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Dr. Kurzweil (left) and Dr. Jernigan unveil the Kurzweil Reading
Machine at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in January, 1997

Raymond Kurzweil, Ph.D.

From the Editor: Dr. Kurzweil is a true friend of blind people. He has frequently used his impressive intelligence to further the dreams and aspirations of people who cannot read regular print. In the course of an active and creative career he became good friends with Dr. Jernigan. This is what he said at the memorial service:

I deeply appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today. I would like to say that it was wonderful to hear Mrs. Jernigan's remarks; they moved me to tears. Dr. Maurer's remarks were equally moving. It was fascinating to hear details of Dr. Jernigan's life that I had not heard before.

This is a sad occasion for me. It is also a joyous one, and I would like to talk about both of these feelings.

Let me first share some recollections. I grew up in Queens, New York, and had a unique religious upbringing. Although my parents were Jewish immigrants who had fled Hitler, I had a religious education at a Unitarian Church, where the philosophy was "many paths to the truth." So we would spend six months studying Judaism, then six months Buddhism, and so on. The unifying theme was tolerance and the idea that everyone can contribute. There was an emphasis on social consciousness and being part of the greater struggle for equality and justice in society. So we played an active role in the Civil Rights movement at that time and took part in Civil Rights marches.

I remember thinking how fortunate I was to live in the time of Martin Luther King. Even from afar I felt inspired and grateful to be able to play a small role in that historic drama. I felt at the time, and continue to feel, that Dr. King was one of the great leaders in American history.

Well, that's how I feel about Dr. Jernigan, and I believe that Dr. Jernigan's impact and legacy are at least as significant and profound. And like Dr. King the benefits of Dr. Jernigan's work go far beyond the immediate issues that each of these two remarkable leaders fought for.

I first met Dr. Jernigan in 1975. We had developed a prototype of the Kurzweil Reading Machine but needed support to perfect it and launch this technology as a product. We went around and showed our work to many of the organizations in this field. Everyone was friendly and supportive, but words of encouragement don't exactly pay the rent.

But then our luck changed. I met with Jim Gashel, who said he would have to speak with his boss, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. And literally within hours came the reply that Dr. Jernigan was most excited about what we had demonstrated and wanted to work with us immediately to raise funds, to perfect the machine technically, and to get the word out.

Now that's what I call responsiveness. That was just one small example of Dr. Jernigan's leadership: bold, decisive, knowledgeable, confident, insightful, and effective. That particular collaboration resulted in significant funds being raised and a group of blind scientists and engineers from the NFB working closely with us to perfect the reading machine. I do recall at the time thinking it unusual that so many of them came from the state of Iowa.

And that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted the next quarter of a century. As fortunate as I felt as a child growing up in Queens, New York, to participate from afar in a movement led by a great American such as Dr. King, imagine how blessed I have felt to have had the opportunity over the past quarter century to work closely with Dr. Jernigan and to get to know him as a friend and colleague.

Dr. Jernigan was as exceptional a person as he was a leader. I cannot think of anyone in my life more gracious. To be welcomed into the home of Dr. and Mrs. Jernigan was always a special pleasure. He had a terrific sense of humor and was a great story teller, a wonderful host, and a remarkably attentive friend. Despite his many responsibilities he always had time thoughtfully to relate to everyone he met as a unique and distinctive human being.

As a leader he had a simple and profound vision of how things could be, of how things should be, and a rare ability to translate that vision into effective action in the complex world we live in. He was, of course, a great orator. I will always remember his NFB convention banquet addresses, the grand cadence of his words, and the soulful rhythm of his delivery.

So the joy I feel, as I wrote recently to Dr. Maurer and Mrs. Jernigan, comes from the privilege of having known Dr. Jernigan during his lifetime and the gratification of knowing that he was able to taste the fruits of his labor. Unlike Moses he got to walk on the promised land.

I also wrote to Dr. Maurer and Mrs. Jernigan that, while there is much yet to be done, Dr. Jernigan has left behind a great movement and many talented people who will continue to be inspired by his legacy. We can take pleasure in the satisfaction he expressed near the end of his life in what had been accomplished and in his confidence in the leadership he left in place.

Dr. Jernigan is with us today. He is looking down at this gathering with serenity and approval. He wants us to be joyful and optimistic about the world that lies ahead. It is a world made richer by Dr. Jernigan's having been part of our lives.