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Blinded By Acid, Now He Gives Sight To Others

In Charles Kearney's new line of homemade greeting cards, he writes of building a "fortress of love" for an unnamed woman: "I would build my world around you." And he asks, "If I gave you flowers, could I have your smile forever?"

Kearney, a gentle giant of a man, is brimming with love poems, entrepreneurial ideas and technical know-how. He walks slowly along the city's streets, guided by a blind man's cane, disfigured by a vicious crime, and although you cannot see it, his mind is racing, singing his songs of passion and romance and, always, hope.

"Why wasn't I allowed to die?" he wondered for so many months.

But that was then. Now, he's too busy to permit such wondering. He produces "A Touch of Love" greeting cards, composes songs, writes stories. Nobody pays him, but he spends long days teaching blind patrons at the District's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library how to use computers.

"What's a file?" they'll ask. And Kearney, 45, will take a piece of paper, "and I let them touch it, and I say, 'This is a file,' and they get the concept. And then we talk about using the clipboard, and I hand them an actual clipboard. I put a visual image in their mind."

October 1992: Kearney, home after service in the Marines, was working days at a liquor store at 18th and T streets NW, spending nights as a DJ at a club called Secrets. Walking home from the store, he stopped at a McDonald's after spotting a twofer deal on Big Macs. When he turned the corner at Fourth and W, he saw some guys hanging. He knew who they were, the corner dealers. Was he looking, they asked.

"No, I'm all right."

"The [expletive] you mean -- everybody who passes us buys something," came the retort.

Suddenly, Kearney was being hit. He twisted away, but two blocks later the men reappeared. Two had guns. One carried a bucket and a broomstick.

"I couldn't figure out what the bucket was," Kearney recalls. And then the contents of the bucket were splashed at him, onto his face.

Next thing he knew, somebody had called an ambulance. Kearney heard himself telling the EMTs to pull his dog tags off, over his head, and the technician said, "No, we can't, 'cause your face is melting."

It was battery acid. It destroyed his corneas, ate away parts of his nose and ear, scarred much of his face. He spent months in the hospital and months more in a group home. He lost his singing voice, the one that used to slip so easily into a Stylistics kind of falsetto, perfect for the ballads he wrote.

He was despondent. Suicidal. Raging. And then he started to find pieces of his old self. His music. His lyrics. A late-night TV preacher spoke to him about walking by faith and not by sight. He decided he had to forgive his attackers. He never knew their names. It took him more than a year.

"There's something to see," Kearney decided.

"I just keep doing things to keep from being depressed," he says. "Imagination is what got me through this blindness."

Over the next decade, emerging from his rage, he went back to school and started writing poetry again. Not long ago, he was homeless for a few months, until he found a $146-a-month apartment, which he can afford on his Social Security disability checks. It's in a rough section of Southeast. "My sighted friends won't come around there," he says, "and my blind friends come until other people hear about it -- 'You went where?!' But I have my food and I have my apartment."

And he has his son, James, 17, from a long-ago relationship. James came to live with his father a couple of years ago, and Kearney helped him turn around some troubles; the son graduated from Anacostia High this spring and was accepted at a college in Texas.

Kearney continues to search for a training program that would allow him to work as an audio engineer. "But my counselor [at the D.C. Rehabilitation Services Administration] told me that because of my disfigurement, I'm pretty much too ugly to work in audio engineering. But I have no desire to work up front; I want to be the engineer behind the scenes."

So he spends a lot of time at the library, where he started hanging out after teaching himself to use a computer. He decided that "just as a sighted person could come to the library and learn to read, a blind person should be able to come and learn to use the computer."

"Charles is a sweet guy searching to make a difference in ways that [are]open to him," says Mary Jane Owen, who met Kearney at the library and for many years ran the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities. Having regained sight after three decades of blindness, Owen says, "My brain doesn't always 'get' what my one good eye sees. So possibly I'm not the best judge of how he looks. But he seemed a handsome man to me."

At 6-foot-6, Kearney is a presence you remember. He was a Marvel Comics buff as a kid, so when the third "X-Men" film came out last summer, he made his way to Gallery Place to listen to the movie. A week later, a woman at a bus stop on Minnesota Avenue NE started talking to Kearney. The woman said her girlfriend had come over to the house, shouting with righteous glee: "I told you! I knew that blind man was faking it. Girlfriend, I was at the movies waiting for 'X-Men,' and you know who came and sat down in front of me? That blind man."

