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Accidentally Blinded, He Became Tireless Champion for Disabled

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bud Keith was a high school wrestler, a championship bowler and a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama. In his early 40s, he twice tried to ascend Mount Rainier, the Washington state volcano that is one of the highest peaks in the country.

Keith, who was blind, once lamented, "Too many disabled people are out of shape." So he joined a group that uses outdoor sports to help rehabilitate the physically handicapped and helped build Ski for Light, an organization for blind skiers.

Keith, 68, an Arlington County resident who died June 14 of prostate cancer, defined himself through physical independence as well a dash of mischief and irascibility.

He said he never much liked guide dogs except as an excuse to meet women. He hated when little old ladies tried to help him cross the street. They would reach around him and push. "Thus," he said, "making both of us sight impaired."

He was an equal opportunity specialist at the Department of Health and Human Services, and his job was to safeguard the civil rights of minorities and the disabled. But sitting in a federal office building was never as satisfying, he said, as escaping into his serious extracurricular interests.

In 1991, he was honored at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington for his work with Ski for Light, which was modeled on a Norwegian program. The ambassador called him a "tireless champion of sports and recreation for the handicapped."

In his acceptance speech, Keith spoke about feeling limited professionally in his civil rights career. "The same opportunity has not been available for me professionally," he told the crowd of dignitaries. "So if this is where I get to be a boss for a little while, that's the way it is."

Speaking of the skiing organization, he said, "You see the tears when the week of skiing ends and people say, 'Well, it's time to return to the real world.' I try to communicate that Ski for Light is the real world."

Raymond Fred Keith, a fourth-generation Washingtonian, was born Nov. 20, 1939. He was attending a private school in Delaware when a classmate pierced his left eye with a nail. His right eye became diseased, and within eight months he was blind.

He was active in sports and drama at the Maryland School for the Blind in the 1950s and later became fascinated by bowling. He won several national blind bowling tournaments during the next two decades.

In 1965, three years after graduating from American University, he became a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama and taught at a school for the blind. Blind people have always been a rarity in the organization, a spokeswoman said.

Keith's personal travels took him from New Zealand to the Serengeti plain in Africa, and he deepened his involvement in athletics for the disabled. He said he preferred cross-country to downhill skiing because downhill required complete obedience to a guide and was not relaxing.

In July 1981, he was one of 10 disabled adults chosen to scale Mount Rainier for what the United Nations dubbed the International Year of Disabled Persons. The climbers, including people who were blind, deaf, amputees and epileptic, were led by James Whittaker, the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Rainier is 14,410 feet high, and Keith collapsed at 12,500 feet after experiencing altitude sickness; his companions soldiered on and left him in a sleeping bag in an ice cave. But they were all feted that month by President Reagan, to whom the climbers gave an American flag and jelly beans during a White House Rose Garden reception.

The next year, Keith returned to Rainier and made it to 10,000 feet before 70 mph winds and pounding sleet and snow forced everyone to abandon the attempt.

In the mid-1990s, he married Billie Jean Hill, a legally blind woman, after what she wryly called their "whirlwind courtship of 13 years," and he wrote a memoir.

"Every so often I wonder how different things might have been if I had seen, but of course that can't be known," he wrote. "I imagine what the earth must look like from an airplane; I wonder if I could have become a well-known athlete. . . . I wonder if I would have appreciated my life so much without the human interaction that blindness has facilitated."

"Would I have made so many friends, or would that lonely and socially inappropriate little boy that was accidentally blinded become a lonely and socially inappropriate sighted adult?"

Keith never had a title for his unpublished book, but friends had his disposition in mind when they suggested, "Don't Tell Me What I Can't Do!" and, more to the point, "Back Off."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company