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Remarkable People, Despite the Odds

Matt Schudel

Occasionally, surprising coincidences occur in obituaries, and today The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have a rare convergence of three stories about people who were blind or had limited eyesight.

Joe Holley has a heartwarming Local Life feature in The Post about John "Buck" Buckley, a star high school and semipro football player in D.C. who was drafted by the Washington Redskins despite having very restricted vision. Buckley became a fixture in his D.C. neighborhood, coaching youth football teams.

The Post also has an obituary of Harold Snider, who was blind and became a key figure in promoting the rights of the disabled.

He helped draft Americans With Disabilities Act and was the first blind employee of the Smithsonian Institution, where he developed materials and programs to deepen the museum-going experience for the blind and visually impaired. The obituary was written by T. Rees Shapiro, by the way, who is the son of the recently retired Leonard Shapiro, the Post's longtime golf writer.

Also today, the Los Angeles Times has a fascinating story about Samuel M. Genensky, a mathematician and inventor who developed many devices to aid people, like himself, with limited vision. He developed a closed circuit television monitor that magnified images and is the person responsible for developing the triangle and circle symbols to represent men's and women's public restrooms, respectively.

People often ask me who was the most remarkable person I've ever written about. I think they expect me to say it was some political figure, a major artist or movie star. But I always come back to an obituary I wrote almost five years ago about a mid-level Labor Department policy analyst named David Gregal.

His job, however, was the least of his achievements. Blind from an early age, Gregal became a master mechanic and routinely worked on his neighbors' cars. As I wrote in 2004:
"Mr. Gregal's garage was full of tools, including power saws, drills and ramps for hoisting cars. He relied on his extraordinary hearing, spatial awareness and a sense of touch so refined that he could tell the size of a bolt just by holding it in his hand.

"Another friend and former colleague, Leon A. Schertler, once saw Mr. Gregal working on a Volkswagen, with every part lying on his driveway.

" 'Two days later,' Schertler recalled, 'it was running.' "

Gregal taught his sons how to drive and occasionally drove cars himself in empty parking lots and once repaired the motor on a friend's sailboat -- on the water, in a hurricane at 1 a.m.: " 'Dave went down in the engine room,' Schertler said. 'It was dark, but of course that didn't bother Dave.' "

Here's a bit more from the obit: "He repaired his neighbors' burst water pipes, clogged toilets and burned-out toasters. He once replaced the oil furnace in his house, putting in all the electrical and gas lines himself. He somehow managed to get the old oil heater out of the basement -- his wife still isn't sure how -- and cut it into pieces with an acetylene torch to sell for scrap."

So, yes, it's nice to write the occasional obituary of the famous and the powerful, but in many ways, for me at least, it's often more gratifying to illuminate the lives of the little-known but remarkable people in our midst.

By Matt Schudel |  July 12, 2009; 11:53 AM ET  | Category:  Matt Schudel
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