Picture of John Cheadle

John Cheadle

                                                               He Was a Builder

                                                                by John Cheadle


            The first time I encountered the name Kenneth Jernigan was Thanksgiving time, 1973, at a family gathering. I was just beginning my career in work with the blind. My dad's second cousin--I guess she'd be my third cousin--listened attentively for a few minutes to my news, then said: "If you want to work for the best program for the blind in the world, you'll have to come to Iowa and work for Kenneth Jernigan." She went on to tell me how he had come to Iowa in 1958 and taken the helm of what was regarded unequivocally as the least effective agency for the blind in the country. She said that, not only had he built the best training program for the blind, but he had also built the largest library for the blind in the country. She went on and on.


            I was nearly nonplussed. I was the one with great news about work with the blind, but her revelations eclipsed my meager knowledge. How, I wondered, would she know these things? Was this Iowa program really as great as she said it was? How credible were her comments? After all, she was a housewife of modest means who lived in a very small town, Ryan, Iowa, about halfway between Manchester and Coggon. Yet her comments seemed uniquely well informed and profoundly confident, and they kept a haunting presence in my memory as I began my new career.


            Over the years, as I came to know the work of Dr. Jernigan and the National Federation of the Blind better, I came to understand how profoundly our work affects the lives not just of blind people but of all people. Dr. Jernigan built programs in Iowa and in the nation. He was called our teacher, leader, colleague, and friend; and he was. And largely he was because he was also a builder, a builder of buildings, of programs for the blind, and ultimately a builder of lives.


            There in rural Iowa, distanced from the sophistication of federal and state programs for the blind, rural Iowa where farmers tended the land and city folk worked mostly in industries which supported agriculture, rural Iowa, where life is close to the heart, there was a blind man who had been taught that he could neither tend the soil nor operate the machines of industry and that he was a burden to himself and to those around him. But Kenneth Jernigan came and got hold of a building and built a program, and it touched the lives of this blind man and those around him. He got training and he got work. I learned years later that his sister-in-law, my dad's cousin, was ever grateful that Kenneth Jernigan had come to Iowa.


            Shortly after I began my career, I had the opportunity to visit the programs that Dr. Jernigan had built in Iowa. Although I was mightily impressed with the programs, I believe I was equally impressed with the building. It was unlike any state-operated facility I had ever seen. Instead of the sterile coldness of bare floors and tiled walls, there was the comforting presence of wood, stone, carpeting, upholstered furniture, and even a fireplace. The warmth that pervaded the programs that he built was evident not only in the architecture and furnishings of the place but also in the staff and students. His building and his program had profound character. He had built it well.


            We bought the building we all now know as the National Center for the Blind in the spring of 1978. That summer our National Convention was held in Baltimore. Here is what Dr. Jernigan had to say: "The building, I think, offers us the possibility of doing many things. We will move from Des Moines...[and]...we will establish offices here. Seminars--it is planned--will be conducted from this office. We are trying to see whether we can arrange to set up recording studios in this building and to begin to do our own recording. We will see how much training we can do of people there...the point is that we will now have a building of our own--as a matter of fact, a whole city block." He began building on that city block in 1978, and, as you have heard, he hasn't stopped. Such is the character of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan.


            In 1980, barely two years after we bought the building, I worked for a short period of time in the Job Opportunities for the Blind Program at our National Center in Baltimore. Dr. Jernigan had already made significant changes in the building. Under his leadership the building was purchased in 1978. Mostly tenants occupied it, except that the fourth floor was vacant. It was also, according to knowledgeable sources and neighborhood gossip, less than desirable. But we moved in anyway. There were about 165,000 square feet in this building, and the National Center for the Blind occupied less than a fourth of it. But that was more than we had had in Des Moines. Our operations in those days were wholly contained on the fourth floor, and we didn't even use all of that.


            In 1985 Dr. Jernigan offered me a full-time position in Baltimore, and I accepted. In just four years Dr. Jernigan had expanded our operations to fill all of the fourth floor and was in the process of squeezing in an additional 5,000 square feet by sandwiching a mezzanine level between a portion of the fourth floor and the roof. He had also had the exterior masonry cleaned and had installed new roofs on all of the buildings in the complex. That was 1985. He kept right on building. Today, through the efforts of Dr. Jernigan, the National Center for the Blind occupies more than three fourths of the building's total square footage (plus the 5,000 square feet of new space inside the building), and it has also expanded to occupy at least 12,000 square feet in other buildings in the complex.


