The last time Franklin Tucker saw anything was in August, 1942, when he watched his brothers play checkers before going to bed one night.
Although his vision had always been poor--glaucoma had been diagnosed at age 1--Tucker, who was 9 at the time, could see his brothers' shadows on the walls and an old-fashioned lamp that lit the room.
An early riser, he woke up the next morning feeling the heat of the sun and hearing the whistling of the birds. But it was dark. He had gone blind.
Tucker, now the chairman of the West San Gabriel Valley Mayors' Committee for Employment of the Handicapped, remembers that morning in Baltimore and the despair that accompanied it.
"I didn't cry that morning," Tucker, 53, said. "It took two weeks for that. I knew for a fact that I never could see again. I tried to hide by listening to the radio. I listened all the way till night. That was my refuge."
One day, about two years after going blind, Tucker heard children laughing as they played outside. Missing the fun he had once enjoyed, he decided to emerge from his refuge. He stopped hiding and rejoined the world.
"I knew I had to concentrate on living and getting on with life," he said. "I began playing again and not isolating myself."
Tucker eventually got a college degree in counseling so he could help others.
'Only Hope' Was College
"There are very few things a blind person can do," he said. "There was even less for a blind and black person to do. College was my only hope."
Four years ago, Tucker again stood face to face with despair when he found himself jobless and unable to get work in his field.
"I've interviewed more than a dozen times," Tucker said, shaking his head. "I am trying all the schools and colleges, the private and the public educational institutions. I made every effort to find a job and I'm still trying."
It is as hard for a highly skilled professional person to find work as it is for a person who has few
skills, said Allana Puente, a counselor for the state Department of Rehabilitation office in El Monte, who also works with Tucker on the mayor's committee.
"His skills are not at high demand," Puente said. "It's a common phenomenon. The person in the middle of the road is easier to place."
Calling his unemployment "a paradox in my life," Tucker said it has served as a catalyst in motivating him to help others in his predicament.
Since he lost his job, Tucker has focused his attention on the committee, which has about 300 members who strive to find jobs for the disabled.
The committee, which was formed in 1952, works with the state Department of Rehabilitation, the state Employment Development Department and other public and private agencies such as the Braille Institute and Goodwill Industries.
Meetings With Employers
The organization, which serves 10 San Gabriel Valley communities, schedules meetings, luncheons and workshops where representatives of the agencies meet with private employers, such as Southern California Edison Co., Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Security Pacific Bank and Bank of America, said Jack L. Rugh, an adviser to the committee.
There are about 36,000 disabled people in the area, Rugh said.
"A sort of partnership is formed that isn't formal," Puente said. "In an indirect way, it is a resource where we learn about employment opportunities and pass it along to our clients."
In working with the disabled, Tucker calls on his own experience, both as a blind man and as one who cannot find a job.
Feeling of Rejection
"When disabled people do not work, they don't feel as if they are part of the community," Tucker said. "You feel as if people see you as a reject and not an equal part of society."
Tucker said he decided to go to college after a black, blind friend with a degree got a state job teaching the disabled.
"If you don't want to go on welfare or (make) cane chairs, you've got to go to college," Tucker said.
He attended Morgan College in Baltimore, where he majored in psychology. He earned his master's degree in education and counseling at the University of Iowa, which had a special program for rehabilitation counselors.
But even with an advanced degree, it took a year and 75 rejection letters before he finally got a job in Virginia, teaching the disabled in their homes. There, he met and married his wife, Shirley.
They moved to Oakland in 1968 where Tucker took a job with the state as a rehabilitation counselor.
Tucker left that job in 1971 and enrolled in UCLA, where he earned a law degree in 1974. But despite three attempts, he did not pass the bar.
He went back to work as a counselor and taught adult education classes until 1982, when the grants that funded the programs ran out.
Began Volunteer Work
It was then that Tucker plunged into volunteer work with the mayor's committee, relying on Social Security benefits for the disabled and income from his wife's job as a clerk.
Tucker is frequently praised for his tireless service on the committee.
"Employment for the disabled is a goal that is seemingly difficult," Puente said. "It is so much easier to say, 'Why bother?' He inspires us to bother, to come to the meetings, to keep informed," she said.
"He's a motivator," said Jim Agpalsa, an employee services representative for the Edison company. "He's got a goal to get people informed, and he makes one heck of an effort to make contact with agencies and private employers."
Tucker's term as chairman of the committee will end in December and he plans to serve as one of its advisers after that.
He also will continue volunteering at the Christian Fellowship for the Blind in South Pasadena, where he is associate director.
Puente said Tucker's enthusiasm is an inspiration to the disabled.
"He's not the type to get on a soapbox where he pounds around," Puente said. "He's just a gentle man with patience galore."