From the Editor: Some anniversaries are special. Fifty is one of these, and it is a real pleasure when one of our affiliates can celebrate half a century of progress and even more rare when we can have people who were at the original founding to relate what was done and what it was like to be a part of it. This article is taken from the Illinois Independent, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois. Here is the article:
On the morning of Friday, October 26, 2018, NFB of Illinois board member Cathy Randall interviewed Ramona Walhof, one of our special guests at this year's convention, the fiftieth held by the NFB of Illinois.
Cathy Randall: I'm talking to Ramona Walhof about the beginning of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois fifty years ago.
Ramona Walhof: The National Federation of the Blind organized a student division in 1967 in Los Angeles. Jim Gashel was the president, and I was the secretary. My future husband was second vice president. After the convention we were invited to go to Montreal and organize students in Canada. Jim Gashel and I did that, and we succeeded in organizing a group up there. There was a lady named Lucy Sienkowicz who wanted it to happen. If you come across Paul Gabias, he will tell you he was at that meeting. He's active in the Canadian Federation of the Blind, and so is his wife, Mary Ellen.
Somewhere during the winter between the 1967 and the 1968 national convention, I met Rami Rabby in Des Moines. Dr. Jernigan invited him to come to Des Moines to visit. I was working there for awhile, so I met Rami. We didn't talk about Illinois when I met him, but he was interested in the student division. He was working on a graduate degree at that time. After the 1968 convention, which was held in Des Moines, Dr. Jernigan planned that we would go to Illinois and organize an affiliate. We students had no clue how to do that, but he got six of us together, and he said, "I want you to go to Illinois." He said we would go one Saturday and organize an affiliate the next Saturday. We said, "How will we do that?" He said, "We've got a list of people." I don't know where that list came from, but they did indeed have a list of people, and Dr. Jernigan gave the names to us. Rami knew a few people also. By that time he'd been in Illinois for a few months.
So we drove into Chicago and met with Rami and Mrs. Hastalis, Steve's mother. We might have met Steve that first day, but we didn't see much of him until the next week.
Cathy Randall: So you spent the week calling people?
Ramona Walhof: First we would call, and we would ask people if we could go and visit them. We spent a lot of money on cabs. We took cabs all over Chicago! I took a train down to Galesburg, Illinois, and met with a woman who had adopted three children. She was blind, and it was rare in 1968 for a blind person to be an adoptive parent.
Gwendolyn Williams, who was a very dedicated volunteer, drove us some places, but of course she couldn't drive us to all of the places we needed to go. We went two by two into people's homes. We would talk about why we had joined the Federation and what we thought the Federation could do for them personally. We'd talk a little bit about legislation and making better vending programs and better rehab.
At that time the programs in Iowa were unique in the country. We learned to travel independently. We were not afraid to travel in Chicago by ourselves. We had enough training that we knew how to do that, and we felt comfortable. We would talk about how we got that training and how we wanted other people to get it too. We would talk about what we did in college and what our majors were. We'd talk about the people we met at convention.
I met a man named Gaspardus Belhuysen from Wisconsin. I met him at the Washington, DC, convention in 1965. He said, "Ken Jernigan always wants me to go down to Des Moines and get some training, and I'd love to do it, but I can afford to get what I need." I thought that was the craziest thing I'd ever heard! I asked one of the people I knew in the Federation what he knew about Belhuysen, and he said, "Oh yeah! He's a millionaire!" He was not in the vending program, but on his own he had gone out and found places where he could put machines, and he hired a full-time driver to help him. I had never met a blind millionaire before, and I was impressed. That's one of the reasons I joined the Federation—because I heard about what Belhuysen and other blind people were doing.
We told people about Belhuysen and other people we had met. Dr. tenBroek was a lawyer, and there were a whole bunch of blind lawyers in California. There were a whole bunch of blind chiropractors in Iowa.
We talked about our experiences, but we also listened to what the blind people wanted. We would say to them, "If you had your choice about what kind of service you could have, what would it be?" Then we'd try to help them figure out how an organization of blind people, locally and statewide, could address something like that. We'd stay for about an hour talking.
We spent about five days, maybe six, and we talked to a lot of people. A lot of them said, "I just can't do anything, and you can't do it for me. I don't want to help." But we found some who were responsive. Jim Gashel went into Steve Benson's home and met him. I think Steve went to the organizing meeting.
On Friday evening Dr. Jernigan came, and we met all together. All six of us who had been pounding the pavements met with Dr. Jernigan. He said, "Who have you met who has leadership capacity?" There was no trouble with the presidency; we thought Rami Rabby should be president, and he was willing. (Dr. Jernigan probably would have twisted his arm if he wasn't!) I don't remember who the other board members were. We may have elected Steve Benson to an office.
Steve Hastalis still had a year of high school to finish. He was very young. His mother was the spokesperson at the time. Steve was kind of quiet, but he was there. Anyway, that Friday night we planned what we were going to do about leadership. The next day Dr. Jernigan introduced himself. He explained what the Federation is. There were a few hostile people in the audience, and he said, "If you pay your dues, you can vote. If you don't want the Federation, you should leave the room." A couple of people did.
Dr. Jernigan presided at the meeting. After he answered questions he said, "We need to adopt a constitution before we elect officers." He had a model constitution, and he read it article by article. A few changes were made. I believe that at first the affiliate was called the Illinois Congress of the Blind. Rami was very interested in politics, and since this was America, he thought we should have the Illinois Congress of the Blind, so we did.
After that meeting everyone dispersed, and it was up to Rami to keep it going. I'm sure he was in telephone contact with Dr. Jernigan every day. I went off to Idaho because I was engaged to a man from there. I actually delayed my move from Des Moines to Boise to come to Illinois and organize.
When I came to Illinois, we still had fewer than forty affiliates. When Dr. Jernigan was elected president in 1968, he set the goal that we would have affiliates in all fifty states. By about 1974 we did. We organized very vigorously. I went ahead and organized in Kansas, Oregon, Washington, Tennessee, and Michigan, and a little bit in North Carolina. Other people did other states. We organized Nebraska and several of the southern states and the smaller states. We still have to reorganize from time to time, but we've had affiliates in all of the states for about forty years now.
I remember one person who said, "I'm in college, and I'm working for the summer. I can't afford to take a week off work to go organize." Dr. Jernigan said, "We'll take care of that. We need you, so we'll take care of your salary for the week." We didn't have very many people available, and Dr. Jernigan knew that if we sold the Federation for a week to as many people as we could, we would become stronger Federationists ourselves. He was absolutely right!