This article was, in a slightly different form, previously published on my personal blog. As it’s not a highly technical piece and because it’s about two remarkable individuals who, each in their own very different ways, did a lot for blind people and were very dear to me personally.
This piece is about the recent deaths of two people who were my good friends, two individuals who could hardly be more different but, as you will read, whom effected me in a deep and personal way.
As the deaths, one on August 21 and the other on August 23 of this year, came so close together, I’m going to write about both of these wonderful men together in this article. One was a very smart, super sharp blind hacker, the other was a former co-worker who, over the years, had been one of the dearest people in my life. What the two had in common was a tremendous generosity of time and spirit, a willingness to help blind people in ways compatible with their skills and an honest kindness that one rarely experiences in one’s life. In a way, these two men couldn’t be more similar.
I didn’t know what order I should mention these two remarkable people in this story, I chose alphabetic as it was arbitrary and shows no preference as I cared very much for these two people and picking one over the other would have been impossible. Unlike most of my articles, this is purely a personal essay and will contain no links and virtually no references as the events I will describe herein are not otherwise documented in any public forum.
If you’re interested in blindness and technology, you probably know the name Bill Acker. A very special part of his life is documented nicely in the book Exploding The Phone, a book you can get on Bookshare or whatever online library you enjoy using. The book describes Bill’s years as one of the original phone phreaks and how he and a number of others, a lot of whom were also blind, cracked the Bell phone system. It’s a terrific read, if you get the version on Audible, it’s read by one of the protagonists, it’s a terrific bit of hacking history and reads as smoothly as a novel. If you read this blog, you will enjoy Exploding The Phone. Thus, I’m not going to talk about Bill’s years as an outlaw phone phreak here as a much better writer did a whole book on that scene and there’s little I can add.
My personal relationship with Bill began when he and my friend Janina Sajka spent hours on the phone with me helping me get a GNU/Linux distribution installed and talking with SpeakUp, an older, text based screen reader for GNU/Linux systems. If I’m remembering correctly, we spent something like four hours on that call and Bill didn’t hang up until he was certain I had a system I could use effectively. When that conversation started, Bill didn’t know me from Adam, we had not previously been introduced, he didn’t use Windows so my years at the helm of JAWS didn’t impress him. As far as Bill was concerned, I wasn’t the semi-celebrity in the blindness world that I was then, I was just like any other blind person who wanted to use free (as in freedom with a lower case “f”) software and Bill would help any other fellow traveler in this journey. One rarely encounters a perfect stranger so generous with their time.
I went a number of years without talking to Bill again until I posted a long and 100% factually true email on the “Eyes Free” mailing list, a forum for blind Android users, detailing how, using only objective measures, that an Android system was roughly 30% accessible compared to the iOS/7 100% score. I sent the email in hopes of receiving feedback on the facts in the article, I might have gotten something very wrong; instead of reasonable and factual responses, I heard a shitstorm of hate from Android fanboys on the mailing list and received a private email from Bill that first asked if we could talk on the phone (I’m a natural writer, I prefer email to voice conversations, especially with people I don’t know too well; Bill was a legendary phone phreak and, of course, prefers voice) and continued to tell me, “you’re absolutely right,” “don’t let the bastards and fanboys bring you down,” “Keep doing what you’re doing, keep fighting the good fight.” As the email was from a blind hacker who played such an important role in the history of this stuff, I called him later that day and we began a friendship with frequent conversations each other to talk abut a million different things, spending hours on end on these calls and I enjoyed every minute of them. I last talked to Bill ten days before he passed.
In February of this year, Bill’s oncologist told him there was nothing more that could be done for his aggressive prostate cancer and put Bill on palliative, end of life care. Bill was certain that he would probably pass in April or May. Then, a month or two later, the same oncologist called Bill with an offer to try an off label use of a chemotherapy designed for a different type of cancer for which there was some anecdotal evidence of efficacy for prostate cancer. Bill started getting better almost daily. In each conversation Bill and I had since the highly experimental change in medicine he sounded stronger, more hopeful, energetic and downright happy at some moments.
