ZANESVILLE – Jim Sayre grew up in two worlds.
One was designed to make his life easier. The other, anything but. It was the more difficult of the two that helped him thrive, and inspired him to write a book about his life.
Sayre could see when he was born, but never had perfect vision, even as a baby. By the time he started first grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Zanesville, his vision was fading fast. After a month he was placed in a special class with materials adapted for the visually impaired. By the end of the year, he was completely blind.
The only option for Sayre to continue his education was to go to the Columbus School for the Blind. He lost a year of school, and started over in first grade.
“That was OK,” he said, “I think I was a little more mature and a little more able to face what I had to face,” leaving home and the homesickness that followed.
It was then Sayre’s mother Mary made a decision that changed the course of his life.
“My mother had uncommon common sense,” Sayre said. “She figured I should have as much contact with the sighted world and live in the sighted world as much as possible.”
Sayre is 82 now, and looks back on a full life largely made possible by his mother’s decision. He doesn’t know what caused his blindness – the official diagnosed is a pair of detached retinas, which could have been caused by a difficult birth.
He doesn’t remember having sight. “If you say red, I conjure a red, but I have no idea if it is even correct.” He doesn’t remember his parents faces.
Most of Sayre’s classmates spent the entire year at the school, coming home only for Christmas and summer vacations. Sayre came home every weekend, often by himself on a bus.
“You become institutionalized,” he said, of spending most of the year at the blind school, without visiting the outside world. “You learn to function in a world that has been designed to make it easy for you as a blind person. You have braille books, braille signs to tell you where you are and what to do. It is geared to make it convenient for you to be blind.
“You grow up in that environment and then you come out into the sighted world and you have to learn stuff all over again,” Sayre said.
Education of the blind has changed over the years, but back in the 1940s, students were not taught to survive in the sighted world. There were no classes to teach students how to get around with a cane or how to travel alone.
Leaving again on Monday mornings was hard, but his weekends were joyous. He did all of the things his friends did, even learning to ride a bike around his Ashland Avenue neighborhood.
“It was a good neighborhood, probably 20 to 30 kids to play with. It was such a good place to grow up and develop, especially with a disability and having all the support I had in the neighborhood.
“I think the fact my mom brought me home and helped me maintain contact with sighted people helped me adjust a lot better to the sighted world later in life than a lot the people I went to school with,” he said.
As Sayre grew, he learned to use his hearing to help him navigate.
“If you make a noise, the noise bounces off things in front of you so you know it is there. I used to be able to detect a 2-inch bump in the sidewalk, a curb, a telephone pole.”
Sayre used to ride his bike all over his neighborhood and knew exactly when to turn into the sidewalk leading to his front door from the sound echoing off a telephone pole in front of his house. If he missed, he would crash into a thorny bush on either side of the walk. He never missed, although some of his sighted friends did.
When it was time for high school, Sayre came back to Zanesville full time and in 1958 became the first blind student to graduate from Zanesville City Schools. Then it was time for college, and a career.
Sayre enrolled at Ohio State University, majoring in education. He completed his student teaching but was unable to find a job after graduation. Districts didn’t think he would be able to maintain discipline, despite his successful tenure as a student teacher.
His first job out of college was personnel director at Goodwill Industries, where he met his wife, Vicki. They married in 1966, and had a daughter Mary, and three sons, Shawn, Jeff and Steven. Vicki died in 2014, after 47 years of marriage.
After learning of a federal program to train vocation and rehabilitation councilors, the Sayres moved to Knoxville where Sayre got a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee. They then moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where Sayre took a job as a counselor, helping people who had lost their sight adapt to the change. Vicki was often his driver.
To help with homesickness, Sayre cut a record. He still has some copies, his deep country baritone voice belting out a few covers. but mostly original songs. He often sang about Zanesville. He had planned to sell the records at the Zane Trace Commemoration, but the pressing took too long, and didn’t arrive in time.
After seven years in Wisconsin, the Sayre clan packed up and headed back to Zanesville. Sayre worked for 30 years as a counselor for the state organization now known as Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities.
There are ranges of lost vision, Sayre said.
Most people who are legally blind can see some amount, and Sayre estimates only 10% of blind people in the country are totally blind.
“We worked with legally blind and blind people to help them get adjusted to blindness as much as possible,” he said. He taught people how to get around, how to get dressed, how to prepare food and how to live independently, and then skills to help them find employment.
“Computers really opened up the vocational opportunities for the blind,” he said. Before, the blind were trained in tactile crafts, like basket making, or piano tuning.
Sayre is retired now. His house is tidy, decorated with pictures of his family. He has traveled the world, often with his daughter Mary. He hopes his book, yet to find a publisher, is not be viewed as a manual for blindness but as inspiration for those who have lost, or are losing, their sight.
“I have been able to do anything I wanted to,” he said.
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