Success Without Vision


Leonard A. McHugh

I was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa, commonly referred as RP. RP is an eye disease that affects a person's night vision and peripheral vision. It is a genetic disorder that is usually hereditary. Symptoms start with decreased night vision and later progress to a diminishing of peripheral vision. The rate of decline varies depending on the genetic makeup of the disease.

In my family, it mainly shows up in the male members although I did come across one female who was related to my mother. I had a grandfather, two uncles a brother and now a grandson with the affliction. I had an uncle without it. These three uncles were all brothers of my mother. None of my cousins contracted the disease. I have one brother that has it and two brothers that do not. None of my sisters have the problem. Many believe that it skips a generation but, in my case each generation has someone with the disease.

During my high school days, I was actually ashamed of my problem. I did everything possible to conceal it. Because of this I was probably in better shape than most of the kids in my class. In gym class I knew that I could not see well enough to participate in some of the sporting games. Therefore I would talk or chew gum to get punished. The punishment was running laps, running up and down the bleachers, or doing sit ups for the entire class. For me this was much easier than facing the embarrassment of not being able to play. I probably should have gone to a school for the blind, but main streamed long before the term was coined. I had a special tutor. My guidance counselor, Mrs. Dietrich, and her sister, Miss Ryan, set up a program where I had some help. Three days a week I would go to a small conference room by the guidance office. A wonderful lady, Mrs. Berkowitz, brought in large print books. She would get all of the assignments from my teachers. She would then help me study.

After I left high school in 1965, I worked for about a year at the lamp factory. I knew that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Although I had a lot of fun there, nothing was mind stimulating.

The Pennsylvania Office for the Blind sent me to Williamsport Community College for an evaluation. This was a four-week trial. I was to spend two or three days in every course to determine what best suited me. The first was electric shop, which I really enjoyed. The next was the computer lab. I never left this course. I liked that so much that I kept asking the professor if I could stay.

The decision was made and Computer Systems Institute, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, here I come. This was a hand-picked class. There were twenty-two students from Rhode Island through Mississippi. Out of these students I was the only one, as well as the youngest one, with just a high school education. The rest had two to four years of college. After the first week, I was ready to quit. I didn't believe that I could compete with the other students. My high school counselor talked to me. She reminded me that I accepted every challenge in school and encouraged me to try it for one more week. She told me that after another week or so I could come home and no one would be upset. Interesting, out of the original twenty-two students, only eleven graduated. And out of these eleven I was sixth in the class.

I then started a thirty-one year career with the Pennsylvania Department of Highways, later to become the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. A few years later I met Karen Naffin. On May 25, 1974 we married. We are blessed with two girls Kelly and Susan. Kelly is now married and has our first grandson, Christian Gauker.

I became an active member of the Pottsville Jaycees. I held every office with the exceptions of treasurer and secretary. I was the only blind person in Pennsylvania Jaycee history to become a chapter president of a non-handicap chapter. Through the years in this organization I was presented with many awards for outstanding community service.

In the mid 1980's I developed an interest in amateur( HAM ) radio. I enrolled in a correspondence course from The Hadley School for the Blind. This correspondence course took me nearly two years to complete. With the help of my friend Gary ( call sign KA3FUL ), I finally was prepared for the FCC test and was presented with a license. I was first issued the call sign of KA3PVO. When I upgraded to the technician class I elected for a call sign change. I was then issued the new call sign of N3FGY. Every week a bunch of us would talk and try to insult each other, only in fun. One operator John ( call sign K3SLJ )gave me the phonetics of KA3PVO - "Pottsville's Vicious Operator." After I received my new call sign, I used the phonetics N3FGY- "Finest Guy Yet." Wow, did this cause a ruckus!

Back at work, my reputation of being a competent computer systems analyst kept improving. Through the years at PennDot I was presented with several employee of the month awards. I was being presented with one of these awards by a new Bureau Director, Brian, who really didn't know me or my sense of humor. When he presented me with the certificate and a coffee mug, I couldn't help myself. I took the cup in my left hand, grabbed my cane and said If I had a pair of sunglasses, I could now supplement my income at lunch time. Everyone that knew me started laughing, and the Bureau Director did not know what to say! On six different occasions I was nominated to receive the Governor's Most Outstanding Handicap Employee of the Year Award. Up until the time of my retirement, I was the only employee to be presented with the Star of Excellence Award on two occasions. This is the highest award presented for outstanding service. I can remember what was said during the first presentation. The Secretary of Transportation during the presentation said "Lenny isn't getting this award because of his disability. He is getting it in spite of it." I don't believe that there was a dry eye in the place. My high school guidance counselor always called me her most successful graduate. I never understood what Mrs. D. meant by that. I always thought that success was power, prestige or wealth. How wrong I was for thinking that way. I did not think I was the success that she said because I hadn't become a doctor or famous lawyer. It was only after the recent death of her sister Miss Ryan, my favorite English teacher, that I began to understand. I went to Ms. Ryan's wake with my wife. When I met Mrs. D. she was so glad to see me. She told my wife that I always had a very kind heart. For some unexplained reason I only then understood. She counted success with the way I lived. Thanks Mrs. D.

In some ways I probably did more without sight than most people have done with vision. I rode horses and I was an avid bass fisherman. I was one of only three blind magicians in the country. I used magic to show kids that just because one has a handicap it doesn't mean that he/she can not do anything. It is ironic, when you watch a magician he can see what he is doing and you can not. When I performed you can see what I am doing and I can not. In both cases you can not figure out how it is done.

I think my highest accomplishment was jumping out of an airplane at 8,200 feet and experiencing a one mile free fall. This was a tandem jump. Both the instructor and I used the same parachute. After the free fall, I was in control until the last 100 feet.

My current hobby is woodworking. I use a table saw, sliding compound miter saw and some other power tools. It's funny but I feel safer using these tools than allowing some of my sighted friends. Sighted people take things for granted whereas I can not afford to do so. See my story Woodworking Ability.

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