The first time I attended a convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska was in 1993. I was in my fourth month of training at the orientation center of the state agency for the blind, known as the Nebraska Services For the Visually Impaired.
Sidebar: This blog entry is only one paragraph old and it’s already full of alphabet soup. NFBN and NSVI. Nice start.
Anyway, the agency offered to pay for my trip, so I went. I was less than impressed. My first impression of the NFBN was that it was full of older, cliquish people who had little use for outsiders. The sessions struck me as nothing but self-aggrandizing chest-thumping. No one in the affiliate seemed particularly warm or welcoming toward me. I don’t remember any outreach of any kind. My roommate was Scott Green (he goes by Mitch now), and we spent most of the weekend in our room watching Star Trek and listening to old-time radio. Our national representative that year was Diane McGeorge. Mitch and I listened to half of her banquet speech, got bored, left the banquet and ordered Pizza Hut back in the room.
My two best friends at the time were Shane and Amy Buresh. I barely saw them that weekend. They were scholarship winners that year and I think we briefly rubbed elbows at the scholarship reception. Shane mumbled something to me about starting a student division, but I brushed it off. I hadn’t yet started college and the thought was overwhelming to me, so the idea of a group of blind college students didn’t even register.
I left the convention that Sunday knowing that I had no use for the NFBN. When Della Johnston, the state president, approached me a few weeks later and asked me to take over the NFBN’s weekly radio show on KZUM, I jumped at the chance. This was it! My big break in radio had finally come!!!
I was far more excited about it than were the members of the Lincoln Chapter of the NFBN. I went to their January meeting so I could get to know them better. Barbara Walker was particularly unimpressed with me. The feeling was mutual. To me, she came off as a stuck-up, pretentious old blind biddy who looked down her nose at those who didn’t drink the NFB Kool-Aid. At one point I said to the group, “I agree with some of the stuff you guys think and I will probably join at some point.” Barbara’s retort was immediate and succinct. “Why not now?”
Barbara’s answer came about two months later, when I hijacked the NFBN Pioneers radio program on KZUM and made it my own. I called it, “In a Different Light.” No more NFB propaganda. I was going to focus on the disability community at large. Sure, the NFB could come and talk if they wanted, but so could the ACB. So could the League of Human Dignity. So could Mitch Green, advertising his newly-formed company, Alternative Technologies. As long as it was disability related, it was fair game.
The program lasted another three months before I went home from college for the May break. When I came back for summer session, I simply let the show go. I can only imagine the tongue lashing that Barbara and others gave Della over her serious miscalculation.
Yet, history seems to vindicate Della. She dug the hole in the NFB garden by forging a personal relationship with me and allowing me to fulfill one of my dreams. Still, it was Shane and Amy who planted the seed. I think it was February of 1995 when Shane invited me to attend a meeting of the Nebraska Association of Blind Students at Peru State College. The preceding October, Amy had been elected president at the state convention. We made a weekend out of it, complete with trips to the Dairy Freeze in Steve’s Bowling Alley in Auburn. The meeting itself was attended by the three of us, plus their weird pal, Chuck, who also served as our driver. Mass transit has not yet come to Southeastern Nebraska.
I’d like to tell a grand, emotional tale of how Amy decided to pass the torch to me in 1996. Honestly, I can’t remember her talking to me about it. I don’t remember agreeing to accept the job. I merely remember Amy stepping down as NABS president due to the fact that she was going to graduate the following May. She passed me the baton, I got up and said something like, “Thank you, all. I hope I can be half the president that Amy has been.”
My memories of my one term as president of NABS are mostly happy ones. I recall meetings in the basement of Selleck Hall on the UNL campus where a small group of us planned fundraisers. They culminated in the selling of candy bars, which was always a big hit with college students. I also remember our participation in career fares in partnership with the state agency. We did guest panels, mock game shows and trivia contests, social mixers where food and innocent card games were present, and picnics in the park.
But my fondest memory came at the state convention in 1998, at which we held a joint convention with the Iowa affiliate. Just after I stepped down as NABS president, I offered to shave my head bald, auctioning off each stroke of the razor for one dollar per shaver. All proceeds, of course, went to the NABS treasury. It was a big hit and I looked ravishing with no hair.
