Gary Ted Montague grew up in eastern New Mexico in the early part of the last century, helping his family on the farm, going to school, and playing games with his twin sister. However, it soon became apparent that his inability to catch a ball or keep up in school was due to a severe vision deficiency. When he was 8 years old, his mother made the difficult decision to send him to the New Mexico School for the Blind in Alamogordo, a boarding school an all-night train ride away from home. After a life that included earning a degree in education, marriage, and a long career at Sandia National Laboratories, Gary and his wife, Elaine, wrote Victory from the Shadows, a book about his experiences.
In the introduction to the book, Elaine prompts Gary to write his life story. Elaine, why did you think it needed to be written?
For 50 years, I wanted to tell his story because I thought it fascinating and inspiring, with experiences so different from mine. The tale would encourage others not to give up but to be creative in meeting challenges. A person is best defined by attributes like courage and resilience, not by physical characteristics like being cross-eyed. There are many ways to succeed in life. Gary’s story represents the personal strength, optimism, and perseverance of the human spirit which we all can emulate.
Gary, you grew up on a ranch in eastern New Mexico and worked with your family despite your limited vision. What types of chores did you have and what adaptations did you use in order to avoid injury?
I fed cows, pigs, chickens, scooped and shoveled chicken houses and barns, herded animals from one penned area to another, and hooked up cows to a milking machine. I had to know what to do, how, and when to do it. For watering animals when I was young, I had a small trike with two 2-gallon cans to hold water. I stacked lumber, placing a project Dad had done on a workbench. I put materials in proper order to be nailed or painted. I made my bed, swept and scrubbed linoleum floors. Adaptations: I used a handsaw instead of power. I used a post-hole digger I could turn instead of the shovel type, which had to be lifted and opened and closed with handles. Inside the barns and chicken houses, I used a flat scoop shovel rather than a round pointed shovel which could damage flooring and cut into a wall if I missed. I stored items so I could find them quickly and get them to Dad without costing him time.
Gary, you lived at the New Mexico School for the Blind from the time you were 8 until you graduated. What skills did you learn that helped prepare you for adult life?
How to listen, organize information, and share information with others.
When you attended the school, you spent the entire school year away from home. How is the school different today?
In those days, we went home summers and Christmases and were there 24/7 for school and activities. Today’s residential students go home on weekends, I believe. Most students came primarily with vision loss, but a larger percentage of today’s students may have multiple problems. Many live at home and are educated in their home schools in an inclusion model with assistance provided to teachers and/or students. Some students stay in their home schools and go to the Alamogordo campus for short, intensive training instead of living there full time. There is a second campus in Albuquerque which serves children from birth to about age 8. On both campuses, employees mop and clean, but we students used to do that.
Gary, you attended college at University of New Mexico in a time when the accommodations afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act didn’t exist. Explain how you navigated the demands of college — which are challenging for anyone – without the help a student would get today.
I was able to obtain volunteer readers from sororities and fraternities. Over the years, I figure there were 300 volunteers. I bought my own tape recorder and traded information with other students in my classes. UNM had a most helpful dean of men who intervened with intractable professors so I could take an oral exam or have someone read the questions and write down my answers.
In your book, you explain that some sighted people have treated you differently. What do you want people to know about what they should and should not do when interacting with a person with limited vision?
Don’t approach with a clap on the back or push on a shoulder. That startles a person. Speak openly to a person using your name and his. If you see a blind person having problems and in possible danger, take his arm and say what you are doing. You become a partial caregiver for a moment. The everyday rules are: Ask if the person wants help before you give it, and don’t assume someone cannot do a task. You can help a lot by sharing information with the blind person and by listening to information that person may share with you.
Gary, you spent three decades working at Sandia National Laboratory. Share some challenges and successes from those years.
I met challenges on an individual basis with several supervisors who said they would not hire me. I proved to them they were wrong. When I shared info about projects we worked on, some supervisors changed their minds. I showed through experience that I could schedule and match their organizational needs to enhance their training programs. I suggested teaching techniques that were simpler and more effective. I sought out new materials according to their needs and got feedback they were successful. They moved from doubting me to trusting my knowledge of the company and their department needs. I worked hard to keep abreast of their needs and how new materials matched changes.
Elaine, how was your life different as a result of marrying someone with limited vision?
I have had all the transportation and paperwork responsibilities for almost sixty years, except that Gary used buses and carpools part of the time for work. He could not run errands for me. He was not paid as well as were sighted employees and had fewer opportunities for advancement. Gary, however, was perceptive and kind and knew how to overcome discouragements — mine, as well as his. My life was affected negatively by others’ perceptions and the distance some put between them and us because they had misconceptions or discomfort around a person with a physical limitation. Overall, it was affected positively by having a personal example of someone who stayed the course during adversity and did it with grace most of the time!
What advice do you have for families with a child with limited vision today?
Tell children they have a place in life equal to children with more sight. Help them learn how to use basic rules of research and how to listen and learn from others. Teach them how to gather information and gain knowledge. Highlight their strengths. Life is full of giving. Givers succeed. Takers lose.
Gary and Elaine Montague’s book, Victory from the Shadows, is available at Amazon as a paperback or Kindle edition, and other retailers.
Interview by Cheryl Fallstead
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2020
Posted by LasCruces.com