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Ride Toward the Light! Written by LaVerne Online


Do you know that La Verne is home to one of the world’s leading producers and distributors of Braille products and supplies for the blind and visually impaired. God bless them! The company, American Thermoform, is located at 1758 Brackett Street.

  Upon learning this, I recalled another great American hero who had a very large impact on helping the blind and visually impaired see.

Let me share his story, which also has a distinct Southern California twist:


Our hero’s name is John Robertson Atkinson. Like a lot of folks, he came to Los Angeles mostly out of curiosity. It was on his bucket list. The year was 1912. After a few days, the Montana cowboy figured he had seen enough of tinsel town and was ready to clear out. But tragically, as he was packing up, the cowboy’s firearm accidentally discharged, shooting him in the face. Doctors managed to save him, but they had to remove both of his eyes.


After the surgery, Atkinson told his two brothers, “Right now, I’m not fit to do anything except make brooms or baskets or sell cigars.”


They had come to town, along with his mother, to help him recover and revive his flagging spirits. But at one point in an moment of extreme darkness, Atkinson tried to asphyxiate himself. He only survived because his mother had returned home earlier than expected to shut off the gas.


As a cowboy, Atkinson knew how to fight long stretches of loneliness and isolation, later telling his biographer that “I had ridden many a long trail without so much as a hoof print to indicate that any rider had taken that trail previously.” But nothing had prepared him for his new journey.


After a spell of dealing with his blindness, he said, “The longest trail I ever witnessed was the distance between my plate and mouth … .”


But Atkinson hung on and eventually learned to blaze a new trail. First, he was inspired by a blind vegetable peddler and a hymn he had heard at a Christian Science meeting. He learned to read two-dot raised systems. A blind teacher also introduced him to the Braille system, which had been invented a century earlier.


After mastering Braille, he was dismayed by the lack of available literature in Braille. So, with the help of a Braille typewriter and family members who read to him, he transcribed more than 250 books, including the Bible, which stood five feet high.


That was just the beginning of his prodigious output. With a $25,000 donation and the help of a mechanical engineer, he converted a standard printing press to print Braille books in his garage. In 1933, he moved his operation, now called the Braille Institute of America, to Vermont Ave. in Hollywood, Calif. Today, it helps thousands of people lead meaningful lives despite their blindness or severe sight loss. (I know that my father greatly enjoyed receiving and listening to audiotapes from the Institute when he was battling macular degeneration.)


In 1967, three years after Atkinson’s death, the town of Cascade, Mont., erected a bronze statue of him astride his favorite horse, Sandy, which he used to ride through Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. The plaque reads, “Montana cowboy, who deprived of his sight, founded the Braille Institute of America and with God-given vision brought light to the blind of the world.”


Like John Atkinson and now La Verne’s American Thermoform, you can add significance to your life by focusing on the resources and talents you have been given or have remaining.


The great use of life,” William James said, “is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”

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