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Jack rolled into my life in the most chaotic of times.  Transition, capital T.  New city, new job, husband in school for new career, two children under the age of 5, baby on the way.  Chaotic.  Hard.  No time to think.  Life is like that some times.  You get up every morning, put one foot in front of the other and never slow down or kids don’t get fed, clothes don’t get washed, deadlines don’t get met.  I get exhausted thinking about that time in my life when I was master of multi-tasking, a robot trying to survive.

That was when Jack rolled into my life.

Jack was on the board of directors of the health planning agency where I was director of communications.  I met him at board meetings, this big, bald-headed, pleasant man.  Someone who stood out in a crowd.  It was precisely because he couldn’t stand that he stood out.  Jack was a quadriplegic who rolled into every meeting with a huge smile on his face, followed by his constant companion Thomas carrying his briefcase.

Later I would learn that Jack had been a regional manager for a major heavy equipment company.  On a business trip in Arizona, he dove into a swimming pool too shallow for diving.  Instant quadriplegia he called it.  Jack could raise one arm, aim it and allow gravity to bring it down.  He also could move it sideways enough to control his electric wheelchair.

Although Jack was not an able-bodied man, he was one of the most able of men I have ever known.  He didn’t just touch my life, he changed my life just as he touched and changed so many others.

I had been working at the health planning agency for a couple years when Jack called me for a favor.  Would I write an article for him?  He was working on a computer project with Texas Instruments and needed an article about the project.  They wanted to submit the project to Johns Hopkins University for a competition on how computers might be used by disabled people.  This was 1981, the beginning of personal computer development.

While Jack’s story intrigued me, I was busy with work deadlines and family responsibilities.  I didn’t have a lot of free time, less than none to be exact.  The other thing was this was 1981.  I knew nothing about computers and I hate to be put into situations where I am so ignorant.  How could I write an article about something I knew nothing about?  For Johns Hopkins University no less.  Somehow I put him off.

But I was about to be Kishpaughed.

Jack Kishpaugh was focused and persistent.  He had a knack for ignoring people’s insecurities and feeble excuses.  He called again.  The deadline was approaching.  Would I be able to write the article?  When you are faced with a physically disabled person overlooking your hesitations and asking if you would be able to do this one little thing that is your forte anyway, you soon run out of excuses.  That was a good example of being Kishpaughed.  He would find your strengths and how you could contribute them in meaningful ways.  He would always start his request with “When you are able, could you…”

I agreed to go over to his apartment to learn more about the whole project.  The door that opened that day was not just the door into Jack’s world.  That door opened a whole new world for me.  TI had equipped Jack’s apartment with all kinds of magic.  He could puff into a straw and turn on and off lights, the radio, the television.  He could say “open” and the door would open.  (Remember, this was 1981, the beginning of the magic that seems so every-day today, the days when Siri was not yet even a twinkle in technologists’ eyes.)  I was speechless and enthralled.  But the article wasn’t going to be about all that magic, it was about the simple computer modification Jack had figured out.  The computer had the potential to be a marvelous tool only if someone could turn the thing on.  Someone with as limited motion as Jack had couldn’t do that with the way the switches were designed.  It was a problem the TI engineers had been struggling with for some time.  Jack came up with a simple, ingenious method of gluing popsicle sticks to the turn-on switch.  He could then position the metal rod attached to his hand over the stick and let gravity help him bring it down onto a switch that wasn’t sleek and pretty, but was quite functional.  He had solved a design problem.  The computer came to life and many doors were opened that day.  I wrote the article and we titled it “Popsicle Sticks and Glue.”

A few weeks later, Jack called to tell me they were finalists in the competition, and they needed a longer, more in-depth article.  Would I be able to write it?  I was ready for him this time.  “Yes, Jack, I’ll write your article, but it’s going to cost you.”  This time he was speechless. This was supposed to be strictly volunteer.  “I can’t pay you,” he said.  “Oh, I don’t want any money,” I told him.  “You are going to teach me to program.”  (I could be somewhat forward and brash myself when necessary.)  He laughed and agreed.

I began going to his apartment once a week in the evenings for my first lessons in Basic programming.  Jack could only be out of bed for six hours a day, so he was flat on his back in bed as I sat at a computer, the early TI-99/4A.  Jack couldn’t even see the screen but he talked me through the lessons.  I would do what he told me and then describe what happened on the screen.  It wasn’t the easiest way to learn.  I didn’t have a computer at home to practice on, so it was all a matter of studying code.  Since I’ve always been drawn to mathematical and logic puzzles, it was a fun challenge.  After a couple lessons, I wanted to surprise him.  I wrote a program to get the computer to play a simple tune.  It was either America, the Beautiful or My Country ‘Tis of Thee in honor of Jack’s military service.  Just the simple melody.  No chords.  One verse.  That’s all I could manage.