As Bill started getting better, he and I started working on a couple of projects together. One was an audio documentary that I was going to produce and direct that we had named “Calling Bill In Denver.” The plan was to record literally hours on end of audio of Bill’s voice telling his own story. The documentary would, quite obviously, discuss Bill’s active years as a phone phreak but I had hoped to tell the Bill Acker story that the public hadn’t heard. I wanted to show the whole Bill, the blind long distance hitchhiking stories, his atheism and resentment of the constant and overt Christian evangelism in the American blind community, his long marriage and love for his wonderful wife, his years at the phone company, his friendships with many other hackers, blind or otherwise, his single phone conversation with the late radical leader Abbie Hoffman, his deep and profound dedication to free, libre, open source software (FLOSS) and so many of the aspects of Bill’s amazing life that few people knew. Very sadly, the single recording session we were able to get done, two or more hours of discussion, was the victim of a bug in either the VOIP client, OS X or AudioHijack Pro that left a loud buzz throughout the entire thing. What I believe was Bill’s final interview appears lost to buggy software.
Over the past three months, Bill and I had also discussed the possibility of his returning to work. As recently as our final call together, after a number of conversations, official meetings and such, he had received and accepted an offer to take over as accessibility coordinator for Free Software Foundation (FSF). In that last phone call, Bill sounded great and I agreed to help as his back-up as a volunteer and we started talking about a plan to make all FSF/GNU branded software accessible.
Thus, while Bill had been very sick and nearing death for a pretty long time, both he and I reached the point in which we honestly believed that Bill would come through and live to fight the free software battle another day. Thus, Bill’s death felt sudden to me because he seemed so filled with life in that last call.
I would like to publicly recognize my dear friend Shelley Segal for an act of kindness she did for Bill earlier this year that made him incredibly happy and about which he was tremendously grateful. If you don’t know of Shelley, she’s an Australian singer/songwriter with a beautiful voice and tremendous skill in writing lyrics that have touched both Bill and I with profound impact. Bill first became aware of Shelley and her music when I wrote a blog article about a CD she release a couple of years back called “An Atheist Album.” While Bill was going through chemotherapy, he told me that he would listen to this album over and over, it expressed his world view with such a delightful voice and lyric that it brought him tremendous comfort while he suffered the horrible side effects of his treatment regimen. He told me he would play Shelley’s music for other patients and that they were comforted as well.
When Bill moved to end of life care, he asked me to introduce him to Shelly and I gladly did. Shelley will next be performing in Denver this coming October and because Bill was uncertain if he’d live long enough to attend the performance, Shelley arranged a private concert for him and played a show for a single person over a VOIP client, live from her studio in Melbourne. Shelley’s generosity and truly loving spirit gave Bill the opportunity to enjoy a live performance and have a terrific conversation with his favorite recording artist. Bill’s expressed his gratitude repeatedly and all I did was send a single email introducing one friend to another, Shelley did the real work and made Bill very happy in a very hard time at the end of his life. Please, if you go see Shelley on her upcoming tour, thank her for the kindness she showed Bill, she’ll, with her tremendous modesty, say it “was no big deal” but, for Bill, the hour or so they spent together was very important.
Bill asked me to introduce him to a few other of my friends for whom he held a high level of admiration and I was able to fulfill a few of his wishes but we never had the opportunity to introduce him to Tyler Spivey, a young blind hacker whom Bill new since Tyler was a precocious 12 year old hanging out in hacker forums and such. I think Bill wanted to pass the torch to a new generation and nobody other than Tyler came close to embodying Bill’s hacker ethic in that age group.
I will miss Bill terribly, our entire community will miss Bill greatly and all hackers, whether they knew Bill or not, have lost one of their great champions and, for all of us, this is a very sad time.
