Jerry Whittle’s Story
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Jerry Whittle’s Story

August 20, 2019

It started when I was a child. I can remember
being night blind, not being able to see things at night. When I was around five to seven
years of age is when it started. I didn’t realize I was losing my sight. I just thought
everybody else had problems seeing at night like I did. My name is Jerry Whittle and I’m
from Ruston, Louisiana. It wasn’t until about fifteen when I really realized that I was legally blind. At that time, I still could see some. I played baseball–I was big into sports–and
I was on the American Legion baseball team in Seneca, South Carolina. I grew up in South
Carolina. And I was playing in the outfield. I was a pitcher and an outfielder. And
so at night we had a game with artificial lighting, and I had never played under artificial
lighting before. And so when I got into the left field, I could not even see the ball leave
the pitcher’s hand. And a guy hit a baseball about in my area and I didn’t see it, and
it landed about five feet from me. And my baseball coach ran out and said, “What’s the
matter with you? Aren’t you hustling?” And I said, “Uh, no sir. I can’t see the ball.”
And so he brought me into second base and I couldn’t see the ball there either, so I
remember walking off the field and I realized that I had lost my sight. It was kind of a
tough time for me. I turned in my uniform, which I hated to do. And I continued to play
sports in the daytime, but I couldn’t play anything at night. And then my sight gradually
decreased. I had been working in a bookstore–a university bookstore in Clemson, South Carolina,
at the Clemson University Bookstore–and I continued working there for several years.
And I started doing some alternative techniques for blindness. I didn’t realize it at the
time, I was–I would spend time after hours memorizing where everything was. And so I would go back
in the stockroom everywhere and I would just kind of found things and located where they
were located. And so I didn’t realize I was making myself indispensable for the job, because
none of the other part-time students knew where that stuff was, and so they were always
coming to me to get everything. So I knew where everything was (chuckles). But it wasn’t because of anything special. I just had to learn how to do it that way because I was losing my
sight. And then in 1973, I tried to get some training in Arkansas. And I wasn’t ready for
it. I went there and I just was not prepared for the stuff that I went through at the center;
there was just too babying and too custodial for me. So I left and sort of went around a little bit. And I saw an ad on television with Dr. Jernigan talking about the National Federation of the
Blind. And so I wrote him a letter using a big Pentel marker–by this time I’d lost enough
of my sight I had to almost write with a magic marker–and I sent him this large print letter.
And unbeknownst to me, he had sent that letter back to Mr. Capps, who was president of the
National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina, and he took the letter and organized
a chapter in my area and sent some people up–two volunteers to organize a chapter–and they contacted me. And all of a sudden I became president of the Oconee chapter of
the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina. Well I was very shy, and so I wasn’t
used to running anything, and I’d never been called upon for any kind of leadership role.
And so I had to learn pretty fast and it was the beginning of a new life for me, because
I began to hear the philosophy of the blind, the National Federation of the Blind, and
I began to learn some of the techniques from some of my fellow blind people. So I decided
to go back to college. I had tried to go to Clemson in 1966, but I didn’t have the skills
of blindness and I couldn’t keep up. And so I dropped out. But I went back in 1976 with
an understanding of how to use readers, how to take notes, how to do some things, to get
around with a cane; things I couldn’t do before. And so I graduated with honors. I pulled my grade point ratio with a 4.0, straight-A average for three years and pulled my average up above
3.5, and so I graduated with honors from Clemson. And I went to the University of Tennessee
and got a master’s degree there and I got a full scholarship and fellowship to Tennessee
based on my grades. And then I began to teach English at the University of South Carolina.
And so in 1985, after I taught English at University of South Carolina, working on my
PhD degree in English, Joanne Wilson contacted me in Maryland to come out to Louisiana to
work in a training center, an NFB-type training center. And so, on a whim we just gave–I
gave up the PhD because I really wanted to work with blind people. And Marilyn gave
up her work as an art teacher, and we came to Louisiana in 1985, and I became the Braille
instructor there. And I taught Braille for over thirty years. Which is one of the joys
of my life. While I was there I was telling Joanne about doing a play that I had done
a play as a blind person with some other blind actors–it was called “Glass Menagerie” by
Tennessee Williams, and we did it as a fundraiser, and we kind of got hooked on acting. So I
told her we should do plays with the students and so she said, “Well why don’t you just
write a play?” And I said, “Well, OK, I guess I could write a play.” And so I started writing
plays. And so every year we started doing those as part of our fundraising activities
at the National Federation of the Blind. So we’ve done plays now for twenty-three years.
And this year we’re going to have another one, tonight, as a matter of fact. I always
wanted to be a writer. It’s part of the one of my dreams–to write novels. I had published
some short stories and won a couple of writing contests when I was a younger man and actually
got money for them. So that kind of put it in my mind that I’d like to be a writer and
I had written a story at the University of Tennessee. It was about my father and the
night he died. And it was published in a magazine called The Phoenix. Well I got one fan letter
from a student from Tennessee; his name was Jim Reilander Jr. I can still remember, he
told me that I should be a writer, I shouldn’t be anything but a writer. And so I wrote him
back and told him if I ever got published, I was going to send him a copy of my first
book. And so I’ve been trying to find Jim Reilander Jr. (chuckles) since I got published. So, since I’ve retired–I’m a retired Braille teacher now–after thirty-something years, and I’m
doing what I really want to do. I’m writing novels. I’ve written five novels that are
now on Amazon Kindle eBooks. And I’m working–currently working–on a nonfiction book involving growing
up in Clemson, my hometown, and what it was like to grow up in the 1950s. So it’s kind
of like a memoir, but it’s going to be a book I’m going to try to get published by the Clemson
University Press. I’m not going to put it on Amazon until I get it published. But I
have published some short stories in magazines and stuff, but the main thing is the novel writing, which I really enjoy. So I’m basically, after all this time, doing the thing I really want
to do, and I really enjoy it. And that would be writing novels. And that is the story of my
life. I’m Jerry Whittle, and I’m living the life I want.

1 Comment

  • Reply Sara Richardson November 10, 2017 at 11:03 am

    It's not widely known but he was also a grandfather and a great grandfather. He was always there and quick with a witty joke to make you smile when you were feeling down. I know he is well known by a massive amount of people now as well as his wife. They did more good than you would think two people could possibly be able to do. Yet they did it. They touched so many lives but the ones they touched the most were mine. Yet here I sit not even knowing him or what had lead to him becoming who he is now. Not only the best grandfather there ever was but the best for those in need of help. Thank you to the ones who posted this video. Helped me to know him that much better.

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