Jack was lying in bed and I told him to just be patient, I wanted to try something.  I keyed in the code while he kept asking me how it was going.  Finally, I pressed play or go or start or whatever it was to get the program to begin.  It worked perfectly!  If Jack could have moved, he would have danced me around the apartment, he was so ecstatic.  He laughed and cried and told me how absolutely marvelous and brilliant I was.

That was Jack.  He made so many people feel that way.  I floated out to my car that evening feeling nothing but my brilliance and marvelousness.

That was the beginning of a 20-year deep friendship with a remarkable man.  And, as I said earlier, the door opening for an entirely new career for me.  One that would lead to writing several computer books, a column for a computer magazine, a column in an educational journal for teachers beginning to use computers in their classrooms, and then to several years in educational research.

Jack continued to work voluntarily with TI.  He was more than a tester of their ideas.  He was an innovator with a focused mind.  He envisioned ways that computers could “cut curbs” for disabled people.  Jack was heavily involved in pushing both State and National legislation for better accessibility, so he often used the metaphor of cutting curbs for wheelchair accessibility.  Today, as I write this, it’s common-place for people to work from home, linked to the entire world through their computers. At that time, personal computers were new and linking the world was still science fiction.  But Jack envisioned a world where people with limited mobility (and other disabilities) could simply turn on a computer at home and go to work.

Through his continued and persistent efforts, a 501 C-3 organization was formed and a beautiful training facility was opened in Infomart, a state-of-the art, modern, architectural wonder of a building in Dallas where most of the emerging computer companies had demonstration offices.  He established connections with the State offices of employment and training.  He found ways to get computers into the hands of people with all kinds of disabilities so they could be tested in multiple ways.

Handicapped Person of the Year

One year he was named Handicapped Person of the Year of Texas.  I had to spill the beans or he wouldn’t have gone to the ceremony.  Jack knew his time was limited and made choices accordingly.  This luncheon was not a high priority until we told him he needed to be there because HE was the guest of honor.  I still get tears in my eyes and feel a huge opening of my heart when I think of that luncheon.  The thing I remember most is a song: The Rose by Bette Middler.  As the song played, six deaf interpreters wandered among the tables signing the words in a beautifully choreographed dance of hands.  To see that beautiful song gently spoken by six pairs of graceful hands made an indelible mark on my heart and soul.  I do not hear that song without thinking of Jack and of those signer-singers.

Jack was not all serious and no fun.  His down time was spent watching Laurel and Hardy movies, collecting military insignia, and watching football.  He told me many fun stories about his children, a pony that once wandered through the house, a daughter they lovingly called Mouse because she had a high voice.  He spoke so proudly of his family, and I began to feel I was included. Jack was the encouraging, adoring father figure I needed so badly in my life.  He never failed to lift my spirits.  If there was a living, breathing (I almost said walking) example of unconditional love, Jack was that for me.  He was bigger than life.

Then, one day in October of 1999, I went to see Jack at the VA hospital.  He was in for a tune-up, as he called it.  It was a Thursday afternoon and Leighton and I were leaving for a long weekend away to celebrate our anniversary.  In the course of our visit, Jack told me he thought he had done everything he was supposed to do.  At some level I knew what he was telling me, and I protested.

You could write a book!
No, I couldn’t do that.
Well, you could dictate it and I could write it.

No, he said.  I think I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do.

When I left that day, part of me knew.

He was supposed to be released from the hospital on Monday.  I called on Tuesday to see if he was still there and all I got were vague answers.  Finally, I exploded.  Look, I said, all I want to know is: Is he still there?  Yes.  I left work and went immediately to the hospital.  He had stopped breathing over the weekend and it had been 7 or 8 minutes before they could get breathing tubes hooked up.  I knew he was gone.  Thomas, sweet Thomas, kept saying he knew he would be ok.

The next day his family let him go peacefully just as he would have wanted.

There was nothing left undone with Jack.  No regrets.  And an understanding that, yes, he HAD done everything he was supposed to do.  He lived much longer than anyone expected, and I believe it was because he had a mission to accomplish.  To cut curbs, particularly in the evolving world of technology.

There were some beautiful tributes and obituaries that filled in some details of Jack’s life. But they didn’t tell of his trip back home to Hershey, Pennsylvania.  The trip where he sent me a GIANT Hershey bar – I mean a two-foot long one that arrived special delivery at work one day!  Or the fact that he rolled in to my Ph.D. graduation celebration and celebrated an accomplishment that could be traced back to that Popsicle Sticks and Glue experience.  Or that he once rode my 2-year-old around his apartment on the front of his wheelchair.  Or gave my sons military insignia that we sewed all over a camouflage vest.  Or, out of the blue, sent me a single rose, for no reason at all, about a month before he died.

Or that this man in a wheelchair, who had limited mobility, opened a door for me and practically pushed me through it.

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