January proved to be a difficult month for me and my family. I found myself reflecting on my childhood and my life as a person who is blind. The two most important men in my life, Bruce McCarty and Eugene Willis, were both in the hospital for heart-related illnesses. One would pass away; the other would eventually get another chance at life.
Eugene Willis did not survive his massive heart attack of Jan. 21. For me, what made his death even more difficult was the fact that my own father went into Norton's Hospital on Jan. 22, with his own heart problems. Eugene passed away in the early morning of the 22nd, and the afternoon brought the news of my father's surgery the next day.
On Jan. 23, my father had a triple bypass and work on his aorta. I'm grateful that he pulled through well and that things are looking good for him, but it sure did give me some things to think about.
As a student of the Kentucky School for the Blind, I traveled between Louisville and home to visit my family for the weekends. My dad picked me up on Friday afternoons, and we listened to Ed Philips on the radio and talked about the week's activities. I didn't know it then, but Ed Philips was also blind and would later become a mentor to me as I pursued a career in broadcasting.
While home for the weekend, I would often work the farm with my dad. He tried to teach me how to use my hands to build things. Unfortunately, I never picked up on the building of barns or tables, but the conversations we had while stripping tobacco or clearing a fence row are precious. He never said that I couldn't do something because I was blind. In those days I had some sight, and I was always expected to do my share of the work. If I couldn't see something, a jig would be made so I could complete the task. I remember us working on all kinds of projects. We tried to build an AM transmitter from a Radio Shack kit; it never worked, but we had a good time trying. We assembled model cars, built Pinewood Derby cars for Cub Scouts and enjoyed playing video games on our Atari 2600 game system.
As a boy, I never thought of myself as being visually impaired until I came to KSB and met others with the same visual limitations. I think Dad's plan was to insure that I knew I could do things like everyone else; I may just have to do them differently. My parents knew that KSB was the best place for me to receive an education. They believed that KSB could teach me how to adapt all the things in life that they didn't know how to adapt; kind of a jig for life I guess.
I've often thought of Eugene Willis as a second father -- maybe my Louisville father. He taught me many things about being an independent blind person. But, more than that, I could talk to Eugene man-to-man when I was having problems.
I went through a divorce while Eugene and I worked together at New Life Computers, part of the Kentucky Industries for the Blind, and he was always there for me. When my house was flooded in 1996, he came over with space heaters and he insured that my children, who had lost their clothes, toys and even bedrooms during the flood, had the things they needed. Jim Sparks, who was director of the Kentucky Industries at the time, also assisted me and I got to really know Jim through Eugene.
Now that I think about it, I got to know most of my KCB friends through Eugene. He told me about how Jim Shaw would help if I should ever need anything from Social Security, and he introduced me to political people on the local, state and national levels. He loved to talk about the American Council of the Blind, the Kentucky Council of the Blind and the Kentucky Industries for the Blind; he truly loved these organizations.
Eugene and I shared a love of KCB because of the help I received with my son, Jonathon; some busy-body nurses and Child Protective Services tried to take him from me, simply because my first wife and I were blind. Eugene, Carla Ruschival, Jim Shaw, and Deanna Scoggins were on the board of KCB when the battle for the Kentucky Baby was at its height. We also received help and support from Sandy Sanderson of Alaska, Allen Jenkins of California, and NELDS; I wouldn't have my son today without all these folks.
Eugene served as KCB president from 1996 to 2000. The ACB national convention was in Louisville in 2000, and Eugene had a wonderful time giving out the door prizes and making Paul Edwards a Kentucky Colonel.
Eugene was the best man at my second wedding in 2001. He was the right person for the job. He was nervous, but rose to the occasion with plenty of jokes and lots of smiles.
I loved Eugene as any son would love a father. He will be missed and my life will not be the same without hearing his voice in times of difficulty and in times of happiness. We loved working together and loved the job we did. He loved to help others and that is what he will always be remembered for -- helping people at the Industries, helping people with access issues around Louisville and across the state, and helping people get computers and other assistive technology.
I have been blessed to have more time with my father and I will continue to cherish the time I have with him. He will continue to preach at the Lebanon Correctional Center and to work the farm. He will continue to teach and influence my children and they will get to spend time with him. What more could I ask for? He's my father. I love him and I'm proud to be his son.
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