Kenneth Jernigan, 71, advocate for the blind

October 14, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Kenneth Jernigan, a relentless fighter for blind people around the world and president of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB) from 1968 to 1986, died of lung cancer Monday night at his Irvington home. He was 71.

During his leadership, the federation became the nation's most powerful organization of blind people. Its affiliates increased from 32 states to 50, Puerto Rico and District of Columbia, while membership grew to 50,000.

Euclid Herie of Toronto, president of the World Blind Union, for which Mr. Jernigan served as president of the North American-Caribbean Region, said:

"Dr. Jernigan influenced the lives of blind persons throughout the world for more than a half-century. He fought for their inclusion in education, employment and culture. His name will be remembered alongside Louis Braille as one of the most influential leaders in the blindness movement."

Braille (1809-1852) invented the system of raised dots representing letters that are read by touch. The system has been in declining use since World War II.

But Mr. Jernigan said that since November, when doctors told him he had lung cancer and about a year to live, he had been eager to work on pet projects: a proposed $12 million National Research and Training Institute for the Blind at NFB headquarters planned for completion in 2002 and a new national hiring program involving United Parcel Service.

"I have no complaints in my life," he said. "I go contented. I've enjoyed my life. I love my friends and those who may have disliked me."

Mr. Jernigan's wife of 14 years, Mary Ellen Osborn Jernigan, and his daughter, Marie Cobb, also of Baltimore, were at his bedside when he died, said Mark Maurer, who succeeded Jernigan as NFB president.

"Dr. Jernigan changed our lives and gave us all hope when there was none," said Mr. Maurer.

After high school, Mr. Jernigan built furniture and managed a furniture shop in Beech Grove, Tenn. He taught English at the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville from 1949 to 1953.

After the federation moved from Des Moines to Baltimore in 1978, Mr. Jernigan supervised the renovation of an old factory that became the National Center for the Blind at 1800 Johnson Street in South Baltimore.

He developed the Braille and Technology Center there in 1990, containing what NFB says is more state-of-the art equipment for the blind than anywhere. He organized a national Braille literacy campaign in 1992 to promote Braille with laws in 30 states favoring its use.

Mr. Jernigan founded the National Newsline for the Blind in 1994, allowing blind people to hear daily newspapers such as The Sun read in synthesized speech over the telephone.

He wrote more than 100 articles and speeches, edited the Braille Monitor, the largest-circulation journal in the blindness field, from 1978 to 1993, and also edited the federation's large type Kernel Book series.

One of his last times away from home was at the Canadian Embassy in Washington last month when he was given an international leadership honor, the Winston Gordon Award, for giving blind people "measurable independence" through Newsline.

"The real problem of blindness is not loss of eyesight, but misunderstanding and lack of information," Mr. Jernigan said. "If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance."

He was a communicant of St. Joseph's Passionist Monastery Roman Catholic Church. A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the church on Old Frederick Road and Monastery Avenue.

In addition to his wife and his daughter, he is survived by a brother, Lloyd Jernigan, of Dearborn, Mich.; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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Pub Date: 10/14/98

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