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The Reverend Linda Dodds

Blind Courage

The story of my father, David Ronald Johnston 1924 -1976

Copyright © 2017 by The Reverend Linda Dodds

The Reverend Linda Dodds has asserted her right under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover, other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

ISBN: 978-1-86151-761-6

This book is dedicated to the memory of my wise friend Eileen Welsh (1937 – 2016) who planted a seed.

“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision”

Stevie Wonder



Chapter 1 A routine procedure

Chapter 2 A wartime education

Chapter 3 Breaking the glass ceiling

Chapter 4 Love and marriage

Chapter 5 Working in the community

Chapter 6 Oxfam: breaking new ground

Chapter 7 Life and work with my father

Chapter 8 The pressures increase





When night has come, and prayers are said,

When peaceful sleep around is spread,

In my dreams, I see again, yes clearly,

The faces of those I have loved so dearly,

God’s sunshine, lovely flowers, the birds and the sea,

All come back plainly in dreamland to me.

And I thank my redeemer for being so kind,

For those dreams that give sight to us who are blind.

I found the above poem shortly after the death of my father in 1976, typed on a small piece of thin paper. It was very fragile, and had been folded carefully and placed amongst his personal papers. On first reading it, I admit that it reduced me to tears as I felt the powerful emotion and the deep longing of its simple words. It still holds much emotion for me, but I know the words do not reflect the thoughts of a person who is resentful of their lot in life. The words are not those of someone for whom we need to feel pity or who, indeed, felt any pity for himself. The poem is a simple and truthful statement of the reality of being blind.

The piece of paper remained carefully folded and placed amongst my own treasured possessions for the next forty years. Until, that is, a chance conversation with a dear and good friend Eileen Welsh in which we were reflecting on our childhood days, an exercise more common to us all as we get older, it seems. Eileen, with her usual wisdom and insight, recognised something of interest in the story of my father’s life and achievements and of my own experience and perceptions of his blindness. So much so that she persuaded me to give a short talk to the Women’s Bright Hour, a small group of now mostly elderly ladies who meet each week at Woodhouse Close Church in Bishop Auckland, and where I was at that time Associate Minister.

During the following few weeks as I thought about what I might say I came across the piece of paper again, unfolded for so many years, carefully placed amongst my own treasured possessions. On reading it I decided that a fitting title for my little talk would be “Being Dad’s Eyes”.

The talk, much to my surprise, was well received by the ladies. Some of them remembered my father as a prominent figure in the town, well known and recognised, wearing his suit, overcoat and trilby hat, carrying his briefcase and with his guide dog at his side. Their interest and subsequent questions lit the small spark of an idea in my mind and has taken me on the journey of rediscovering my father’s story.

We each of us have a story to tell, a story which has formed and shaped us into the person we have become. To each of us our story is our own and represents our own normality. So it was with me. It was only through the interest of my friend that I became aware that maybe my childhood and early life, although normal to me, were perhaps in some significant ways a little different to the experience of others. My story is shaped by my father’s remarkable and inspirational life. His story is one of his determination to overcome his own perceived disability and also to challenge the perceptions held by society in respect of the abilities, needs and value of those with sight loss. His is a story of fierce independence fuelled by a deep social conscience which drove him to work tirelessly for the benefit of others, whether in his local community or in the wider world. It is a story as much about sight as the lack of it, about vision and possibilities rather than limitations and restrictions, about ability rather than disability. It is a story fuelled by a determination to prove wrong the attitudes towards disability which were current at that time and to demonstrate that a person’s worth and contribution to society are not determined by whether or not they are able to see.

Discovering this story has been a journey which has taken me to times, places and memories which have long lain deep in the recesses of my mind. To venturing into the attic and retrieving boxes of photographs, the faces from the past staring out from the grainy, black and white images. To stories which have leapt from yellowing newspaper cuttings carefully and lovingly pasted into albums. To visits to places, some now long changed from when I first knew them and others which have played significant roles in the story I thought I knew so well and which I was discovering still held surprises. To people who have shared their own memories and brought another dimension to the man who played such a significant part in my life.

There is of course one other person to whom I owe a tremendous amount and whose part in this story has only been truly revealed in its telling, and that is my mother Doreen Lawson, formerly Johnston née Walton.

They say that behind every good man there is a good woman. That is certainly true in my father’s case, except that she was not behind him but there beside him, in every sense, literally as she took on the role of being his eyes and metaphorically as she supported and encouraged him and in so many ways enabled him to achieve the remarkable things he did.

This book therefore has been written in memory of both my parents and as a tribute to them. I owe so much of who I am to my father: my social conscience, my sense of the importance of community, my obsession with preparation and organisation, my people-watching skills, my hatred of being late, my offbeat sense of humour and maybe some of my peculiar little habits. And my mother, who was always there in the background and was, as I have discovered, and I hope shines out of these pages as the catalyst who made things possible.

I began with my little talk “Being Dad’s Eyes”, inspired as it was by the poem I have treasured for so many years. Since that tentative beginning I have gone beyond my own experience to discover the story of a man whose life touched so many others; a man who has time and again been spoken of as inspirational and remarkable. In the light of that the title, “Blind Courage”, comes, with permission, from a piece written for the Northern Echo by local journalist Mike Amos on his hearing of my father’s death.

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