Have you ever had the privilege of knowing a respected colleague or a trusted friend who is forthright, honest and articulate, yet selfless and sensitive enough to put others first? If you have had the honor of knowing Phyllis Herrington, then your life has indeed been touched by someone who was all these things!
Phyllis, who was born and raised in Mississippi, came into the world somewhat prematurely and, as a result, became totally blind. She attended the school for the blind in her home state. She also attended a local community college and then went on to receive her master's degree in history from the University of Southern Mississippi. After working for a short time as a teacher's aide in her home town, she decided it was time to venture out in order to discover what the world had to offer and what she could give back to the blind and sighted communities. And when Phyllis set out to accomplish something, she invariably put her whole self into the task at hand. Phyllis confidently stepped forward into the unknown, did her best not to look back, and always counseled others to do the same no matter what obstacles they might be facing.
Her journey took her to states such as Kentucky and Wisconsin, where she spent several years working for the American Printing House for the Blind and Raised Dot Computing, respectively. Phyllis was, by all accounts, a woman who combined graciousness, professionalism, and dedication in all that she sought to accomplish in the workplace. Not content to remain a cane traveler all her life, Phyllis eventually applied to the Guide Dog Foundation and was accepted. She soon received her first guide dog, who would become one of four dogs. She subsequently applied for the position of outreach coordinator for the Guide Dog Foundation and was pleasantly surprised to be offered the job in 1996. From that time until just a few months before her death, Phyllis Herrington worked tirelessly, in her quiet but self-assured way, to promote greater independence and a fuller, more meaningful life for her blind and visually impaired peers.
At the same time, she always viewed her visual limitation as secondary and took seriously her goal of remaining true to herself and others. She accepted what life offered her but was never content to do any less than her very best. Phyllis had hoped to be married at some point in her life, and although she did not have the opportunity to realize that particular dream, with her usual fortitude, she ultimately came to appreciate her solitude as a source of renewed strength. Although she did not consider herself an activist, Phyllis was a vibrant example of what it means to be open-minded and non-judgmental, yet also fair and a believer in standing up for what is right. She avoided politics at all costs but was more than willing to take a strong stance when an individual's identity or a group's basic human rights were being compromised. Additionally, she was a woman of great faith who readily admitted to her own weaknesses and, in so doing, showed more courage and inner strength than the average person. Those commendable qualities, as well as her wry but memorable sense of humor (which often manifested itself in some of the funniest one-liners I've ever heard), would take Phyllis a very long way in overcoming the ordeal that assailed her toward the end of her life.
In the summer of 2005, Phyllis was diagnosed with breast cancer in an advanced stage. What's more, the cancer had already spread to several other places, and surgery was simply not an option. Phyllis subsequently endured several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, which proved effective for a time. Phyllis met this pain and uncertainty with courage, selflessness, and a faith in God that never seemed to waver. When those of us who knew her would call to check in with her, more often than not, she would sound cheerful and would inspire the rest of us with her perseverance and positive outlook. Rather than dwelling on her own long struggle with a devastating illness, Phyllis preferred to ask what was new in our lives, how our various plans were going, etc. Instead of allowing us to be listeners for her and to share more of her painful journey (which we would quite willingly have done), she proceeded to tell us of the many blessings in her life and occasionally recounted stories of her most recent guide dog, Fordham, and his never-ending adventures!
I had the pleasure of working with this energetic and caring lady at the Guide Dog Foundation from 2001 to 2003. Since that time, Phyllis has become a true friend, always there with the right words when I was most in need of support, whether personally or professionally. While she would never accept credit for being someone I looked up to and cared about very much, the truth of the matter is that Phyllis was, and will always be, someone close to my heart. Her many affirming words and her unobtrusive way of showing support will not be forgotten, and the deep faith and lively sense of humor that she so often shared with those around her will live on in our hearts.
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