It was a magical evening. May 15 marked the end to a long career at the Colorado Center for the Blind for Tom Anderson. More than 150 people came to send Tom and Linda off to Kansas after 27 years teaching Braille – and several other duties. We fed them, and gave the tribute to Tom and Linda that we felt they deserved. And we did it without electricity.
That Friday was a generally mild spring day. Sure there were sprinkles and rumbling thunder in early afternoon as the Center’s Board of Directors met in our new conference room, but all that passed over us.
The magic came in the form of a power outage around noon, and it didn’t strike us as magical at first. More than 150 people had sent us an RSVP saying they were coming to Tom’s retirement party, and we’d promised them all Tom’s favorite – dinner – a nice Italian sausage sandwich with grilled onions and peppers, along with pasta salad and other sides. The food had to be cooked.
Then there was the matter of the program. We had the gym set up with all the chairs and the sound system. Ah yes, the sound system that would carry the voices of our presenters from one end of the gym over the heads of 150 people to the other end. It didn’t run on batteries, even if we’d had enough DoubleAs to make it carry for over an hour.
What’s more, there wasn’t any light in the gym. We only had so many canes to pass out to our sighted guests … You see the problem.
The first word from Excel Energy was that the power would likely come back on line about 3:30 in the afternoon. That was later revised to 8:50 p.m. It turned out that an entire utility pole had burned up, leaving the Colorado Center for the Blind and 500 other residential and commercial customers without power.
The Colorado Center for the Blind is part of the National Federation of the Blind – the oldest and most effective organization “of” the blind in the history of the human race. We believe in the capacity of blind people, we teach our students to believe in their own capacities and – most significantly – we have faith in our collective capacity as an organization.
So this is a good place to remind everyone of our tag line at the Center: “Take Charge with Confidence and Self-reliance.”
So here’s what we did …
Kimberly and her hand-picked crew of assistants had begun the prep work on Thursday afternoon and started some of the cooking on Friday morning. When the power went out though, there were still dozens of Italian sausages, gallons of pasta for pasta salad and onions and peppers to grill. They switched everything to the two gas stoves. The gas oven didn’t work because the controls are digital, and therefore electric. Our volunteer Madeline ferried The hand-made bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers to our apartments two miles away to use the ovens there, then brought them back. Everything was kept warm in serving pans heated by sterno to wait for the 5 p.m. serving time. It was a fine meal under any circumstances!
At 4 o’clock, Duncan and another volunteer Mike grabbed canes (I had mine already) and the three of us scurried down the dark stairs to assess the situation in the gym. Mike got an impromptu cane lesson on the way. We propped open all three doors to the outside on the north side of the gym. It was adequate lighting for our sighted guests, and Mike felt he had just enough light to run the video camera on battery – as long as the program didn’t run too long or too late in the evening.
As guests started streaming in before five, they typed up Braille messages to Tom and Linda in the lobby, got a drink and went in to be served in the meeting room. Guests filled the tables in the meeting room and the picnic tables outside. It was a gorgeous evening!
By 6:45 the gym chairs were full and Director Julie Deden kicked it off. Members of our Board of Directors had come from all across the country, as had members of Tom’s family and former students. The program started with a congratulatory speech from special guest Dr. Marc Maurer, Immediate Past President of the National Federation of the Blind, and from Mrs. Patricia Maurer. Dr. Maurer described the framework for the need and success of NFB training centers, including the Colorado Center for the Blind, and the role Tom Anderson has played in our efforts for all of its first 27 years.
“We said that blind people are normal human beings, we said that rehabilitation would help blind people live normal lives, and the California orientation center in 1953 was the first experiment to put this philosophy into practice.”
Dr. Maurer went on to say that in 1958 Dr. Jernigan left California to expand the work in Iowa. When in 1988 Diane opened the doors of the Colorado Center for the Blind she was furthering the Federation’s work of transforming rehabilitation services for the blind.
“A friend of mine who came into the Federation 2 ears after I did came here to be part of the faculty,” Dr. Maurer told the crowd. “Tom has many generous characteristics and on behalf of the Maurers we are proud to be here to congratulate you Tom and to be part of your celebration.”
We played a prerecorded message from NFB President Mark A. Riccobono using a Victor Stream and a battery-powered portable speaker. President Riccobono is a CCB alum and one of Tom’s former students.
Listen to NFB President Mark A. Riccobono’s audio message to Tom:
Our founder, Diane McGeorge and the Center’s first two staff members Duncan Larson and Tom took the stage next and reminisced about those difficult but heady first days of the Center.
“The three of us were the staff when we started the Center,” said Diane, “we had no money but we had a lot of hope and, most important, we had a belief. And we had the support of the entire NFB”
Diane recounted being asked if she ever felt like she was dancing on the deck of a sinking ship in those early, difficult days, Diane said she replied, “I never felt discouraged – I knew we needed the Center with the philosophy the NFB. When the power failed today did the question come up should we cancel – no way, we never cancel anything in the NFB! We’re going to give Tom a send-off he’ll never forget.”
Before the three of them got into stories, Duncan felt compelled to make a comment.
“I was thinking tom,” Duncan said, “that on the day the Center opened there was a blizzard, and now when you’re leaving there’s a power outage.”
As the laughter died down, the Reverend Anderson replied in his booming preacher’s voice, “It just shows that though The power may be out, the power is within us!”
Tom and Linda served as the first residential managers, and Tom taught typing as well as Braille at first. There were of course a number of stories about the early days of the Center and of Tom. There was the first-day blizzard story and the tornado story. Tom told about how he wasn’t thrilled at first about going rock climbing, but that he went anyway because he enjoyed his job. Diane told about Tom and his trumpet.
