Josh Shaffer

At 94, blind and deaf, John C. Washington is a true inspiration

John Washington, 94, born deaf and blind, and abandoned as an infant worked for many years as a masseur at the Durham YMCA. Washington laughs as he recounted special moments from his life during an interview at the retirement home in northern Durham County where he lives Wednesday, April 22, 2015.
John Washington, 94, born deaf and blind, and abandoned as an infant worked for many years as a masseur at the Durham YMCA. Washington laughs as he recounted special moments from his life during an interview at the retirement home in northern Durham County where he lives Wednesday, April 22, 2015. cliddy@newsobserver.com

More than anyone I’ve met, John C. Washington deserves the chance to shake his fist at fortune, spit at the heavens and curse every sunrise.

At 94, he describes the circumstances life handed down on day one:

Born blind and nearly deaf, discovered in an alley, his mother dying beside him, black in segregated Durham. He survived being abandoned on a set of railroad tracks, getting whipped by schoolmasters and navigating the world without a set of working eyes.

And now, his hearing totally gone, he celebrates a fate that might have crushed the rest of us, ticking off a list of accomplishments that elude the less-inspired:

Married 55 years. Fathered three children. Worked for decades as a massage therapist at the Durham YMCA. Founded, edited and wrote a column for the nation’s first magazine in Braille.

I asked about all this in his room at a North Durham nursing home, where his daughter Melva pressed my questions into his hand – one sign-language letter at a time. He answered in a voice that came close to shouting but carried the cadences of a preacher.

“I feel,” Washington told me, a smile on his lips, “that if I could see I would not have done the things that I did for my fellow blind. I would be wild ... and rude!”

I met Washington thanks to Charles Finch, a longtime Durham social worker who believes young people need local inspiration – stirring figures who come from their own streets, whose hands they can shake.

“It’s not always this pie in the sky thing: Martin Luther King and Selma bridge,” Finch told me over lunch. “They’re impressive, but they’re not part of your life.”

Washington, who still goes by Johnny, learned quickly that the world in 1921 had little regard for a blind, black orphan. Unclaimed after birth, he got shuttled from hospital to orphanage to the Durham County Home.

“The only playmates I had,” he recalled, “were the old people.”

Life hardly improved when he landed at what is now the Governor Morehead School, where he protested what he said were beatings and field work forced on blind and deaf students, earning himself a reputation for spunk.

“My grades were poor,” Washington recalled. “The superintendent told me that he felt like he ought to bury me even though it was raining. I was a pretty bad boy. I wrote letters to the board and to two governors. I guess they took it out on me at graduation.”

Denied a diploma, John Washington tried his luck in Chicago, where he trained at the Swedish School of Massage.

Rubbing sore tissue had long offered the blind a chance at a career and independence. The first blind masseur dates at least to 8th-century China. But Washington learned his trade on the cab-honking streets of the Windy City, where he stumbled around with his cane, trusting streetcar conductors to deliver him.

“I got lost in Chicago,” he said. “I got lost on the Loop. I used to walk around Lake Michigan, that bridge over the river. I was afraid.”

For me, a middle-age journalist who complains when the Wi-Fi is too slow, who feels forsaken when he breaks a shoelace, Washington would have qualified for a plaque somewhere if his resume had ended here. But his skill with his hands made his disability practically disappear, so much so that his daughter hardly noticed it growing up.

Having married Fannie Ruth Washington, also blind, he wore a buzzer in his shirt pocket to alert him when the doorbell rang. A series of microphones rigged around the house let him listen to any conversation in any room. He kept a radio playing at his table in the downtown YMCA, and later, when he worked out of his home, his patients relaxed between ceiling-high bookshelves that contained his Bible in Braille.

“They all called me ‘Deacon,’” Washington remembered. “I called them all ‘Brother.’ Everyone was happy.”

As to his magazine, founded in 1952, he explains that he was simply filling a need. Women had their own magazine. Jewish readers had theirs. Nobody else was publishing stories especially for blacks who were blind.

Its first title, The Negro Braille Magazine, gave way to the Merrick/Washington Magazine for the Blind, named for its co-founder Lyda Merrick, who also cared for Washington as a boy. The publication continues today.

I could have listened to Washington all day. But he had clearly tired, talking in a voice that could be heard down the hall of his nursing home. His life near the end is peaceful. He reads. He meditates. He prays.

As I left, he recited a piece of the poem he composed upon turning 92. And I’m happy to share the phrases he could recall: “I said that growing old was graceful, and it thrilled me to hear the ladies say, ‘Johnny, you are a sweet man.’ I said that growing old is kind, the way I try to be. I said that growing old is precious, more than silver. I said it was beautiful and dutiful.

“I am proud to be growing old.”

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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