On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In college, Sandy Greenberg was a strong student and athlete with a devoted girlfriend, close friends and big ambitions. Then glaucoma blinded him, and he thought his bright future went dark too.
But his family, girlfriend and a roommate named Arthur Garfunkel – yes, the Art Garfunkel – made sure he returned to school and graduated with his class.
Greenberg went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard, a Marshall scholarship and invent a compressed speech machine that helped blind people all over the world.
He would later found biotech companies, sit on the National Science Board and chair the Rural Health Care Administration and the Johns Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Institute.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Sandy Greenberg Entrepreneur and philanthropist
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast how local activists are using social media to fight for racial equality. But first, Sandy Greenberg was athletic, brainy and taking full advantage of his scholarship to Columbia University when in 1961 blindness struck. His parents expected him to quit college, but his roommate and best friend, the guy named Art Garfunkel, informed him that he was going back.
KOJO NNAMDISandy Greenberg went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard, a Marshall scholarship and to invent a device to help the blind. He then became a successful entrepreneur and was appointed to several federal boards. This year he's set to award $3 million to the person or institution that contributes most to ending blindness. His memoir, "Hello Darkness, My Old Friend," is out next week. Joining me to discuss a life relaunched after a major setback is Sandy Greenberg. Sandy Greenberg, thank you so much for joining us.
SANDY GREENBERGThank you, Kojo, for having me.
NNAMDISandy Greenberg is an Entrepreneur, Philanthropist and Chair of the Board of Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. Sandy Greenberg, why did you decide to write this book?
GREENBERGThat's an excellent question. If you'll bear with me I'll be happy to share it with you. Genesis tells us that God created humankind on the sixth day. We were given vision not only to survive, but to marvel at the beauty in this world. For 19 years, I had an insatiable hunger to devour the magnificent gargantuan essence of the beauty in nature as well as humankind's gleaming treasures. And then in the midst of my junior year at Columbia University, my vision was snatched away from me and I could no longer see. Thus began the long and arduous journey to survive and prevail as a person. Two years into that journey I found myself at Harvard Graduate School.
GREENBERGIt was in me at that time to write about my experiences of the past two years. I sat down at my Smith Corona typewriter and wrote 40 pages. I then put them away for 40 years. Obviously I had time for some introspection. And when I was ready to write I sat down and wrote "Hello Darkness, My Old Friend." Simultaneously because of a sacred vow I made 60 years ago to make sure that no one else should go blind, I was preparing to launch a campaign to end blindness across the globe for everyone and forevermore because blindness is our oldest cruelty, a subversion of the creator's intent and an injustice that can no longer be tolerated.
GREENBERGWhen we succeed and we will, we will live in a world where all God's children cannot not only feel the sunshine on their faces, but witness with their own two eyes its rising and its setting. Then and only then will creation be made whole. That's why in part I wrote "Hello Darkness."
NNAMDIYou were a stellar student in high school. You won a scholarship to Columbia University. You went, but you left a girlfriend back home. Tell us about Sue, who you describe as quoting here, "the one who has always been there," and to whom you dedicate this book.
GREENBERGYes, well, she is simply the center of gravity of my life, and without her I don't think I'd be talking to you today. Some people think that I stayed with Sue, because she stayed with me all those years and was my comfort. No, I just love her. That's an affidavit from my heart, and a cynical listener might say, well, what's that self-serving warrant worth? To me, everything if the continuous love of a man for a woman is ineffable, as I think it is, then it is as real as the experience of music or art or love of children and the many other untranslatable joys of human life. I just love her.
NNAMDIYou met Sue when you were in the sixth grade and at that time she was taller than you were. Did you grow to match her in height?
GREENBERGI don't think that's 100 percent accurate. Although when I was looking her I wasn't thinking about anything else.
NNAMDIYou love -- go ahead.
GREENBERGNo, no. What were you going to say?
NNAMDINo. Go ahead. You were going to tell us a little bit more about Sue.
GREENBERGNo. I mean, I think if you're talking in terms of character then she stands much taller than I do.
NNAMDIYou loved Columbia and you became fast friends with a guy, who will for you always be Arthur. How did you and Art Garfunkel become roommates and what was your friendship like?
