(Authors' Note: We thank Charlie Hodge, Melanie Brunson, Kathy Megivern, Sharon Lovering, Ann Byington, and Oral Miller for their contributions which were helpful in putting this article together. If we have left anyone out who provided information to the folks we have listed, we thank them as well.)
Reese Robrahn, second president of ACB, 1966-1972, and ACB's first director of governmental relations through several years in the 1970s, passed away on July 4, 2006. His wife, Nelda, is quoted as saying, "He went to heaven amid the fireworks."
In recent issues, "The Braille Forum" has contained quite a few tributes and memorials to our fallen leaders of the past. It is sad that we experience these losses, but it also celebrates the growth and maturing of ACB. Each former leader's contributions have made ACB what it is today. The work of Reese Robrahn was paramount in not only building the foundation of ACB as a respected, democratic organization representing the blind and visually impaired of America, but also in crafting the very foundation of civil rights afforded to disabled Americans.
Before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1972, Reese lived in Topeka, Kan., where he served as a district court judge, president of the Kansas ACB affiliate, and a mentor to a teenaged Michael Byington. We want to celebrate Reese's impact both on the national disability rights scene, and also his role in Kansas, which led to his entering the national scene.
Reese was a charter member of ACB. He served on the original provisional board of directors, and then as treasurer after the death of ACB's first treasurer, Ufemon Segura. Reese was elected president in 1966.
Being president of ACB in the late 1960s and early 1970s was no great honor. ACB paid almost none of the president's expenses because it could not afford to do so. Many blind Americans, and others in the disability rights forefront of that time, doubted that ACB would survive as a national organization. It was still a bunch of upstarts who refused to fall into step with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), and although many disability rights advocates certainly hoped for ACB's survival and growth, the prospect seemed somewhat unlikely.
Under Reese's presidency, ACB moved from a scattered regional and members-at-large confederation to a true national status organization. There was not only incredible growth, but also incredible stabilization. Many state organizations that had left NFB but not joined ACB decided during Reese's presidency that he and ACB represented the stable democratic home they wished to support. Michael Byington recalls attending ACB's national press conference, held at its 1967 national convention in Wichita, when Reese announced the opening of ACB's first Washington-based national office.
Reese's presidency was also marked by ACB's entry into the international blindness field. He attended the quinquennial conference of the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind, held in the Soviet Union, and he continued to reach out to blind and visually impaired people and organizations throughout the world. Reese's presidency moved ACB to a new level of solvency and organizational security.
The chapter in Reese's life that took place after his presidency, however, is perhaps the one which allowed for his greatest national contributions to the civil rights of the blind and of all disabled Americans. When Reese's tenure as ACB's first director of governmental relations began, disabled Americans had no nationally assured civil rights. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which granted the first federally conferred civil rights protections to disabled Americans, was adopted in 1973, but this adoption changed nothing. Only when implementing regulations were promulgated by then-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano in late April 1977 were formally codified civil rights protections for disabled Americans actually begun.
Chris Gray served as one of two ACB national office interns in 1976. He had an opportunity to watch firsthand Reese's role in advocating for and developing the Section 504 regulations. Chris recalls, "Reese was one of my early role models in ACB. His calm, polite and youthful-sounding voice as he presided over the 1972 ACB convention impressed me greatly, and for many years he personified ACB leadership in my mind. As an ACB intern in 1976, I got to work with Reese firsthand in the national office, located at that time on Connecticut Avenue. Even during those early years, NFB was expressing absolutely no interest in working with other disability groups. Reese saw the need for ACB to be a voice representing the blind and visually impaired in the emerging national disability rights movement. Reese led many meetings at ACB to negotiate among various disability groups what should be in the 504 regulations and to make sure that the points that we all could agree upon appeared in the comments of all organizations represented. Reese would often write key sentences or paragraphs and circulate them throughout the community of disabled advocates to ensure not only consistency, but focus and accuracy as to what comments were being filed throughout our entire community. The goal was to build consensus and create a united voice throughout the disabled community on issues where we all agreed. Reese was a low-key leader, but was quite clearly in charge of the meetings on Connecticut Avenue. He was a listener and a person who could bring organizations together."
