Middle Tennessee State University commemorated its centennial by hosting StoryCorps in Murfreesboro, TN, during homecoming. John Harris and Laurie Witherow, friends and coworkers at MTSU, recorded an interview during our visit.
John was born blind and still has limited sensitivity to light. Growing up in Munford, TN, near Memphis, his family did not know of a school for children who were blind. So, John spent most of his early childhood and pre-adolescent days playing in the front yard with his grandfather. They listened to Brooklyn Dodgers games over the radio together, and John followed the sportscaster’s descriptions while he pitched rocks to himself, swinging at them with a broomstick. When it connected with the rock, John finished out the play and took bases along with the Dodger hitters on the broadcast.
When John was 14 years old, though, a woman who had recently moved to the area noticed that he stayed home instead of going to school. She eventually approached his family about his lack of schooling and talked to them about John attending the Tennessee School for the Blind, located in Donelson, TN, about three hours from John’s home.
Several months later, John was one of the first black students to attend classes there. He excelled on the wrestling team and graduated from high school when he was 23 years old. With the guidance of another benevolent advisor, he got into MTSU. John was one of the few members of his family to graduate from college.
Although John’s mother never lived to see him graduate college, he imagined her tears of joy had she been at his commencement. Thirty-five years later, John is the University’s long-running Director of Disabled Student Services. He oversees improving access for students at the university who, like him, may have grown up with little of it. As he put it, simple things like ramps, American Sign Language interpreters, and classroom recordings help his students reach their dreams, too.