Jack Tucker has spent 40 years helping other people with disabilities
November 16, 2014
By JIMMIE TRAMEL
World Scene Writer
OKTAHA — Just because Jack Tucker — blind in one eye — has a disability doesn’t mean he lost the ability to party.
Tucker said his first semester of college went fine.
“My second semester I seemed to like to party all the time,” he said.
And I ended up with 17 hours of zero.”
Let history reflect that Tucker went from zero to hero by graduation.
He earned college degrees and spent 40 years working at the Oklahoma School for the Deaf, where he helped prep disabled youths for the workforce and vice versa.
Now the retired principal is the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services’ chair of the Commission for Rehabilitation Services. He’s got a “tough love” story in his background.
“Pack your bags. We’re going to work,” Tucker’s father told him after finding out about the “party semester” grades.
They hopped in their vehicles and drove from Stidham, Oklahoma, (where Tucker was raised) to Wichita, Kansas.
“And he pulls in at a little motel that is something probably I wouldn’t want my dog to stay in,” Tucker said.
“And I think he paid them $15 for the week and came out and gave me a $50 bill and said, ‘Son, you better find a damn job. I’m going back to Oklahoma.’ And there I was.”
Tucker said he knows it was difficult for his father to leave him in Wichita.
“But that’s the best thing that could ever happen to me,” he said.
“Well, I thought the world owed me a living until that time,” he said. “The world doesn’t owe you a living. Our charge in life is to make the world better, not (sponge) off the world. Whatever we can do to help make the world better is basically what we should do. And, at that time, I really … felt like the world owed me a living. And it was an attitude that I had to get rid of real fast, or starve.”
For five weekdays in a row, Tucker was the first person in line at Boeing to ask if any jobs were available.
“By Friday morning I had about $2 left,” he said. “I had been living on White Castle. I don’t know if you know what White Castle hamburgers are, but they are little bitty.”
Tucker’s repeat appearances convinced someone at Boeing that Tucker really wanted a job. He worked there as a toolmaker for a year and a half before deciding to resume his college education. Tucker met his wife at Connors State (they live on her family’s acreage in Oktaha now), completed his first degree at Southeastern State and affected many lives during four decades in Sulphur.
Tucker said he had never seen a deaf person before getting a job at Oklahoma School for the Deaf.
“Deafness is a culture and, basically, sign language is like learning Spanish or Russian or Chinese, and so basically I was in a big culture shock,” he said.
“There were two things I could do — turn my tail and run or learn it, and I learned it. Now, I had a lot of help.”
Tucker said kids came to the school with such low self-esteem that you couldn’t get them to make eye contact.
“Basically what you have got to do is not baby these people, but help them when they need a little help,” he said.
While at the school, Tucker created a program called Occupational Training Opportunities for the Deaf. The goal was to teach students how to survive in the world and in the workforce.
Tucker polled area businesses and asked them what he needed to do to get students job-ready. The common answer: We can train them on what to do, but our employee problems are linked to work ethic.
“So basically what we strived for was to help the kids learn what work ethics were,” Tucker said. “And basically once they got that down, it doesn’t matter where they go. They are going to be successful.”
The goal is the same in Tucker’s new role. He wants to help every disabled person in the state become a productive citizen.
“And the only way you are going to do that is you can’t just say, ‘OK, here’s a job downtown. Go down there and go to work.’ You have got to follow up and you have got to work with the clients, and you’ve got to work with the employers and assure yourself that these people are getting the help they need to be successful.”
Tucker said workers with handicaps often make the best employees because they do what they are trained to do and don’t goof off a lot. They just need a matchmaker.
“Dealing with a handicapped person for the first time is kind of anxiety-producing,” he said.
“And what you have got to do is work with the employees and the employer to get over that first big hump because it is anxiety-producing. And I understand that, because you don’t know how to act around a blind person or you don’t know how to communicate with a deaf person. Or someone in a wheelchair — you don’t know whether you should open a door for them or help them or what. So obviously there is some learning that has to go on not only with the client, but with the people the client is dealing with.”
Tucker answered some other questions about his experience:
How do you like living in Oktaha?
We’ve got 66 acres here. … The first thing I noticed when we got here was we had wild possum grapes because my grandmother used to make possum grape jelly all the time. We would go pick them for her. Then my wife started finding wild muscadine grapes, too. Basically what we do is we just kind of enjoy that we have three adopted dogs that were foundlings and we pretty well just take care of our grapes, and we grow a little garden and just kind of enjoy our retirement as much as we can.
You said students at Oklahoma School for the Deaf used to have trouble getting automobile insurance?
I thought, “What in the world is going on?” So I did some studying, and the deaf drivers were the safest drivers out on the road because they are more alert. They have to look all the time. I kind of advocated for that, and basically the insurance companies now insure a lot of deaf kids without charging them an arm and a leg. It was amazing that they didn’t insure deaf people.
You are in a position to aid disabled people and you are disabled?
I’m blind in my left eye. I have been since I was 18 months old. Basically I was fortunate enough to have a family that was supportive, plus I pretty well developed the attitude that I can do anything I want and basically pretty well have. Now, there are things I can’t do. I can’t fly a commercial jet, which I would love to do. So there are some limitations that you have to accept, but there are so much other things out there, so why worry about it?
How did you lose vision?
When I was 18 months old — that was before plastic — I was in my crib sucking on my baby bottle and nose-dived on the floor with the bottle in my mouth. Basically what it did was gouge my eyeball out, and I can tell you a neat story about that. I was in Chicago at the time. I was born in east Chicago. And of course my parents immediately took me to the hospital, and there was a young intern there … and he told me a few years later that “everything I had studied told me to cut your eye out and just put a glass eye in.” He said “Something inside me told me to sew it up.” He sent a couple of other guys back to the house, and they picked up some pieces of my eye and brought them back to the hospital and he patched my eye. Now the optic nerve obviously was severed, so there is no vision in it, but he re-attached the muscles. So my eye moves with my good eye. If I look right, my blind eye moves right with it. It just follows it everywhere just like everything.
And that was a good thing, right?
That really was unheard of in 1948, and that’s when this happened because they didn’t do any transplants or anything back then. And I was in a Catholic hospital, and the doctor had told the nurses, “Don’t let this kid cry because, if you do, it’s going to mess his eye up.” He came in late one night, and it was on a Friday night, and I was standing there at the crib crying. And he said, “What’s going on?” And the nurses said, “Well, he wants meat, and it’s Friday.” That doesn’t happen nowadays. But back then, in a Catholic hospital, you didn’t get meat. You got fish on Friday. So he would laugh and tell me the story. He went out and went across the road and got a steak and came back to my room and he and I sat down and ate that steak just so I wouldn’t cry.
Jimmie Tramel 918-581-8389