            In 1986 we began seriously to expand our operations in the building. Half of the first floor of the building had become vacant. So we remodeled it and moved all of our aids and appliances, shipping, receiving, and storage operations from the fourth floor down to the first floor. We temporarily moved people from their fourth-floor offices in the Barney Street wing around to the Johnson Street wing and then further crowded the situation by eliminating the dining room in order to build a sound studio and by eliminating the file room to build the accounting department.


            It wasn't quite chaos, but it was very close. Yet Dr. Jernigan kept the pulse of all that was going on. The Barney wing of the fourth floor was now vacant and ready to be remodeled to include a kitchen, a dining room, related storage space, a records management center to store the documentation and written history of the organization, two large work areas we call malls, and more than twice as many offices as we had had. What a marvelous project this was--twenty-two thousand square feet of space to do with as we pleased.


            Dr. Jernigan took great delight and pride in planning the use of this space. One day, after the contractor had laid out the floor plates for all the walls that were going up, Dr. Jernigan, the construction supervisor, and I took a tour to examine the work. It was like walking around on a blueprint that was two hundred seventy feet wide and eighty feet deep. Everywhere there was a line on the blueprint there was a corresponding floor plate in the construction area. Shortly after we started our tour, we came to the north edge of the Records Management Center, where there were two adjacent offices. Dr. Jernigan, using his cane to follow along the floor plates, paused after we had gone nearly all the way around one of the rooms. "There is supposed to be a door here, joining the two offices," He said, tapping along the edge of the floor plate.


            "No," replied the construction supervisor, "It isn't on the prints."


            Dr. Jernigan turned to me and asked: "Well, Mr. Cheadle, what do you think? Is it on the prints?"


            "No, Sir," I guessed; "I don't believe it is."


            He then offered us the opportunity, as he put it "to increase our holdings." He put up a dollar to each of us, and we went and looked at the prints. He was right and richer. I've long lost count of the number of such opportunities, but I certainly have learned a great deal at very minimal tuition.


            Somewhere along the line during this phase of construction, Dr. Jernigan began asking me consistently when he greeted me: "Mr. Cheadle, How are the contractors?" I learned quickly to anticipate the salutation and tried to be prepared at all times to answer thoroughly and with precision. If I did not know, I told him I did not know; it was less expensive for all of us.


            In the years since the major remodeling of the fourth floor Dr. Jernigan directed the replacement of all three elevators with modern hydraulic units which go to the roof; the addition of a new power transformer, and updating of the electrical distribution systems throughout the building, as well as changing overall plumbing to new copper pipes. He oversaw the renovation of space in the central courtyard area to house our maintenance facility. Another building in the courtyard area was remodeled to house the first location of the International Braille and Technology Center and offices. He planned and executed the complete remodeling of the entire second floor of the main building to include more new offices with a conference center, nearly eighteen thousand square feet of space containing three miles of shelving, and two thousand square feet of conditioned archival storage space.


            Additionally, he directed the moving of the International Braille and Technology Center to the second floor and added offices and a conference facility. Dr. Jernigan redesigned the front entrance to our building to improve the aesthetics and to make it accessible to wheelchairs. He added a sign atop our building twelve feet high and forty feet wide, topped off with a forty-foot flagpole--both are visible from the nearby, heavily trafficked Interstate 95.


            Last, but not finally, he oversaw the construction of a masonry storeroom on the ground level whose roof is an eight-hundred-fifty-square-foot deck. Above it is another deck of equal size, and above it is the SkyDeck--over five thousand square feet, partially covered, of outdoor meeting space. Everyone who has had the pleasure of seeing the SkyDeck agrees that it is definitely a crowning touch. All of these projects and many more were conceived, planned, and built by Dr. Jernigan. And, yes, the building is full of wood, stone, carpeting, upholstered furniture, and a fireplace. It is admired by all who visit, as are our programs, which were also built so well.


            The SkyDeck was not the last major building project at the National Center for the Blind in which Dr. Jernigan participated. During the last year of his life he worked continually on our new building--the National Research and Training Institute for the Blind--the model and blueprints of which are on display in Mrs. Jernigan's suite in this hotel. Dr. Jernigan saw the SkyDeck project through to completion and continued to direct the activities at the Center until just days before his death. It is fitting that we continue this legacy by completing the new building and the programs that will touch the lives of all blind people and those around them between here and anywhere.


            Dr. Jernigan was a builder. I will remember him for that. I will also remember him as a teacher, as a leader, and as a colleague; but mostly, I will remember and honor him as my friend.


            Oh, and Sir, the contractors await our bidding.