Friends pay homage to crusader for the blind Jernigan still working despite lung cancer

September 24, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

A steady stream of old friends -- maybe 200 in the past months -- have been visiting Kenneth Jernigan at his home in Irvington.

Pals who followed the old fighter for the blind as he tenaciously led fights for jobs, for access, for independent living, for Braille and for civil rights have come to say thank you and goodbye to a dying blind man they say expanded horizons for thousands of people.

James Omvig, a 63-year-old blind lawyer, and his sighted wife Sharon flew from Tucson, Ariz., to visit with the president emeritus of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), who is in the latter stages of lung cancer.

"The wonderful life I've had is all due to Dr. Jernigan," Omvig said. In the 1950s, he "was sitting around at home" in Iowa, after learning chair-making, until he met Jernigan and began studying Braille and other subjects. Omvig then graduated from college, got a law degree, became the first blind person hired by the National Labor Relations Board and later developed programs for the blind at Social Security in Baltimore, Alaska and elsewhere.

One topic of conversation among the friends has been Jernigan's latest project, a proposed $12 million National Research and Training Institute for the Blind for NFB headquarters in South Baltimore.

Last week, Larry McKeever, of Des Moines, who is sighted and has recorded material for the 50,000-member federation, came to chat and cook breakfast for the Jernigans. Donald Capps, the blind leader of 58 South Carolina NFB chapters, called to congratulate Jernigan on being honored recently at the Canadian Embassy for his Newsline invention that enables the blind to hear daily newspapers.

Floyd Matson, who is sighted and has worked with Jernigan for 50 years, came from Honolulu to be with "my old poetry and drinking buddy."

A dramatic example of the high regard in which blind people hold Jernigan came during the annual convention of 2,500 NFB members in Dallas in July. A donor contributed $5,000 to start a Kenneth Jernigan Fund to help blind people.

Quickly, state delegations caucused and announced their own donations. The result: pledges of $137,000 in his honor.

Jernigan, 71, who was born blind and grew up on a Tennessee farm with no electricity, learned he had incurable lung cancer in November. In the past 10 months, Jernigan has been almost as busy as ever. He has continued projects such as editing the latest in his large-type "Kernel Book" series of inspirational books for the visually impaired.

But his focus has been the proposed four-story institute, for which $1 million has been raised. It will house the nerve center of an employment program; research and demonstration projects leading to jobs and independent living; technology training seminars; access technology, such as applications for voting machines, airport kiosks and information systems; and Braille literacy initiatives to reverse a 50 percent illiteracy rate among visually impaired children.

In fighting for the blind, Jernigan has frequently been a controversial figure. Before he moved to Baltimore in 1978, the Iowa Commission for the Blind, which he headed, was the subject of a conflict-of-interest investigation by a gubernatorial committee. In the end, Gov. Robert Ray felt the committee's report vindicated the commission. The governor and the committee described the commission's program for the blind as "one of the best in the country."

"There are good things in everything, even this illness," said his wife, Mary Ellen Jernigan. "You expect to hear from old friends. But in letters and calls, we hear from hundreds of people we don't know."

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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