This is that column held in reserve more than a decade, the one I’d always envisioned writing but wouldn’t until now.
Over a lifespan, I’ve met many impressive people. Perhaps the one impressing me most by his or her mere physical presence was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who I used to call “neighbor.”
Before his passing in 1998, he led in some capacity the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), a Baltimore-based organization serving about 50,000 blind Americans. The Federation always has been quick at saying it’s “of” the blind, not “for,” meaning they run their own organization.
Jernigan was born blind in rural Tennessee and through hard work eventually earned in 1949 the Captain Charles W. Brown Award as America’s most outstanding blind college student. He then became a teacher in California and in 1954 challenged that state’s public schools to hire qualified blind teachers.
His letter to that state’s legislature provides insight into his spirit: “The barriers have at last begun to crumble, and the blind to emerge from their long subjugation. In the democratic tradition, they have organized themselves for united action and now, instead of charity, they have begun to demand equality-the right to work and to live as free citizens in a free society; the right to succeed or fail according to their individual abilities.”
In the late ’50s, he started reforming the nation’s worst state commission for the blind, Iowa, into the best, and from 1968 until his death in 1998, he personified the Federation’s “can-do” mentality. Many Federation members still liken him as their “Moses.”
We met in Baltimore. He lived four blocks away in an ante-bellum home off Augusta Avenue, and the first time I saw him, he was at an Irvington Community Association meeting addressing a contentious issue. He was immaculately dressed, including wearing spotless, shined shoes and a red pocket hanky. When he spoke, literally everyone listened. I’ve never met a person with such physical “presence.”
I can still see him standing at the bus stop every morning, along with Mark Maurer, the man later succeeding him at NFB. Using their white canes, they looked like distinguished London bankers off for a spot of tea. Theirs was such a contrast of style for our mostly middle-class, blue-collar neighborhood. Likewise, Jernigan’s style was such a contrast to most others representing people with disabilities. He stood out.