I left the presidency because I had dropped out of college, but my participation and support of NABS did not end. A year after I stepped down, Mike Hansen took over as president. NABS continued to partner with NSVI, soon to be rebranded as the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, for student and career fares. We continued to fundraise and, most important of all, we continued to spread the positive message about blindness to college students throughout the state.
My memory of the chain of successive NABS presidents after the turn of the century has faded somewhat, but I do know that Ryan Strunk eventually became the president. Involved with him were Jamie, Wes, Amy 2.0 and eventually, Randi. All of them went on to achieve bigger leadership roles in the state and/or national movements. Eventually, Karen became the president. Although she validates some of the negative stereotypes about elitism in Federation leadership, she did in fact become active on the national stage as well. As of this writing, both Karen and Amy 2.0 are working for the national office. Other NABS members of later generations included Kayde, Kelly, Stephanie and Bridgit. I have to believe that their exposure to NABS helped mold them into the leaders that they are today.
I moved to Colorado in 2007. I had very little interaction with the Colorado student division while I was there. My feeling was that, while I am supportive of student divisions, there comes a point when the more seasoned adults should move on and let the college students run their own show. This doesn’t mean pot brownies at the CABS parties, but only that those of us who moved on past college should let them make their own mistakes and celebrate their own failures with support and feedback available only upon request. When I moved back here to Nebraska, my plan was to do the same with NABS. Just let them do their thing and contribute to their treasury at every state convention when NABS snacks were being sold at the back of the convention room.
I was heading back from a board meeting with Bridgit a few weeks ago and we were discussing the current state of our affiliate. I don’t remember what lead to it, but Bridgit casually said, “Yeah…and NABS is gone.”
It hit me like a baseball bat in the stones. NABS was gone. NABS was gone. I sat there, not knowing if we were heading to Omaha or South Dakota, and felt completely stunned. NABS, my path toward taking the NFB seriously. NABS, where we spent so many late nights planning how to engage the students at a Round Tuit seminar. NABS, where then President Amy Buresh held regular agenda items called, “Cathartic conversations,” in which we discussed how to help more people become aware of the Federation. NABS, where I learned how to get up the courage to approach a stranger and ask them if they wanted to buy a candy bar for the cause. NABS, where President Ryan Strunk conducted a meeting in a stage whisper because he’d claimed to have lost his voice. Miraculously, it came back later that night at my place when it came time for him to play his guitar. NABS, where I helped the kids load coolers full of water and pop, along with boxes of sandwiches, chips and candy on to a bus headed for a state convention. NABS, where I sat in a chair while locks of my hair fell to the floor as various people clumsily shoved an electric razor against my head. NABS. Gone.
I sit here late at night, the cicadas angrily buzzing in the trees right outside my balcony door, and I ask myself, what the bloody hell happened? NABS was our most important endeavor. That was our best hope of training future generations of leaders to take up the torch and carry it when we moved on. Oh sure, you have national leadership seminars with high-minded philosophical questions and the separating of the wheat from the chaff, but nothing takes the place of the forming of the bond between the local leaders and the students that look to them on a regular basis for guidance and encouragement.
Is this how Woodrow Call felt when he went back to Lonesome Dove, only to discover that the ranch house was rat infested and the town saloon had burned down? He walked the streets of the deserted town and began to question his sanity when he thought he envisioned the one-legged ghost of Gus McCrae coming toward him. “Why, Gus?” he asked. He was really asking, what was the point? What did their 3,000-mile cattle drive really mean?
Why? Why? I sit here and ask myself that question in my head, and the tone I’m hearing is a mixture of befuddlement and deep, wistful melancholy. NABS is gone. NABS is gone. The “Why?” is followed by other questions. Where did it go? How did it happen? Can we ever revive it? Is this a sign of a larger trend as many seem to think, or does it represent failure of another kind? I don’t know. I wasn’t here for the last decade. I don’t know where the blame lies, or if any blame exists at all. I only know that, if we of the Federation cannot pass the torch on to future leaders in this state, we are doomed to the dusty corner of the memories of those who lived through the glory times. And all of those people who lived will eventually die, their memories, nothing but ghosts.