GREENBERGArthur and I met September 1958 at freshman orientation week. He introduced himself as Arthur Garfunkel. I told him I was Sandy Greenberg. We shook hands at a time when you could still shake hands. And we got to talking during class particularly French class. And we left a building on Amsterdam and 118th Street and he called me over to the side and said, "Sanford, come and look at this patch of grass. See how light illuminates the color and beauty of its colors." And frankly, I didn't know what to make of it. It was one of the most stunning revelations in my life. And while others would have considered Arthur weird or someone to be avoided, I fell in love with him.
GREENBERGAnd shortly thereafter we had a conversation about rooming together, and we made a pact. Before we room together -- we were now freshmen at college -- that if one needs help regardless of the other's position in life the other would come to help. And that has been the way our life has gone.
NNAMDIYou still refer to him as Arthur. Does he still refer to you as Sanford?
GREENBERGYes, absolutely. I spoke to him two days ago and it was, "Hello, Arthur." And that's where the title came from, because when I returned to Columbia as a blind student he divorced himself from the life he had been living altering his ways to conform better to mine. And most important, though, he would read to me regularly. And he would walk into the room and say, "Sanford, Darkness is going to read to you today," or "Sanford, Darkness is going to read you 'The Iliad.'" And so way before the song came out, "Hello Darkness," was my friend Arthur back in 1961.
NNAMDIHow did you lose your vision and when did you realize that it was never coming back?
GREENBERGI lost my vision -- began losing my vision when I was pitching in the seventh inning of a baseball game and my eyes became very steamy and cloudy. I stumbled to the sidelines. Put my head on Sue's lap, who was there to comfort me, and it was the first incident. Then my vision was restored. I went to see one ophthalmologist, who gave some eye drops, which were ineffective. And then I went to a second ophthalmologist, who regrettably misdiagnosed the situation and gave me topical steroids, which after their continuous use on a daily basis my vision went essentially from 20-20 in August to 0-0 by December.
NNAMDIAfter your operation, your family assumed that you would never return to college. What was imagined for you? And what did you imagine for yourself?
GREENBERGWell, Sue and I were sitting on my porch and there was a social worker who came from New York State to try and give me my career options. And she said, "Well, Sandy, now that you're blind, you have only a few options left as a career. The first would be to make screwdrivers. The second would be to cane chairs and the third would be to become a justice of peace." And she gave us an address to go to in Batavia, New York in the suburbs to see a few blind justices of the peace. And Sue and I drove out there and I came away completely discouraged. It was not the life I was going to lead. And I frankly just wanted her to vanish. I didn't want to hear anything else from that woman.
NNAMDIArt Garfunkel visited you in Buffalo shortly after you became blind. In the minute or so we have left in this segment, tell us what was determined during that visit.
GREENBERGWhat was determined was that he essentially persuaded me when I was completely subtracted that I must return to Columbia. And I told him that there was no possibility that my mother wanted me to stay back and become an assistant to my father, who was a junk dealer. And I said that didn't appeal to me either. At the end of a long walk, Arthur said, "You don't get it do you. You've got to come back to school, because that's the deal we made before we roomed together."
NNAMDIHold that thought for a second because we've got to take a short break. When we come back, Sandy Greenberg will continue telling that story and about his book. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Sandy Greenberg. He's an Entrepreneur, Philanthropist and Chair of the Board of Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. We're discussing his memoir coming out next week. It's called, "Hello Darkness, My Old Friend." Sandy Greenberg, when we took that break we were talking about how your friend had come to visit you when you were blind. And he said to you -- and we're talking about Art Garfunkel. He said to you, "You just don't get it do you, Sanford."
GREENBERGThat's, that's what he said, and in the same tone that you just delivered the message. And I said that I do get it. I said, "You don't understand what it's like to be blind. And while I appreciate all your philosophical encouragement it rings untrue to me." He said, "But look, we had made a solemn covenant that when one or the other of us was an extremist the other would come to his rescue. And what you don't understand, Sanford, is that I need you there."
NNAMDIHe needed you.
GREENBERG"You're my best friend, aren't you?" he said. I said, "Yes." And then with the support of Sue and despite the fact that my parents had a rock solid conviction that my return to Manhattan would be my death, I returned.
