A Reminder of How Far We've Come

A Reminder of How Far We've Come

(Editor’s Note:  We easily think that things have always been as they are now and that they will stay that way.  The following article appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on May 21, 2010, and is about a blind man who had a much more limited time than most of us have today.  Many of us grew up at the time he did and were able to choose a different path in life, but he wasn’t able to do that.  We often looked down on what he did, but we also worked to make better opportunities for blind people.  His ultimate goal was to be as independent as he could be in his circumstances, and we must respect him for that.  However, we must also remember that blind people no longer have to do as he did, and we must respect ourselves for that.)

Gordon Emo, 76: A familiar face is no longer there in St. Paul skyways

Blind man saw security in picking humble job selling pencils

By Frederick Melo, St. Paul Pioneer Press
Gordon Emo never walked on the moon or threw a famous touchdown pass.  He won't be remembered for feats of philanthropy or scientific achievement, and his name isn't inscribed on any memorials.

But to countless passersby on St. Paul streets and skyways, Emo was known as the blind man on the collapsible stool who sold pencils from a cigar box for 40 years.  He died Monday at Regions Hospital in St. Paul after a long struggle with lung cancer.  He was 76.

"I said I didn't want to do that kind of work — it's a disgrace to the blind," Emo told the Pioneer Press in 1990, recalling the day a friend suggested pencil sales to him.  "But it's either doing this or sitting home alone.  I won't say selling pencils is a good job, but it is secure for a blind person, and I'm free from counselors and other people who tell you a fairy tale, a bunch of dreams that never come true."

Often dressed in a snowmobile suit to get through the tough Minnesota winters, Emo began selling pencils outside the old Bailey's Bar and Grill on Wabasha Street in 1969.  In the late 1980s, he moved his sales to the skyway, where he took up residence near the U.S. Bank building.

Emo kept a couple hundred pencils in an old Dutch Masters cigar box mended with tape, selling them for 10 cents apiece or three for a quarter.  He never made much money, but his self-styled occupation introduced him to a wider world.  He was also well known at Mickey's Diner, where he often ate breakfast.

He grew up on a farm near Jamestown, N.D., and graduated from the North Dakota School for the Blind, where he studied biology and Latin.  As a youth, he could recite portions of the Iliad and Macbeth.

He never attended college but learned how to type at a Twin Cities workshop for the blind, where he also put together telephone parts and practiced using a Dictaphone.  After two years, he dropped out to look for what he described as "a real job."

"I thought if I could get a job, my folks would be proud of me," he said.  "I thought I had qualifications.  I had my suit on."

Instead, he found a series of closed doors.  He was engaged for a time until his fiancée died of an illness.  His three brothers, sister and extended family became his close companions.

"He had a great sense of humor," said Emo's niece, Elizabeth Kommer, 43, of Maple Grove.  "Even though his health was going down, he seemed to be always bubbly, happy.  He would call me up and ask me to come over.  His big treat was going to the Dairy Queen.  It was a joy for me to take him."

Emo, who was born blind, grew up at a time when resources and legal protections for the blind were more limited, said Joyce Scanlan, a board member and past president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.

As children, Scanlan was a few years ahead of Emo at the North Dakota School for the Blind, then located in Bathgate, N.D.  She had him as a student in 1959 when she returned to the school to teach.

Some advocates for the blind saw Emo's pencil selling as an insult, a throwback to the days when the disabled had to beg on street corners.  But Scanlan, who was born partially blind, doesn't agree.

"He was doomed from the start, almost, because he was totally blind," she said.  "Times have changed, we hope ... but a totally blind person was at the bottom of the totem pole in a residential school.  I think he really did have some intelligence, but the way he was treated and the way he was regarded in the student body and by the staff of the school, he didn't ever develop the drive or the skills to deal with the attitudes towards him."

"I was at the other end of that scale from Gordon, but I understand it better now," she continued.  "I'm totally blind now."

Following his wishes, Emo will be buried Saturday next to his parents in a family plot at Calvary Cemetery in Jamestown, N.D., said his brother, Patrick Emo of Minneapolis.  A visitation is scheduled today at the Lisko Funeral Chapel in Jamestown.

"He was my brother, and I took him around," said Patrick Emo, choking back tears during a telephone call from his Super 8 motel room in Jamestown.  "He was a real good fellow.  He was a real good talker — that's what I liked about Gordon."