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The Roots of Braillerman

In May, 1974, I went into the Iowa Commission for the Blind building for the first time since I was in grade school. Back then I used to swim in the pool, when it was the YMCA. Now I was there for a job interview for an opening in the Accounting Department. By the end of the interview, Mr. Jernigan had invited me to the state convention of the National Federation of the Blind the following weekend–Memorial Day. It was to be at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. And he also asked me to report to work on Monday, June 3rd. The job was mine!

I was introduced to most of the Commission staff at the convention and was immediately impressed by the philosophy and achievements of the Federation. A week later (the day before I went to work at the Commission) an article entitled: Kenneth Jernigan: 'power to the blind' appeared in The Des Moines Sunday Register. Please read it. My yellowed copy of it turned up in January, 1999, when Linda and I were in the process of moving.

Like most newcomers to the staff, I spent the first few weeks in the Orientation Center, where, "blinded" by sleepshades, I learned to travel with the "Iowa" cane. I actually walked to work like that a few times–I lived just a mile away then. Together with a great group of blind students, I began each day with Business Class. That was the real "attitude factory". And I received hands-on experience with woodworking in shop–the very same shop where the young Marc Maurer actually rebuilt a '63 Ford Galaxy 352 V8 engine a few years earlier. Then I had cooking in home ec, even barbecuing on the roof and, of course, the basics of braille.

By the time I started in Accounting, a passion for braille had been thoroughly ignited. On my own time, I began working on the Library of Congress Volunteer Braille Transcriber certification. While doing the lessons at home, the mechanics of the Perkins Brailler intrigued me, and I contacted Howe Press for a Service Manual and some Brailler Service Tools. Before I knew what I was doing, I managed to cause the embossing of the braille on my machine to become faint on one side of the page. Unaware of any problem, I turned in my lesson the next day to Mrs. Sprague, the Library's Braille Coordinator.

Later that morning she came down to Accounting carrying another brailler. She handed it to me, told me to bring the other one back, and not to tamper with them anymore. It seemed to be the end of servicing braillers for me.

But that afternoon, I went into Mr. Jernigan's office to tell him what had happened. I let him know that I was serious about learning how to service the brailler. He replied, "Okay, Mr. Ackley, you keep the first brailler at home and learn all you can about it, and use the other one for your lessons." Now I had a 'guinea pig'! And before long, the Counselors and Home Teachers were bringing machines to me from clients all over Iowa.

Whenever I was stumped by a malfunction that didn't seem to yield to the techniques in the service manual–which was often–I would call "Murphy" at Howe Press of Perkins School for the Blind. He always had the answer. My first visit to the Perkins campus was in 1980, when Linda and our two sons, Steve and David, and I were vacationing in New England. I've had the good fortune to return to Perkins many times since.

During one visit in the mid '80s I asked him, "Murphy, when do you consider a Perkins beyond repair?" "I've seen only two of them," he said. "One had been backed over by a postal truck, and the other was crushed between a train and a loading dock." He'd been able to fix the rest. Murphy already had about 25 years at Howe Press by that time. And yes, it's true: A Perkins Brailler never wears out!

My 'Volunteer Braille Transcriber' certificate was signed by Frank Kurt Cylke on August 13, 1975. I have never transcribed another book, but I've brailled thousands of letters to individuals, schools and agencies in all fifty states and Canada as the final test for each machine. And the opportunities for braille in my "day" job with the agency multiplied, as I worked several years in the Library.

At the end of November, 2004, I retired from the Iowa Department for the Blind after more than thirty years. Braillers have now taken their rightful place as my "day" job.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Jernigan. – Alan Ackley

Linda Ackley died of cancer on January 5, 2004.
Kenneth Jernigan died October 12, 1998.

Kenneth Jernigan: 'power to the blind'

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