Although Reese served as negotiator, consensus builder, and mediator in arriving at a version of proposed 504 regulations acceptable to a coalition of disability leaders, the lead agency charged with promulgating the 504 regulations was the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). 504 was an issue that HEW Secretary Califano approached with a great deal of trepidation and downright avoidance. By early 1977, it was clear that disabled Americans were being stonewalled by HEW, and that heretofore unparalleled action was necessary to get HEW to promulgate any 504 regulations whatsoever, let alone an acceptable version to the disability community.
Thus, on April 5 and 6, 1977, a large group of disability rights leaders, representing a vast array of disability organizations, occupied and took hostage the headquarters building of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and held that building in an act of history-making civil disobedience until the occupiers were carried out of the building by law enforcement officials. This event received national press coverage of rather mixed review. Reese Robrahn represented ACB staff as a member of the occupying forces.
Chris and Michael were not able to attend this sit-in, but have discussed the contrast which must have been present among the protesters. People with orthopedic disabilities were represented by leaders such as Ed Roberts, who had conducted occupations of many of the buildings on the University of California at Los Angeles campus in the 1960s and 1970s. Roberts and his band of crusaders represented the disabled branch of the hippy movement of the 1960s. Most of them looked as though they had just rolled out of five days at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and perhaps had never found time to change clothes or cut their hair subsequent to that event. Reese, on the other hand, was an extremely distinguished appearing ex-judge and lobbyist. He subscribed to theories of appearance which had long been espoused by such blindness leaders as Durward McDaniel and Jacobus tenBroek. He believed that people who are blind and visually impaired have an obligation to command respect and equal treatment by appearing with the same professional demeanor as their sighted peers. Neither Chris nor Michael remember Reese ever wearing less than an expertly tailored suit, dress shirt, neck tie, and the other trappings of professional success. Reese's awareness of the trappings of professional competitiveness must have stood out among the other occupiers in April of 1977. This understanding on Reese's part, as well as his calm, well- modulated style of working toward productive communication and consensus, may explain why Reese, the second in command of the newest and most fledgling organization of the disability coalition, found himself elevated to a facilitator, consensus-builder role.
A second, similar occupation of the HEW headquarters was planned for a couple of weeks later, but the day prior to its scheduled beginning, Califano released the 504 regulations. The proposed set of regulations was the one Reese had led the charge in developing.
Hindsight suggests that Reese should have been highly commended by the ACB membership for his work on the 504 regulations and for his boldness in participating in the HEW building occupation. After all, organizations and people who participated in this action have earned quite a respected place in civil rights history. Heroic deeds, however, are often not recognized as such until time puts them in perspective. In July of 1977, the ACB national convention adopted resolution 77-09. The main resolved clause of that resolution was, "that the paid personnel of this organization be instructed that money of this organization may not be spent for, nor may the personnel participate in, public demonstrations in any manner that may reflect upon this organization, without the prior approval of the board of directors of this organization."
This resolution was quite clearly directed at Reese's actions in participating in the HEW building occupation. At that time, NFB was being extremely visible, laying in front of airplanes on airport tarmacs and engaging in countless other acts of civil disobedience. They were doing these things not as a part of a coalition, but as single-handed acts of defiance and anger. Most of their very public actions did not reflect well upon them, or on blind people in general. The ACB membership was so avid about not being associated with such ineffective activities that it overreacted, and completely missed the historical significance of the actions Reese had taken.
Reese was very troubled by the adoption of resolution 77-09. Its adoption may have contributed to his eventual decision to leave ACB's employment and accept the executive directorship of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD), a position which he held until that organization was dissolved into some others, at which time he retired.