“If a student didn’t want to get up in the morning,” Diane said, “Tom blew that trumpet!”
“You have brought such patience to your work,” Duncan said. “And you really have helped change hundreds of lives.”
“Tom did everything we ever asked of him,” Diane concluded. “And Linda, God bless you, you have been right beside Tom every step of the way. We love you and we’re going to miss you both!”
Students Salem Rosales, Olivia Aviera and Jessica Rojas came up to sing two songs, Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” They, like everyone else, had planned on a sound system for their voices and playing the instrumental tracks from the sound board. Improvising, one of them played the tracks from her iPhone as they sang. From the fifth row back the melodies and harmonies were virtually a cappella as their voices reverberated through the gym.
Tom introduced his family members who had traveled from afar to attend the event. His sister Susan and twin sister Toni both traveled from Minnesota, and Toni’s daughter Melanie came from Illinois. Tom’s cousins drove down from Longmont, including Mark, Judy, Ann and Helen.
“We’ve been having a little family reunion,” Tom said. “And I’m so glad that my family has been able to get to know my Colorado and national family in the National Federation of the Blind, and that my NFB family has been able to get to know my family.”
CCB Student Association Board officers Jenny Callahan and Ahimsa Wiznieski engaged in a peppery and humorous exchange focusing on the songs Tom has always sung to students in honor of some achievement in his Braille classes.
“I never got a song,” Ahimsa complained.
“You only get a song when you do something ‘g-r-t’ GREAT!” Jenny retorted.
Tom jumped into the fray singing one of his patented songs, “Ahimsa is great, working on the slate …” and the crowd joined in with hand-clapping accompaniment.
Jenny and Ahimsa then presented Tom with a plaque from the current student body made by students in the wood shop.
NFB of Colorado President Scott LaBarre said: “when I think about what NFB means, what we can do, and when I think of a person emblematic of living the life you want, I can think of no person better than Tom Anderson. Tom has the capacity to change lives, in his own unique method, his own way.”
Scott presented Tom with an honorary diploma, which read as follows:
Upon his completion of all necessary coursework and twenty-seven years of outstanding instruction and service to the Colorado Center for the Blind,
The Regents and Faculty of NFBCO University hereby confer upon
Miles Thomas Anderson a Doctor of Legendum Tactilis Degree.
Now and for all time, Anderson shall be known lovingly as Dr. Toasty Dots!
“May 15, 2015
Julie Deden, Executive Director of the Center since 1999 shared an early memory of Tom and Linda. In those days Julie was a VR Counselor, but was part of the work and excitement in the NFB of Colorado as plans progressed to open the Center.
“I had tom and Linda over for dinner before the Center ever opened,” she told us. “As I looked at the two of them together I thought: ‘What a wonderful gift we have in Tom and Linda to help us start the Colorado Center for the Blind.’”
Julie echoed Diane’s assurance that Tom did everything ever asked of him, and also cited Tom’s compassion and love for his students, particularly for those who were having a difficult time for one reason or another, and how his gentle spirit was so helpful to them.
“One of the things that I’m always so honored to do for our graduating students at the Center is to present them with the ‘Bell of Freedom” which they’ve earned, for which they have worked so hard to earn. Tom and Linda, you have worked so hard for 27 years that I know that you also have become more free as blind people. As we say at graduations, when one blind person becomes free, we all gain more freedom as blind people. It is my honor to present the Bell of Freedom to Tom and Linda. It has the Center’s logo and says:
Colorado Center for the Blind
1988 – 2015
The Dots Await Your Fingers!
As he rang the bell, the gym exploded with cheers and applause.
“It’s been an honor to work with wonderful staff, my colleagues to work together to change what it means to be blind,” Tom said.
He showed his emotion as he said the following words.
I want to tell you that I’m thankful for Linda, when we started it was hard for Linda to move from our home (in Kansas) to a small one-bedroom apartment… Linda has laid down her life for me, so it’s time to give back in moving to Kansas.”
Tom went on to say that they’ll come back of course. “You’ll always be part of our hearts.”
We’ve learned inner toughness and we’ve learned to draw on the inner strength that God has given to us.
This is a time of transition, but the center will continue to move forward because we’re about meeting new challenges.
… sometimes people are willing to step forward and meet a challenge with vigor and courage, and that is what the Center is about… Let’s press forward!
Linda shared that she and Tom will be married for 39 years on July 24, 2015.
“If you knew him like i do you would surely love him,” she said.
“Diane was such a mentor to us,” Linda continued. Many of you students and past students know me as your Colorado Mom. It’s been a beautiful experience, and I loved being the Colorado Mom for those students who needed one.”
By this time the joy and gratitude and excitement of those present was rising. Diane gave a summation.
part of the reason we’ve survived is because of Tom and Linda,” she said. “I want to thank the students for singing “Imagine. This is what we do. We in the NFB imagine what we can do for blind people, we imagine a time when blind people are not looked upon as second-class. We imagined the Center, and Tom has been a big part of our success – he has been there every step of the way.”
“Tom,” said Julie, “I want to say that all these people who came tonight shows how much we all love you.”
Then Tom rang his Freedom Bell one more time.
it was all accomplished with the naked human voice, though the hushed crowd of course broke in with cheers and laughter at appropriate times, The program wrapped up shortly after eight, still enough light for the camera and battery to spare. Ten minutes after the show ended, the power rolled on again throughout the Center. The timing was perfect – any earlier and the spell would have been broken!