New Generations, Same Challenges

by Stuart Nelson

George W. “Buck” Gillispie was a well-known figure in BVA’s early history, having served as BVA’s fourth National President in 1950 and then again as its 11th National President during 1961-62.

When Executive Director William Thompson unexpectedly resigned in 1962, Buck stepped into that position immediately after his second stint as President. He was also Chief of the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation at West Haven when it first opened and Director of Blind Rehabilitation Service at VA Central Office during 1976-79. He received the Irving Diener Award in 1963 and the Melvin J. Maas Award for Professional Achievement in 1979.

Several years ago, Buck’s widow, Carol, sent me an article printed in the Chicago Tribune on September 7, 1947. Carol herself was diagnosed and blinded with retinoblastoma at age 1. She worked with the blind much of her life in a variety of professional and volunteer capacities. She worked as a Rehabilitation Teacher for the blind and as the VIST Coordinator at West Haven. As I was re-reading and refining this article, I received the sad news of Carol’s passing on June 9 after a long battle with lymphatic leukemia.

I have wanted to share with BVA members the contents of the interesting clipping ever since Carol sent it to me. Never have I had the proper context to do so, however, until Sam Huhn referenced BVA’s first-ever national convention in his President’s Page in the Summer issue of the Bulletin one year ago.

Sam quoted an account of the ambience surrounding the opening meeting of that convention, which was held in New York City. He concluded that the topics of conversation and attitudes of blinded veterans manifested at a convention in 2012 would be very similar to those of 1946.

The article Carol sent to me, published during BVA’s 2nd National Convention at Chicago’s then Continental Hotel, supports the premise that the more things change for blinded veterans and the Blinded Veterans Association, the more similar they seem!

Headlined “Sightless War Vets Assail VA’s Lack of Aid Program,” the story described BVA’s frustration that VA, although given six months’ notice on the closing of Avon Old Farms Convalescent Hospital in Connecticut (the DoD facility used to rehabilitate blinded veterans returning from World War II and the site of BVA’s founding), still had nothing to offer at the closing date and instead “was planning to contract with public and private agencies for the adjustment training of blinded veterans.”

The story continues with a quote from a report authored by the BVA Board of Directors and read at the Opening Business Meeting September 5: “There is …. No such agency which has a program comparable to the former Army orientation program. For this reason, the Association is unalterably opposed to the VA’s reported plan ”

According to the article, BVA’s report went on to assert that VA should provide its own rehabilitation center and its own subsequent on-the-ground training program designed to prepare blinded veterans for employment. Also discussed were means of raising funds to help other veterans.

Having participated in a number of conversations at BVA National Headquarters and having read in detail our legislative updates, similar issues have been a part of BVA’s focus even in recent years. As BVA’s Immediate Past Executive Director Tom Miller said at least a few times within earshot, “If you look back at some of the old minutes of our meetings, or talk with older veterans, or read our old BVA Bulletins, you may be surprised to learn that although it is on a bit of a different scale, BVA is nonetheless fighting and advocating for essentially the same things that it always has!”

Sam’s observation about the atmosphere at BVA national conventions also holds true for its advocacy on behalf of blinded veterans. The challenges and uphill struggles are much like they always have been.