When I first applied for the job I would ultimately land at Henter-Joyce, I did a handful of phone interviews with Jerry Bowman, Ted Henter and Glen Gordon. I apparently impressed them sufficiently and they flew me down to St. Petersburg to do my on-site interviews with the people who would either become my fellow executives at the company or who I would be managing. I was flying to Florida for a top position in the company leading JAWS, their premier product. When I deplaned in Tampa, I was greeted by an older gentleman who would identify himself as “Joe.”
As we drove from the airport to have dinner, I asked, “So, what do you do at HJ?” Joe proudly announced, “I’m the flunky, the driver, I do odd jobs.” I asked, “Then, we’re meeting programmers and managers at the restaurant?” Joe said, “Nope, I’m bringing you to Denny’s.” My first thoughts ran to, “pretty classy operation, they fly a guy to interview for a top position and only send the flunky to take him out for dinner?” By the end of that meal, Joe and I had become friends and we remained so until he passed away a couple of weeks ago.
During that first meal, Joe told me his life story. “When I got out of the navy, a buddy and I stole a car in Philadelphia and started driving west, stealing gas as we went. The car died in Iowa so I got a job there as a meat packer and did that until I retired.” He described the first time he met Ted Henter, “They did their dealer meeting at the hotel where I worked as the van driver, I thought he was great so I went to him and asked, ‘Mister Henter, do you need a flunky?’ and Ted hired me on the spot.”
As Joe was our driver, he and I would spend a lot of time in the Henter’s Chevy Suburban going back and forth to the airport, to meetings and other events around Tampa Bay and occasionally all of the way to Orlando. We spent hours talking about the sorts of things Joe enjoys: baseball, hockey, weather, pretty girls but, more than anything, Joe wanted to talk about helping blind people. After the merger that turned Henter-Joyce, Blazie Engineering and Arkenstone into Freedom Scientific, Lee Hamilton, demonstrating his amazing lack of human understanding, insisted that Joe retire. I’m happy to say that I organized his retirement dinner at a local dog track because Joe loved the track, he loved the dogs and he loved the HJ gang and we were able to bring all of them together for him. As the party was breaking up and we were counting our winnings and/or losses from our $2 bets, Joe came to me and asked, “Did you arrange this?” I said that I had and I got the biggest bear hug from a man who resembled Santa Claus with a white beard and big belly started crying. It was the most moving moment I can recall having in the six years I spent at that company.
When Lee hamilton forced me to resign and started his tremendous efforts (nine separate law suit attempts) to shut me up, I refused and continued blogging and telling the truth. Then, Hamilton took his attacks on me to a personal level and forced the remaining friends I had at FS to either cease communication with me or risk unemployment. This became a terribly lonely time for me, at FS we worked incredibly long hours, almost every friend I had in that geographic area were also FS employees and few were willing to risk the wrath of Hamilton to spend time with or even talk to me. Telling the truth is a good thing, I’m glad I did but, when I set out on that path, I didn’t expect the retribution to be so swift, harsh and nearly constant for more than two years.
During this miserable period in my life, Joe, Ted and I would get together for lunch weekly and Joe turned from being a good friend into being a spare grandpa for me and my wife. Who can’t love having Santa as a spare grandfather?
In the years since that time, my life has grown much better, Ted Henter moved to Panama but Joe and I continued going to lunch together as often as we could. Like other old men, Joe would call me on the phone to talk abut those topics that he enjoyed. Sometimes, I’d get a call from Joe and all he’d want to say is, “It’s raining pretty hard, huh?” He wasn’t calling to talk about the weather immediately outside my front door but, rather, to make sure I had some company and to make sure I knew that someone out there from those days at HJ still loved me.
I’m finding it hard to write more about Joe. The rest is too personal, too painful but, suffice it to say that, once, Joe actually saved my life.
I will always love Joe and his lovely wife Bunny, who survives him, my own grandparents had died years earlier and it was great having a spare pair when I really needed them. Joe will live in my heart forever.