Bud Keith--The Blind Man Who Opened My Eyes
When I traveled to Tucson in the fall of 1965 for 11 weeks of Peace Corps training, I was excited about becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. In the mid-1960s, the Peace Corps was very popular, and I expected to be challenged. Only one of six applicants was accepted for training, and training camp would eliminate one third of those. I anticipated my group, Panama 8, would be a highly select group of people, and was both grateful and humbled to have made it this far.
I was amazed to discover one of the 57 Peace Corps trainees was totally blind. How could he possibly handle the rigors of training, let alone the challenges of living in a foreign country with a different language and culture?
It took only a few weeks to dispel any notion that Bud Keith was not up to the task. Bud had already faced many challenges since he lost his sight in a playground accident in the sixth grade. He had earned a BA in public relations, and a master’s degree in special education. He seemed undaunted by what lay before him.
Bud had to meet the same standards as the rest of us trainees. He was not cut any slack, but a few accommodations were made when necessary. During Physical Education, if the rest of us had to do push-ups or jumping jacks, so did he. If we had to run a quarter mile, he did also. He just held on to the elbow of one of us as he ran.
Bud was assigned to Panama City to work in the Helen Keller School for the Blind. Before I moved to Monagrillo, near Chitre, for the rest of my tour, I spent my first six months in Panama City as a national cooperative extension agent. I would often see Bud exploring the city, waiting for a bus or walking along a busy sidewalk, tapping with his cane. Sidewalks were sometimes rough and there was an occasional open manhole. Safety was always an issue, but this didn’t stop Bud.
Being friends with Bud changed my thinking. It took me quite a while to get to use to hearing Bud use phrases like “I saw a good movie yesterday.” I would think, how did he “see” it? I was the sighted one, but as he described the movie, I realized he got more meaning from the movie than I might have sitting beside him.
During our final week of processing out, Bud made a proposal to our group of 35. Every December we could send him a letter describing what we were up to, along with $5. Bud would copy all the letters, collate and staple them together, and send us the bundle. Each year about Christmas time for more than 40 years we got a packet of letters. It was only as he was dying of prostate cancer in 2008 that he finally turned over the mantle to another member of Panama 8, Ken Knight, who has continued the practice.
In addition to the yearly newsletters, we have had several reunions. Many members of our group get together almost yearly. While many returned PCVs can locate only a few members of their group, I think we have lost touch with only two. That’s a remarkable achievement since our tour ended 45 years ago, and it’s all due to Bud.
After returning to the states, Bud earned his doctorate in special education and became a senior official with the Department of Health and Human Services. He helped organize Ski for Light, an international program for blind cross country skiers, and served as its president for several years. He was the only person with a perfect attendance for every Ski for Light International event from 1975 to 2008. Bud was honored for his work with Ski for Light at the Norwegian Embassy in 1991, where the Ambassador described him as a “tireless champion of sports and recreation for the handicapped.”
In addition to his work with Ski For Light International, he was president of the Peace Corps Panama Friends for 16 years, and on the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association from 1988 to 1991.
It’s easy to list Bud’s accomplishments, and there are many that I haven’t listed. However, I remember Bud most for his love of life. He loved traveling and journeyed to a wide variety of countries. He returned to Panama 6 times. He visited Norway almost every year in connection with Ski For Light. Bud was always good for several stories or jokes, and he liked good restaurants and parties. At Group 8 reunions, he was always a central figure.
In writing about his Peace Corps experience, Bud said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that I gained far more from my experience in Panama than I gave to Panama. There is also no doubt in my mind that I would never have cared so much about the quality of my life and that of those around me without the Peace Corps experience. Deep inside me is the underlying certainty that each of us can make this a better world. Living with the extreme of wealth and poverty has shown me how the human spirit can accept reality and see hope in it from almost any level.”
Jack Buege served in the United States Peace Corps from 1965 to 1967. This story was published in Peace Corps in Panama: Fifty Years, Many Voices and is provided to the Patronato Luz Del Ciego with permission of the author.