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What One Person Can Do

by B. T. Kimbrough

This is the title of a feature which became a regular part of DIALOGUE in the early 1980s when Louise Kimbrough served as the magazine's editor. The people introduced in this series were seldom headliners or honored leaders in the field. As a rule, they were quiet, determined people who had managed to make a difference without much outside help, in spite of difficult personal circumstances. With Louise's tireless encouragement, a few writers stepped forward to contribute some memorable pieces on this topic. We are reprinting one of them later in this issue. Perhaps others will step forward to provide us with fresh examples of this timeless genre.

I doubt that it ever occurred to Louise that her own story was a remarkable, and perhaps an inimitable, illustration of what one person can do.

From the 1940s and her student days in Ohio and Kentucky, right up to the week of her death at her adopted home in Virginia in October of 2013, Louise Rogers Kimbrough refused to let lack of sight diminish her expectations of herself and her life. Not that she was ever someone to thrust herself forward and ask for an important position, such as primary proofreader of a braille encyclopedia or editor of DIALOGUE. But if someone asked her to take on a challenging task, and she believed she could help, she found a way to rise to the occasion, even if it meant tapping inner resources and abilities she hadn't known she possessed.

The Fall 2013 issue of DIALOGUE contains her recollections of the encyclopedic braille proofreading assignment she never would have sought, but accepted and successfully completed at an age when most people--blind or sighted--are just beginning to wonder what it would be like if a really interesting work assignment ever came their way. It would never have occurred to Louise to put herself forward and seek such a job; but once she was asked to do it, she took hold as if it had always been her life's ambition.

Her DIALOGUE connection bears a marked similarity. After she married and moved to Chicago in 1973, Louise willingly worked as a volunteer for DIALOGUE, and later accepted an offer from editor/publisher Don O. Nold to become editorial coordinator. In 1977, she decided to leave DIALOGUE for a social work position at the Baptist Retirement Home in Maywood, Illinois, a few miles from her home in Oak Park.

But DIALOGUE would have the last word. At the end of 1978, shortly before his retirement, Nold asked her to return and succeed him as the magazine's editor. The Summer 1979 issue of DIALOGUE carried Nold's conversation with her, during which he raised the subject of her education and background for the editorial work he had just asked her to take on.

"I was born and raised in the hills of eastern Kentucky, except for the World War II years when my family, like so many Appalachian families, went north to work in the defense plants. The first school I attended was the Ohio State School for the Blind, which I thoroughly hated for the first year. On numerous occasions I ran away and tried to come home, and the police were always bringing me back to school. I think my mother was in despair at that point. Eventually I was so excited about learning that I was able to contain myself and remain in school.

"When the war was over, we moved back to Kentucky, and I transferred to the Kentucky School for the Blind, which I liked much better, because we had a lot more freedom. I was able to go to public high school and live at the school for the blind. I don't know if I could have attended public high school at home if I had wanted to, because it was a rural school, and opportunities there would have been terribly limited. As it was, I feel I had the best of both worlds: I had what amounted to an exclusive boarding school education.

"I went to a small college called Transylvania. Some people say that sounds rather gruesome, because it reminds them of Dracula. But it just simply means 'through the woods,' and it was the first college established west of the Allegheny Mountains in 1780. It was located in Lexington, Kentucky, and I had a couple of scholarships there. I was also able to work about 30 hours a week to help with expenses, and rehab helped a little. But in those days, rehab didn't pick up the tabs that it got to picking up later, and I didn't have all the rehab help that some people later did.

"I'm a social worker by training and a number of years of experience. I mostly have been a writer by avocation, and I suppose my interest in editing goes back to when I was in grade school. It seemed that people would let me read their papers, themes, or whatever they were writing, and we would talk about them. I don't know that I had any super skill as a writer or editor, but people seemed to feel more comfortable if I went over their material. Then, in college, I was able to make a little money helping people get their act together in terms of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I was always interested in words, sentences, and accurate expression of thoughts and feelings."

In the regular column she called COME TO THINK OF IT, readers frequently joined her in celebrating the value of precise meanings, not to mention correct pronunciations. Here's an excerpt from her Fall 1979 column:

"Frank Kirkpatrick of Macomb, Illinois, has issued something of a challenge. He writes that he hopes some day to read an article in DIALOGUE in which all words are pronounced correctly. The appropriate pronunciation and use of words is, not surprisingly, important to many readers, judging by the correspondence I have received. Frances Finane, of Clinton, Mississippi, takes me to task for requesting 'input' from readers, quite rightly labeling that a jargon word. 'Contributing "input" makes me feel as if I am a piston in an impersonal machine,' she writes, 'whereas contributing my opinion or my ideas makes me feel as if both the magazine and I are emotionally involved personalities.'

"I don't like jargon or bureaucratese any better than Mrs. Finane. However, I find I have one even stronger dislike when it comes to word usage: passive verbs. When I die (both Mrs. Finane and I dislike the terms 'pass' or 'pass on') my epitaph may well read, 'She was smothered to death by passive verbs.'"

I remember when Louise first told me that she was putting that line in her column. It made her laugh heartily--something that not just any joke could do. I like to think that she is somewhere smiling now at its recollection.

Louise felt that the pages of DIALOGUE should be devoted to the lives and concerns of others, and she delighted in making the interviews and features that told those stories, even though she hated to hear her own voice on tape. There was just one pet issue that she took the opportunity to emphasize repeatedly during her time as editor--the need that all of us with limited sight share to develop all the self-reliance we can get our hands on and our minds around. Here's what she wrote about that in her column for the Spring of 1980.

"Recently I have become concerned about the level of self-reliance taught to the present generation of young adults who are blind. I know more than a dozen with above average intelligence and creative potential who nevertheless are still floundering about in an effort to find their identity as adults and often becoming overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life. In my role as a social worker I have had occasion to talk at length with parents of some of these young people. I have come to believe that almost without exception they could have benefited from but did not have access to competent blind adults who might have served as models for them in helping their children develop resourcefulness and coping skills. I have come to the conclusion that every blind adult who has succeeded in establishing an independent lifestyle has an obligation to reach out to the next generation."

And "reach out" she did--to dozens of former students or clients who became lifelong friends and to literally hundreds of others she met along the way. She didn't merely speak the message of the importance of developing self-reliance; she spelled out for people what they could do, and sometimes made phone calls to see that others helped with that process when it was appropriate. Right up until the very last week of her life, she was still staying up some nights with a phone in her hand, encouraging friends who needed encouraging and telling others things they needed to hear in order to take control of their lives.

On one occasion, she found out that a friend, who was very discouraged for many reasons, wanted desperately to go to a one-time-only concert, for which the tickets were too expensive and scarce even to think about. Essentially confined to her home by declining health, Louise made use of the one resource that virtually never failed her--the telephone. She called a total stranger who worked in the ticket office and persuaded her to arrange free concert tickets to be waiting in her friend's name the night of the concert. The whole process involved several calls to assistants and supervisors--all of them total strangers. Louise could be extremely persuasive when asking someone to do something nice for someone else.

When Louise told me that story (and there were many others like it) she vehemently rejected the notion that it was particularly remarkable or praiseworthy. To her, it was simply a matter of doing what needed to be done with the tools that were available to her. To me, it is both remarkable and praiseworthy. Indeed, to me, it seems the very embodiment of that deceptively simple phrase WHAT ONE PERSON CAN DO.

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