In 1993, the ACB national convention effectively nullified resolution 77-09 when it voted to demonstrate in San Francisco before a regional office of the United States Department of Transportation concerning the need for detectable warnings at subway platforms and at lines of demarcation between pedestrian ways and hazardous vehicular ways. This decision was made after the death of Peggy McCarthy, an ACB member who was killed at a Boston subway station where detectable warnings were not present, even though she was a seasoned and skilled subway rider. At this point, ACB at last acknowledged that some issues are indeed sufficiently important to warrant decisive actions of civil protest and civil disobedience.
When Reese entered the Washington scene, he was in his early 50s, a time when many begin to wind a career down instead of starting a new one. He had been a respected attorney in general, private practice in Topeka, Kan. for many years, and had been appointed, and then elected, to a district judgeship in the 1960s.
Reese was a respected jurist, and this also accorded him extreme respect within the blindness community of Kansas. Ann Kruse Byington, a lifelong blind Kansan, recalls that her first exposure to witnessing the justice system in action occurred when she was a client of the Kansas Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired; one of the required elements of the program was for clients to travel downtown, visit the courthouse, and watch Judge Robrahn preside over his court. She recalls the experience as both positive in terms of the impression made of the justice system, but also in exposing blind students to a successful role model.
In 1972, however, a controversial realignment of district court divisions caused Reese to have to run for re-election against another sitting judge, Kay McFarland. It was a close and controversial election, but Judge McFarland beat Reese. A few years later, Judge McFarland was appointed Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court. Now in her 80s, she continues to serve Kansas in that role.
Reese did not really want to resume the practice of law once he had been removed from the bench. This prompted him to reinvent himself in Washington, D.C., but it was not an easy transition. Reese traveled to Washington with no solid prospects. He essentially lived first on Oral Miller's couch for several months, and then with Durward and Aileen McDaniel while he was seeking opportunities in Washington. During that time, the fledgling ACB organization was continuing to grow, and Reese was becoming increasingly indispensable to ACB's national efforts as a volunteer. This prompted Durward McDaniel ultimately, as funds became available, to hire Reese as ACB's first director of governmental affairs. Reese was then able to move his family out to the D.C. area.
There is no question that Reese could have reopened his law practice, taken on junior partners if he had wanted them, and done very well as a respected attorney with a lot of insider knowledge of the local court system. This would have been the safe road, however, and to the benefit of the disability civil rights movement, Reese chose not to take this safe road.
Many blind Kansans still consider Reese's move to be a major tragedy. He had been very effective as a lobbyist for the state ACB affiliate, and as its president. In the 1960s, Kansas had one of the most respected and effective blind services agencies in the country, and Reese had crafted much of the enabling state legislation. Since Reese left Kansas, many losses and downturns have occurred with state blind services. Michael Byington, current president of the Kansas affiliate, notes that, when faced with legislative challenges, many blind Kansans of Reese's generation have commented, "If we only had Reese back, we could get all of this straightened out."
Michael, however, puts a positive face on Reese's departure from Kansas. "If Reese could have beaten Kay McFarland, he would have doubtlessly retired here in the state as a very effective longtime judge. He might have even been the one to become Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court. Our loss of Reese here in Kansas, however, helped lead to the gain of civil rights protections for disabled people throughout our nation."
As an attorney, jurist and creator of public policy, Reese Robrahn contributed much to our movement. As our second president, Reese helped establish ACB to become the leading organization of the blind of America today. Though saddened by his loss, we rejoice in his victories and in his making them our collective victories. Without a strong Section 504, there might not have been an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Through Reese's leadership, that strength in Section 504 was created and brought into being. Reese often spoke and dreamed about the idea of expanding the Civil Rights Act to include the disabled. He saw clearly that Section 504 was a huge step down that road. ADA was, in fact, that next step. Let us think as time continues how we can carry on this legacy to the step beyond ADA. Reese Robrahn would expect nothing less of us.
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