BVA Mourns Passing Of Pioneer Stalwarts

 

Routh Believed Blindness Gave Life Greater Purpose 

 

Robert Routh, Jr., longtime BVA Life Member, beloved National President, and popular regional group officer, passed away on December 2, 2007 after a short illness.

“Bob Routh was an incredible role model and inspiration for all of us, said Tom Miller,” who served as National President just prior to Bob.

"Bob's passion for and his commitment to BVA were truly remarkable,” said Tom. “This passion was exemplified by Bob attending national conventions in the early years even when segregation kept him from staying in the official convention hotels.”

Bob was BVA’s 25th National President as a member of the Southern California Regional Group, beginning his two-year term of office on August 17, 1985. A highlight of his tenure was his 1986 address at the BVA-hosted Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

Pictured with Bob and Otis is OIF blinded serviceman Andrew Neumeyer at 61st National Convention in Buffalo, New York.
Pictured with Bob and Otis is OIF blinded serviceman Andrew Neumeyer at 61st National Convention in Buffalo, New York.

Bob also served two-year terms as National Vice President and National Secretary in the four years prior to his presidency and as National Secretary during a separate stint in 1973-74. He held all of the elected offices in either the Massachusetts Regional Group or the Southern California group.

Born on a farm in Macon, Tennessee, in March of 1925, Bob spent his early childhood in both Macon and Memphis. In 1942, he joined the Navy at age 17 and attended boot camp at the Great Lakes, Illinois Naval Station.

Following an assignment at the Mare Island Naval Depot in Vallejo, California, Bob was transferred to the Naval Ammunition Depot at Port Chicago, California. It was there that he lost his eyesight in the infamous explosion that destroyed the base and killed 327 sailors on July 17, 1944. Bob was among the 390 sailors badly injured.

Interviewed many times about his experience in the explosion, Bob recalled his role as a winch operator. He was, he said, one of the many African Americans on the port who were required to carry ammunition and explosives without the benefit of adequate training, a fact for which he said he held no bitterness. The movie “Mutiny,” produced in 1994, told the story of 258 African American sailors who refused to load ammunition on Port Chicago after the explosion. Many of those who refused were court-martialed and sentenced on the grounds of mutiny, a crime that carried the death penalty at the time.

Bob was also featured in a 1990 television documentary produced by KRON-TV in San Francisco. The program, narrated by Danny Glover and produced for Black History Month, was entitled “Port Chicago Mutiny: A National Tragedy.” A television crew spent three days filming Bob and his family at home and at work. When asked during the program for his thoughts about the tragedy, Bob replied quietly, “I used to wonder why the Lord let this happen to me . . . and after many years, I think it is because He wanted me to serve others with the perspective and orientation of a blind person.”

Racial inequality and segregation were very much a part of American society at the time Bob was injured. According to fellow blinded veteran and longtime friend Otis Scott, Bob refused to abandon the bright future and full life that he had envisioned for himself and his future family before the tragic injury.

“He, like I, was forced to fight many battles to collect proper compensation and adjust to life as a blind person,” said Otis.

“I first saw Bob at Hines in 1949,” Otis continued, “and to this day I remember him describing to all of us there his experience at a convention hosted in Washington, DC, by an organization he referred to as the Blinded Veterans Association.” 

As annual convention attendees themselves, Otis and his wife, Elizabeth, believe Bob attended all but one BVA National Convention after 1965.

Bob often referred to the time he spent at Hines as a major turning point in his life.

“The mobility I gained at Hines gave me freedom, and my newly discovered freedom gave me life again,” he said in a 2005 interview.

Bob also received vocational training at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. He moved to California in 1950, where he began working as an assemblyman for a plumbing supply company. He received an Associates Degree in 1954 from Los Angeles City College, after which he moved to Massachusetts but returned once again to California in 1960.

Bob earned a Bachelor of Arts in sociology in 1971 from Pepperdine University and completed all of his course work for a Master’s Degree. The then “Veterans Administration” undertook a pilot project in January 1975 to hire blinded veterans as Veterans Benefits Counselors (VBCs), a position in which he remained for nearly 33 years. Bob passed away just four weeks prior to his intended retirement date of December 31, 2007.

Of the 12 counselors hired and sent to Chicago for two weeks of training as part of a pilot program, Bob was the only one that remained after 2006 when another former BVA National President, Gerard McDonnell, retired from the same position.

I got to know Bob at that time and later even better when we served together on the National Board of Directors,” said Jerry. “He provided good leadership tempered with a great sense of humor.”

Otis Scott credits Bob’s ability to relate to others as the reason he was able to work as long and hard as he did as a Veterans Benefits Counselor.

“Bob’s knack for oral communication was his absolute strong point,” said Otis. “For this reason, the work of the Veterans Benefits Counselor position seemed tailor-made for him—something to which he could passionately dedicate his entire life.” 

In addition to his service to BVA, Bob had been a Life Member of the Disabled American Veterans since 1958. Vivienne, his wife of 56 years, passed away in 2006. He was also preceded in death by a son who passed away only days after Vivienne. He is survived by a second wife, Gardenia, two sons, a daughter, and 10 grandchildren.

Miyagawa a Tireless Advocate of VA Blind Rehabilitation

 

Stephen Hiroshi Miyagawa, author of the most definitive account of blind rehabilitation in the United States and a longtime member of the Illinois Regional Group, passed away on November 16, 2007.

A veteran of the Korean War, where he was blinded by a mortar shell in 1951, Stephen Miyagawa drew on his own experiences and developed a writing talent he did not realize he had prior to losing his sight. He went on to express in numerous written forums the plight, trials, and rehabilitation efforts of blinded veterans, culminating in Journey to Excellence, a 270-page book published in 1999 by Galde Press.

Stephen Miyagawa was a prolific and meticulous writer whose passion for veterans issues culminated in the publication of Journey to Excellence. BVA distributed a national newspaper release in 1999 about this one-of-a-kind recounting of the rehabilitation of blinded service members and veterans in the 20th century.
Stephen Miyagawa was a prolific and meticulous writer whose passion for veterans issues culminated in the publication of Journey to Excellence. BVA distributed a national newspaper release in 1999 about this one-of-a-kind recounting of the rehabilitation of blinded service members and veterans in the 20th century.

Journey to Excellence describes the evolution of military and VA blind rehabilitation programs in the 20th century, paying homage to the early pioneers and students of an exciting new discipline. The book outlines in detail the courageous and innovative work of Russell Williams, who shortly after World War II helped develop the foundation for the rehabilitation regimen that has become today’s successful VA residential program.

“It is apparent to those who know the author that Stephen ‘Bulldog’ Miyagawa has written this book as a labor of love, and as a personal tribute to the many people and to the VA programs that guided him through his own rehabilitation training,” wrote J.J. Whitehead, former Chief of Blind Rehabilitation at Hines, in the forward to Journey to Excellence.

Whitehead’s reference to Stephen as “Bulldog,” he said, is a result of the latter’s tenacity and meticulous drive for accuracy in obtaining and reporting facts.

Stephen was born in Puunene on the Island of Maui on February 3, 1929. The family moved to Honolulu when he was very young. In addition to his life membership in BVA, he was a member of the 5th Regimental Combat Team, the Korean War Veterans, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He was a tireless advocate for Hines and the editor of three different newsletters: the Hines Blind Center Alumni News Flash (1979-83); the Illinois Blinded Veterans Association Voice (1983-86); and the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center Torch (1983-96).

He is preceded in death by his wife, Wanda, and survived by a son, daughter, two sisters, a brother, a granddaughter, and a great-grandson.