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Blindness doesn't hinder ranger's sense of direction

May 28, 1998|By CLYDE FORD

by Richard T. Meagher / staff photographer

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Ranger

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Ranger Chuck Dennis gives directions and describes what there is for visitors to see at the park when they stop at the information desk.

He's done it for 22 years despite the fact that he's never seen the park and admits he frequently gets lost when he walks through town.

Dennis, 45, has been blind since birth.

"Sometimes people stop in and don't notice I'm blind," said Dennis, who wears crimson-toned sunglasses.

Most of his time is spent behind the desk at the information center on Shenandoah Street, answering questions about the park for the thousands of tourists who pass through each week.

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"I guess I was lucky. My mom and dad were people people, and I'm a people person," Dennis said. "If you like people, it can get you through tough times. The neat thing about this job is you meet different people every day."

Arch Campbell, the Channel 4 movie critic, visited Harpers Ferry several years ago and was asking questions.

Dennis said he recognized the gravelly voice and placed it with the name. He recognized Campbell before his three sighted co-workers did.

It is more difficult for Dennis to find his way around than it is for him to give directions to visitors.

Dennis moves through town with the easy familiarity of a sighted man in his darkened bedroom, feeling his way around obstacles he knows are in his path.

"This is the only park I've worked, so that helps," Dennis said.

He taps his white cane against the curb until he finds the wheelchair slope that indicates a street crossing. He taps his way across the intersection, listening for cars as his cane bumps the curb on the other side of the street.

Construction and restoration work can cause unexpected detours for Dennis.

"I'm certainly not immune to getting myself lost. It just happens sometimes," he said.

Dennis recieved his high school diploma from the Maryland School for the Blind.

He was at his Martinsburg, W.Va., home looking for a job when a friend told him about an opening at the park. He went for an interview and a week later was offered a job.

Dennis gathered information about the park by following other rangers on tours, reading books in braille and listening to books on tape.

Dennis wanted to be a radio personality. He still listens to a wide range of radio programs, particularly sports. One of his hobbies is listening to radio contests and calling in to try to win prizes.

"Radio was my first love," he said.

Once he learns a fact he seldom forgets it, whether it is about Harpers Ferry's history or a phone number.

"My friends call me a walking phone directory," Dennis said.

Ranger Michael Dixon said Dennis knows the park's history well.

"Chuck's a remarkable person. He's wonderful to be around," Dixon said.

Dennis said he sometimes feels frustrated about being in such a scenic area and never getting to see it. He said he has an image in his mind of what it looks like, the same way he imagines colors.

"One problem I have is if you don't drive a car or don't own one ... you have to rely on public transportation, and public transportation in this area is minimal at best," Dennis said. He usually takes the Pan-Tran bus from Martinsburg to Harpers Ferry, but it doesn't run on weekends, so he has to either take a taxi or call a friend.

"Being blind doesn't bother me, but the public transportation does," he said.

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