Pleasanton Weekly

Column - August 5, 2011

Helping those who can't see

by Jeb Bing

It happened in a split second but when Morgan Watkins' younger brother ran smack into a tree during a family camping trip, life changed for both teenagers. Their parents, who had been off hiking at the time, wondered why their son hadn't seen the tree and decided to take him to a Stanford eye clinic. After the exam, the ophthalmologist asked to check Morgan's eyes, too, confirming his diagnosis that both boys were suffering from retinal sytosis, a genetic disorder passed down to males with no known medical procedure to prevent its progression toward eventual blindness.

Watkins, in town to promote Guide Dogs for the Blind, where he's both a board member and acting president, said that true to the doctor's prediction, his eyesight slowly started fading. Thanks to Bob Wright, who reported on Watkin's comments in his newsletter commentary for the Rotary Club of Pleasanton, where Watkins spoke, we learned that Watkins was able to drive into his early 20s, but night blindness came first, limiting driving to daytime hours. When he was in college, he usually was accompanied by friends so getting around at night wasn't much of a problem. But sneaking out on his own, especially to visit a girlfriend in the nearby women's dorm, became more difficult so he did what many sight-handicapped folks do and acquired a white cane. Tapping his way along familiar sidewalks, he was able to make the dorm trip frequently without help from "friends" who seemed always too eager to join him on these particular excursions. Still, while Watkins found the well-known white cane helpful in taping his way around, he also said that using a cane is "vision by collision."

Watkins, who retired in 2008 from a 30-year career with the University of Texas at Austin, said that his "epiphany" came during a business trip to San Francisco. After a meeting, he started crossing Market Street to return to his hotel on a busy afternoon. He found the curb with his cane, waited for the traffic sounds to indicate when he could cross safely and started walking. Unfortunately, a woman crossing from the other direction came too close and ran her legs and shoe into his cane. He pulled the cane free of the shoe, she kept walking and the cane went flying. There he was, no "visual" (the white cane) to show he couldn't see while standing in the middle of Market Street with cars and streetcars passing in both directions. Fortunately, someone retrieved his cane and he reached his hotel, but only after realizing there must be a better way.

Watkins had heard of Guide Dogs for the Blind and quickly made arrangements to seek a four-legged companion. Accepted into the program, he underwent training and returned home to Austin with his first dog, Phantom. His son, picking him up at the airport, remarked that his father looked safe and unafraid. And that was true. "With a cane you advertise you are blind and vulnerable, but with a large dog you are perceived as protected," he told the Rotary club.

He said Guide Dogs for the Blind was started in 1942 by Lois Maryhugh in Los Gatos as a service to returning blind War War II veterans on the West Coast. The program moved to San Rafael in 1947 and has placed 13,000 dogs to date. Even lacking government backing, the organization provides the best trained dogs at no cost to the blind recipient. The service includes providing the harness, personal training and replacement of a dog for life. The dogs are trained on site in San Rafael or Bering, Ore., from birth. They learn such commands as "elevator, escalator, stairs, doorways," to name a few. On average, 300 guide dogs are trained each year.

Accompanying Morgan at the Rotary meeting was a beautiful 83-pound Golden Retriever named Will, his second dog since Phantom. With him and driving was his assistant, Susi Cherry, a retired breeding volunteer at Guide Dogs for the Blind.

While there are many great causes worthy of charitable donations, few can immediately change a life or continue to have an impact throughout a lifetime as Guide Dogs for the Blind. Besides supporting the school, contributions also enable the organization to keep its promise to each of the more than 2,000 blind men and women who are alumni. The services offered are free of charge and provided without any government aid. Donations are tax deductible and can be sent to Guide Dogs for the Blind, P.O. Box 3950, San Rafael, CA 94912-3950. For more information or for tours of the San Rafael facility, call 800-295-4050 or email information@guidedogs.com.

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