Warren Thompson had a way of working the lunchrooms during his tenure as an administrator in the state Division of Services for the Visually Handicapped and later as director of the Murray B. Allen Center for the Blind.
He'd walk from table to table, delivering meals and helping people cut their meat. He'd run errands or read menus. Often, he'd pull up a chair and visit."He had a unique administrative style," said Leslie Gertsch, Utah Council of the Blind. "It just amazed me that someone would be so concerned and aware of our needs and so unconcerned about his own position and status."
He attended board meetings for the council simply because he wanted direct communication with the people his agency served. And when he retired from a lifetime of service to people with all types of disabilities, Thompson stayed involved. He joined the council and helped it prepare legislation that would benefit all blind Utahns. And he still was available to read menus and cut up meat.
NaDeen Wheeler Hackwell was "born into service of the blind." When her mother was pregnant with her, she was a volunteer working with the blind. When NaDeen was old enough to walk, she went along. Students from the School for the Blind found a happy haven at the Wheeler home.
The Utah Council of the Blind recently presented the duo with its highest honor, the Sarah and George Albert Talmadge awards.
George Talmadge was blind. His wife, Sarah, was sighted. When they discovered that few services or even Braille books were available to the blind, they set out to change that. They made sure anyone who could read Braille had access to it.
Each year, the council presents the George Albert Talmadge Award to a visually impaired Utahn who has provided outstanding service. Receiving it, Hackwell said, was both an honor and a surprise.
"For the first time in my life, I don't have anything funny to say," she said. "I'll cherish it."
Hackwell and four of her eight siblings were born with congenital cataracts. She became blind in one eye, the result of glaucoma she got when she was working for the Internal Revenue Service, where she once was employee of the year. She has very limited vision in her left eye.
"I can tell boys from girls if the boys have short hair and the girls have long hair," she quipped.
Gertsch cited her particularly for efforts to help people who recently have become blind adapt to the disability.
Thompson received the Sarah Talmadge Award, an annual tribute to a sighted person who is truly a friend to those who are blind.
Although he has worked more with blind people in recent years, he admits he didn't start that way. He earned a graduate certificate from the University of Utah in clinical psychology and social work and almost immediately went into vocational rehabilitation, working with a variety of disabilities.
Besides his work in Utah, he directed the Colorado and California departments of rehabilitation. He also was a federal civil servant for 16 years, holding various titles including regional commissioner for Rehabilitation Services Administration.
"Hands-on" was always his style, he said. "I became a member of the council because I wanted to find out what members of the blind community thought of the services. That helped me to build the program where it needed to be."
Recently, illness has slowed Thompson a little, but he still has ideas about ways to improve programs for the blind. With his help, programs have been enlarged and made more efficient. But Thompson won't rest on his laurels.
"All of the programs here could still be enlarged and enhanced. And they should be. If programs were better funded, we could do a lot better job," he said.