Kearney laughs at the retelling. The story reminds him of classes he took at Catholic University, where he "learned to look at things from other people's perspectives." Being blind, he says, has made him more open-minded and more cognizant of most people's inability to express their emotions.

He writes greeting cards in hopes that his messages of love and devotion will help someone tell another person what they really mean. And he writes because he has more passion than he knows what to do with.

"Here I am always writing love cards, but I'm always striking out," he says. He's been engaged four times, once since the attack. "I have a lot of friends, but I'd like to be in a relationship. I call my stories and songs my women. I say, 'I'm making a woman, and she does everything I want her to do,' " and he laughs again.

"I don't know," Kearney says. "I may get a lucky break."

By Marc Fisher |  July 29, 2007; 9:07 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Very inspiring- hats off to Mr. Kearney for his perseverance, service to others, and role as a parent. It is clear he has much to be proud of.

Posted by: Howard County | July 29, 2007 10:45 AM

I have nothing but respect for Mr. Kearney and I wish there was a bounty on people such as the ones who attacked him. I see them hanging in most cities and nothing is ever done about them.

Posted by: J. Wheeler | July 29, 2007 12:22 PM

Another reason for killing corner boys. Where are the death squads when you need them. We need a real a Charles Bronson.

Washington is such a lovely place. After reading today's paper, I guess DC, with the exception of the well policed, opulent areas of NW, can be put in the same category as Detroit, Newark, etc.

Posted by: Michael1945 | July 29, 2007 12:51 PM

Hats off to Monsieur Kearney. We need more angels like you on terra firma. God bless you and your son. From Bangalore India.

Posted by: s.divakaran | July 29, 2007 1:53 PM

Congratulations to Mr. Kearney for finding the courage to forgive your attackers, and to choose to find meaning in your life rather than looking backwards. You are the true definition of a hero.

Posted by: Steve | July 29, 2007 4:46 PM

What a loser.

Posted by: FridayKnight | July 29, 2007 5:22 PM

Well, we all know who the real loser is don't we: "Friday Knight" or whatever his real name is.

Posted by: BR in dc | July 29, 2007 6:57 PM

That's right Michael1945. It is too bad those crazy snipers failed to focus only on killing these corner guys. No one would have cared too much.

Posted by: johng | July 30, 2007 12:00 AM

Wow. Just, wow. If you're reading this, Mr. Kearney, realize that you're a total and complete badass. Keep it up.

Posted by: Keith | July 30, 2007 1:06 AM

Marc, this is a lovely piece. No one is better than you at telling stories about the struggles and triumphs of the real people whose lives unfold around us. Such lovely, simple phrases that carry so much meaning.

There are many, but the one that brought tears to my eyes was ". . . Kearney helped him turn around some troubles". That covers a lot of territory, and I'm sure there was a lot of territory to be covered. That you were able to convey that idea so simply is really wonderful.

And, given all the things you've said about him, I expect that Mr. Kearney helped his son in all the big and small ways---protecting, providing, pushing---that a young man needs to find and move forward on a better path.

Please tell Mr. Kearney that he has my deepest respect. And perhaps you could remind of this line: And, in the end, the love you take/ Is equal to the love you make.

Given his many kindnesses, his own hopes for love will likely someday be fulfulled.

Posted by: Jan | July 30, 2007 4:07 AM

The drug dealers should be found and tortured. But you can't find them. So pick up ANY drug dealers and torture them. That is justice.

Posted by: Joe | July 30, 2007 9:19 PM

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Posted by: mwplvuhzbt | August 26, 2007 12:59 PM

When I first read your piece I was moved to tears that there is someone as forgiving and strong as Charles Kearney. Obviously he has never stopped caring for others. Today I decided to read comments that might have been made about various of your columns and I was shocked at the "FridayKnight" comment. One wonders what's wrong with that individual's sense of reality. Thank you for your views of the realities of living in DC. You write with humanity and insight. This piece on Mr. Kearney was truly a winner.

Posted by: Mac | August 28, 2007 6:02 PM

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