by Allen Casey
A century has passed since his birth, more than two decades since his death, and fewer of us have personal memories of Durward K. McDaniel, the father of ACB. Who was this tall, quick-witted, persistent, erudite lawyer from Cross County, Okla.? Who was this man affectionately dubbed “The General?” Who was this man variously characterized as an organizer, leader, advocate, motivator and mentor? Who was this man who labored for more than 50 of his 78 years to protect the rights and improve the lives not only of the blind and visually impaired but also the lives of all people with disabilities?
In “People of Vision,” the late Marjorie Megivern offers an answer to these questions: Durward McDaniel “. . . was the heart and soul of this organization (ACB). His special genius was to help build an organization that was strong and effective and able to carry on without his guidance.” The end product, according to Megivern, was an organization “. . . not about one individual but about all the blind people in America who participate in Council efforts to lift up and enable their lives.” Those who knew Durward well, who worked with him to build an organization committed to dignity and opportunity, offer similar assessments of the man and his life’s work.
Cathie Skivers, who knew Durward almost as long as anyone in ACB, was present at the organizational meeting in Kansas City’s Aladdin Hotel in July 1961. Cathie attributes her years of service to ACB and CCB to Durward’s encouragement and his reluctance to accept a negative response to a request for help. “When you talked to that man,” she recalls, “you had to be careful because you didn’t know what he would talk you into.” She credits the survival of ACB in its early years to Durward’s selfless commitment and his ability to motivate others. Similar memories came from longtime Pennsylvania Council of the Blind executive director John Horst, who cites Durward’s membership development skills and the members’ loyalty to him and to ACB in its early years.
Anyone with a special interest – sports, for example – was a potential target for Durward’s efforts to promote ACB. Oral Miller, a past president of ACB and Durward’s successor as national representative, discovered that his interest in bowling opened a door for Durward. The result was an invitation for Oral to speak to the 1969 national convention in Charlotte on behalf of the American Blind Bowling Association (ABBA). As fellow attorneys, Oral and Durward shared a passion for legislation affecting the blind and visually impaired. As much as Durward loved to create nicknames for others, Oral returned the favor by calling the only person named Durward that he had met, the “Honorable Dogwood.”
Durward’s penchant for nicknames also extended to words of wisdom intended to instruct and motivate. In response to criticism from another blindness organization, Durward replied simply: “Don’t take the bait.” He truly believed that only ACB and its mission mattered. Roger Petersen, a member of numerous ACB committees through the years, cites one of Durward’s favorite sayings: “Liberal about what we don’t have and conservative about what we do have.” A recipient of one of his nicknames was Bernice Kandarian, a founding member of the Council of Citizens with Low Vision International (CCLVI), who earned the name “Kan-do-darian” for her volunteer work in the national office and on the resolutions committee.
Among Durward’s strengths was his commitment to bringing younger members into ACB. He reached out to vendors and students who responded to his call and became leaders in ACB, including inter alia Ed “Doc” Bradley, Carla Ruschival, Chris Gray and Marlaina Lieberg. Their impact was felt at the local, state and national levels.
Ed Bradley, himself an Oklahoma native and later president of ACB of Texas, was a young vendor when he met Durward. Thus began a long and sometimes challenging friendship, as Ed’s frequent questioning prompted Durward to refer to him as “one of his young upstarts.” Ed recalls Durward’s role in organizing the National Education and Legal Defense Service (NELDS), Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America (RSVA), the blind students with Ed as the first president, ACB of Texas and a credit union serving the blind (LASS FCU). “He would help you,” Ed remembers, “whether or not he agreed with you. But he would do his best to change your mind.”
Currently ACB treasurer, Carla Ruschival was a recent high school graduate when she first met Durward at the 1965 Louisville national convention. He “had time for any blind person” who wanted to talk with him, but you soon learned that he did not “take NO for an answer.” When Durward visited Kentucky to re-establish a state affiliate, he asked Carla to join. She responded that she would when he recruited 100 members. At an organizational meeting a short time later, he informed her that the new Kentucky affiliate had 107 members. “Now Carla,” Durward intoned in his deliberate way, “where are your dues?” As Carla recounts today, “He lived to recruit.”
Chris Gray was struck immediately upon meeting Durward by his “compelling presence.” A past president of ACB, Chris journeyed in 1976 from Washington state to that other Washington on the Potomac to work as a volunteer student intern in the national office. He saw in Durward the poise and charm necessary to gain and hold the attention of others and the determination to push forward until achieving the objectives he believed vital to ACB and its mission. Durward’s view of the world around him was one of breadth and inclusion. He developed a strong interest in civil rights, leading ACB to become the first disability group to join the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. He likewise was committed to protecting the rights of Native Americans. Chris remembers well Durward’s example and admonition to his fellow advocates that they remain positive.
Former ACB second vice president and secretary Marlaina Lieberg met Durward through the Blind Leadership Club of Boston. Durward, she recalls, “believed in blind people.” He advocated a “global view of the blindness community,” one which was “inclusive of all persons without regard to a specific orientation, interest or background.” This global view, Marlaina asserts, is characteristic of ACB today. Durward was a soft-spoken man who “exuded tireless energy, working constantly for the rights of blind and low-vision people.” While he is correctly regarded as an icon, he is more importantly remembered as the father of ACB.
One final tribute is due not to Durward, but to his wife and partner, Aileen. The consensus is unquestioned that Aileen was the unseen power behind the throne. Without her steadfast support, could he have accomplished all that he did?
This is but a glimpse of Durward K. McDaniel, an all too brief collection of memories shared by a few of his fellow advocates. He was an accomplished political strategist who did not permit negative odds to spoil his vision for ACB. He survived the trials and tribulations of local, state and national politics. He was an icon, and he was the “heart and soul” of an organization committed to protecting and advancing the rights and interests of all people with disabilities. Perhaps Roger Petersen has given us the most succinct summation of Durward: “He was the best source of information about blind people before Facebook.”
(Note: Appreciation for assistance in preparing this article and the companion timeline is extended to Ed Bradley, Melanie Brunson, Chris Gray, John Horst, Bernice Kandarian, Sarita Kimble, Marlaina Lieberg, Oral Miller, Roger Petersen, Carla Ruschival, Cathie Skivers and the University of Oklahoma Alumni Association. Additional resources: Megivern and Megivern, “People of Vision”; “The Oklahoman,” Sept. 8, 1994; “The Washington Post,” Sept. 9, 1994; Hall of Fame: Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field.)