On the southern most tip of Alabama where native accents bend the rules of physics and the state dips its toe into the Gulf of Mexico, the town of Gasque still plays host to strings of fishing boats and pristine beaches. It was here, in 1919, that a fisherman and his wife celebrated the birth of their first son, Randall Hylman Nelson. Times were lean and the Nelsons poor. That did not prevent Vivian and Randall from raising Randy to play hard, love knowledge, and mind his manners.
The Depression made it impossible for Randy’s live off-the-land father to earn a livable wage as a fisherman. In 1931, Randall moved his family, which now included Randy’s younger brother, Jim, to Mobile, where the father went to work as a deck hand on a lighthouse tender, a ship specifically designed to support lighthouses. Until then, Randy and Jim had walked 2 miles down dirt roads to rural schools. In Mobile, Randy attended a modern middle school, then enrolled in the prestigious Murphy High School. He earned straight A’s, the highest academic achievement the school had ever recorded.
Though Randy wanted to continue his education, these were the days before student loans. He applied to various military academies but lacked the political connections to gain admission. He went to work for a local bank and learned accounting and bookkeeping, preparing himself for a career in finance until 1940, at 21, Randy was drafted as an infantry private in the army. He was soon promoted to sergeant.
When Randy went to war, he prepared himself for the worst. Men died around him all the time. He could die. He understood that and accepted that reality, even after falling love with Jacquelyn and having so much to live for. What he had never imagined was something worse than death or so it seemed. Who prepares for something like blindness? During his long stay at the Valley Forge hospital, Randy had time to reflect. He was thrilled of Jacquelyn’s embrace and marveled that she was not spooked by his condition. However, as he thought about his life and future, Randy could not kid himself . He was almost 26. He owned no tradable skills and just a high school education. He had no money. He could not fathom how he might earn a living or even get through a day – they were teaching him to brush his teeth! Jacquelyn was just 19 – too young and beautiful and perfect to be saddled with such responsibility.
He wrote the letter.
Within a few months, Randy began a relationship with Mae Carstensen, a physical therapist from Ohio who had been caring for him. She was older than Jacquelyn and already accustomed to his condition. She was wonderful to him. They soon married.
If money had made college unlikely for Randy before the war, blindness made it seem downright impossible. He had been awarded two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. Those who counseled Randy advised him to attend schools for the blind. Randy did not want special school. Instead he sent transcripts to Stanford, Michigan, Ohio State and Vanderbilt. Only Vanderbilt rejected him. Randy chose Michigan.
He and his wife, Mae, moved to Ann Arbor. The army offered blinded veterans a reader; for every hour in class, he was provided a reader for 2 hours. Randy took notes using a ruler to keep his writing straight, then had his reader record the notes onto phonograph records labeled in Braille. Randy played those records over and over until the information had been burned into his mind.
In his Junior year, he made Phi Beta Kappa, an honor usually reserved for Seniors. The next year he graduated with hightest honors, then stayed on at Michigan for a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in political science.
Ten years after a mortar had killed his buddies and taken his eyesight, Randall Hylman Nelson was about to become a college professor.