NNAMDIWhile at Columbia, you visited an institute for the blind where a woman tried to get you interested in a seeing eye dog or a cane, which have helped many people with vision problems discover a new independence, but what was your reaction?
GREENBERGMy reaction was that I set out to define my blindness. I didn't want blindness to define me, and so I felt that a cane or a dog or even the use of Braille would be something I wanted to contend with. I paid a big price for it. But I knew that I was going to have to. Fortunately, the Lord was good and I made it through.
NNAMDIDid you ever get a dog or a cane?
GREENBERGNo, sir. No, that's not totally true. I never got a dog. I do have a cane. I tried using it for a while. Took a couple lessons, but it still was to me a symbol of blindness and I was not going to be blind.
NNAMDIYou have many powerful friends in Washington from senators to Supreme Court justices. Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the foreword to your book. She noted that it was only after years of living down the hall from you at the Watergate that she learned that you were not just vision impaired as she was told, but totally blind. Why do people make this mistake about you?
GREENBERGBecause I have the good fortune of being average looking in terms of my eyes and so it's socially more comfortable for people if they can see me not as a blind person, but as a regular guy.
NNAMDIYou went to Oxford on a Marshall scholarship. Earned a PhD in government at Harvard and then started at Harvard law, but you took a break to come to Washington in 1966. What brought you here?
GREENBERGI had the honor of being chose a White House Fellow to work under President Linden Johnson's administration.
NNAMDIA long the way you developed a device to compress speech. It's something those who listen to audiobooks might be familiar with today, but that wasn't always the case. How did you do this and what does it do? And who did it help?
GREENBERGIn 1961, when I returned to Columbia as a blind student we used to have reel to reel tape recorders then. I don't know if you're familiar with them. But they recorded my lectures and other fellow students, who were reading to me. And I would spend the evenings usually from midnight to two a.m. listening to the recordings. But they were so slow that I tried to speed it up by moving the reels faster and faster, but all I got was distortion.
GREENBERGSo I said, why not convert the mechanical energy of voice box and larynx into electrical energy? And that's when I decided to invent a compressed speech machine. That was at Columbia. That was all theory. It wasn't until I got to Harvard where I had a number of people who were reading to me who were also physicists and engineers who helped guide me along toward the ultimate obtaining of a patent in 1969 for compressed speech.
NNAMDIYou will be happy know that when I started in broadcasting in 1973 reel to reel tapes were all that we used. This was even before cassettes came along. In 2012 you and your wife announced a price now up to $3 million for the individual, group or institution that contributes the most to ending blindness by 2020. What inspired you to launch this competition?
GREENBERGI lost my eyesight in '61 and it was because of Dr. Saul Sugar who operated on me that I was at least able to save my actual eyes. And during that time I was in the hospital for one week with my mother seated nearby. I promised God that for the rest of my life I would do everything I could to make sure that no one else should go blind. A naïve unrealistic, idealistic goal, but it stayed with me my whole life. And I talked to many people over the ensuing decades and it turned out that science had not yet gotten to a point where that was even a possible until the beginning of this century.
GREENBERGAnd that's when Sue and I decided that we wanted to bring together the most brilliant minds of this generation and incentivize them to get them to focus on blindness, but not just to prevent it or cure it. No soft words of that sort. End blindness, because there was no other way for blind kids to really make it through life, because today 70 percent of blind Americans are unemployed. And I don't know yet what the impact of COVID was -- has been. I don't think it's been very positive. So we announced in October 18, 2012 a prize of $3 million to be given to the person or persons who does most to end blindness across the globe.
NNAMDIWhen are you going to award it? And can you give us a hint as to who might get it?
GREENBERGI wish I could give you a hint, but we have a national governing council consistent of many prominent civic leaders and we also have a scientific advisory board, which is doing the processing as we speak, and hopefully as soon the process is done we will announce it.
NNAMDISandy Greenberg, I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Sandy Greenberg is an Entrepreneur, Philanthropist and Chair of the Board of Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute. His memoir "Hello Darkness, My Old Friend" comes out next week. Sandy Greenberg, thank you so much for joining us and good luck to you.
GREENBERGThank you, Kojo, very much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back how local activists are using social media to fight for racial equality. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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