by Oral O. Miller
In view of Dr. Bud Keith's interest in participating in sports before graduating from the Maryland School for the Blind in 1958 and American University in 1962, it should not come as a surprise that I met him for the first time (he was then known as Buddy) in a bowling alley. He was demonstrating the use of the bowling guide rail to inexperienced blind bowlers who were forming a bowling league in Washington, D.C., many of whom were at least twice his age. That dedication and leadership skill motivated him thereafter for more than 40 years as he obtained his master's degree in special education from Syracuse University in 1965 and his Ph.D. in special education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1976, served in the Peace Corps in the late 1960s in Panama as a teacher and developer of programs for blind children, served as a founder and later president of Ski for Light International from 1981 to 1988 and 1994 to 1996, and excelled as an equal opportunity specialist in the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 1974 until his medical retirement in 1996 due to prostate cancer. Please do not conclude that his dedication, conviction, drive, concern for other blind and visually impaired people, and determination as an advocate waned at all as he heroically fought the cancer before passing away in Arlington, Va., on June 14, 2008.
The somewhat unusual title of this memorial article summarizes the maturing of Bud Keith (to whom I usually referred as "Dr. Bud" because of my penchant for giving friends nicknames) from that 11-year-old little boy who was blinded when a playmate hit him in the eye with a nail to the community and international advocate who was honored in 1991 by the king of Norway, who recognized him as a tireless champion of sports and recreation for the handicapped. When he left Panama to return to the USA, he vowed to maintain the cooperative spirit and camaraderie of his Peace Corps colleagues and to that end he initiated an annual Panama alumni newsletter, which he edited for the next 43 years. During those years his colleagues freely described him as "the glue holding their organization together." In his honor, those Peace Corps alumni have set up a scholarship in Bud's name; several have already been awarded to blind students in Panama.
His interest in ten-pin bowling flourished following his return from the Peace Corps in the late 1960s and during the next 25 years he and his teammates won countless national championships. He and I as teammates often joked as to which of us was the inspiration for the name of our championship team, the "Over the Hill Gang." His interest in the Ski for Light program took off like a rocket when that program was introduced by the Lions Clubs and the Sons of Norway in 1975. Within two years he had established essential contacts and working relations in Norway and other involved nations. In 1981 he led a delegation of Ski for Light participants from the USA to Beitostolen, Norway, to take part in the 25-kilometer cross-country ski competition which had served as the model for the Ski for Light program in the USA -- and all of us completed the 25-kilometer event. Although he was physically unable to ski in the 2008 Ski for Light event held in Oregon, his presence and participation in non-skiing events celebrated his participation in all 34 of the annual international events conducted since the establishment of the program. During a recent interview with "The Washington Post," Bud Keith explained that too many blind people are out of shape and in need of the assistance of outdoor sports. He defined himself as "physical independence as well as a dash of mischief and irascibility," while saying with a smile that he "never much liked guide dogs, except as an excuse to meet women." During the 1980s he was one of 10 disabled adults chosen to scale Mt. Rainier in celebration of the United Nations Year of Disabled Persons. Altitude sickness prevented him from completing the climb that year and very dangerous weather prevented him from completing the climb the next year.
During a white-water rafting trip later in the 1980s, Dr. Bud and another blind paddler in his four-person raft shocked everyone else by successfully maneuvering through a set of dangerous and extremely rough double-hydraulic rapids without the assistance of the two sighted paddlers who were thrown from their raft by the turbid waters. Dr. Bud was also a devotee of bluegrass and folk music, and on several occasions led small delegations to several of the many festivals that take place in the middle Atlantic states each year.
Dr. Bud Keith served as the first president and thereafter an active member of the ACB Federal Employees (now ACB Government Employees) organization as well as a long-time member of the Old Dominion Council of the Blind, serving as treasurer of the Northern Virginia chapter for the past 20 years. The quality and popularity of the chapter's annual Christmas party and dinner attested to his careful planning, publicity, attention to detail and selection of outstanding musicians. He was an effective and outspoken advocate on many relevant issues in his community -- accessible transportation, pedestrian safety, job testing and educational opportunities. It was his initiative and advocacy that led to the adoption of ACB's no-smoking rule during plenary national convention sessions. During an ACB convention sing-along in the 1980s he met a genteel lady from Mississippi by way of England and, following what she described as their "13-year whirlwind courtship," he married Billie Jean Hill in 1996. Four years later, Bud received ACB's George Card Award, which is given to an individual who has dedicated his or her life to work with and for blind people, making a real difference and improving quality of life, for providing leadership and being a positive role model.
In his unpublished autobiography, Dr. Bud Keith summarized part of his philosophy as follows: "Although I've been totally blind for 57 years, being blind has not been the foremost aspect of my life. Once blindness was accepted as a part of my total reality, my focus was to do what I wanted to do, and take the steps that would most quickly and effectively make that happen. Of course, being blind certainly had to be considered, but I've never automatically discarded any desire by first saying or thinking that I couldn't do it because of being blind. Perhaps in a few cases that turned out to be the case, but it sure as hell wasn't the starting point. ... Every so often I wonder how different things might have been if I had seen, but of course that can't be known. ... I wonder if I could have become a well-known athlete; in my mind's eye I have been able to make every woman of whom I became fond the most beautiful woman in the world; I wonder if I would have appreciated my life so much without the human interaction that blindness has facilitated. Would I have met and had personal audiences with two different kings of Norway? Would I have had a four-way conversation with the queen of Norway, the prime minister of Iceland and Thor Heyerdahl? ... Would I have made so many friends or would that lonely and socially inappropriate little boy that was accidentally blinded have become a lonely, socially inappropriate sighted adult?"