilities do not necessarily, and in this case do not properly, entail conflicting commitments. Jernigan the Federation leader and Jernigan the administrator of programs in Iowa are therefore at one.