As a man goes blind, his friend watches his back

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - PAUL HOND

The univer­sity room­mates who stood side-by-side when one lost his sight.

One day dur­ing his first year at Columbia Univer­sity, San­ford ‘Sandy’ Green­berg stood on cam­pus by a grassy plot with his class­mate Arthur Gar­funkel. “San­ford, look at that patch of grass. You see the colours? The shapes? The way the blades bend?” Gar­funkel asked. Green­berg was smit­ten. Other guys talked about girls and sports, but Gar­funkel wanted to talk about ... a patch of grass!

Was there a luck­ier guy on cam­pus than Green­berg? Here he was, a poor kid from Buf­falo, New York, on full schol­ar­ship, tak­ing classes from su­per­stars such as an­thro­pol­o­gist Mar­garet Mead, physi­cist Leon Le­d­er­man, his­to­rian James Shen­ton, and poet Mark Van Doren. And he had a great new pal, a brainy kid from New York with a pure tenor voice.

But in the sum­mer of 1960, just be­fore his third year, Green­berg’s for­tune changed. He was in Buf­falo, play­ing base­ball, when his vi­sion “steamed up”. He had to lie down on the grass un­til the clouds went away. The doc­tor said it was al­ler­gic con­junc­tivi­tis.

Back at univer­sity that au­tumn, Green­berg had more episodes, but he didn’t tell any­one. He didn’t be­lieve it was any­thing se­ri­ous. Still, his room­mates – Gar­funkel and Jerry Speyer – saw that he was hav­ing trou­ble.

On the first morn­ing of fi­nal ex­ams, Gar­funkel es­corted Green­berg to the univer­sity gym, where ex­ams were held. Green­berg started writ­ing at 9am. By 10.30, he couldn’t see a thing. He lurched to the front of the gym and handed his blue book to the proc­tor. “I can’t see, sir,” he said. The proc­tor laughed. “I’ve heard some ter­rific ex­cuses,” he said, “but that’s the best.”

Green­berg went back to Buf­falo, where he re­ceived an­other di­ag­no­sis: glau­coma. That win­ter, doc­tors op­er­ated on Green­berg’s eyes. The surgery didn’t work. Green­berg was go­ing blind. He was so de­pressed that he re­fused to see any­one from univer­sity.

But Gar­funkel went up to Buf­falo any­way.

“I don’t want to talk,” Green­berg told him.

“San­ford, you must talk,” said ­Gar­funkel who then per­suaded Green­berg to go back to Columbia and of­fered to be his reader.

In Septem­ber 1961, Green­berg re­turned to cam­pus. Gar­funkel,

Speyer and a third friend read text­books to him, tak­ing time out from their own stud­ies, and Green­berg ended up scor­ing A’s. Still, he was ten­ta­tive about get­ting around alone and re­lied on friends to help him.

Then, one af­ter­noon, Green­berg and Gar­funkel went to Man­hat­tan. When it was time for Green­berg to go back to cam­pus, Gar­funkel said he had an ap­point­ment and couldn’t ac­com­pany him. Green­berg pan­icked. They ar­gued, and Gar­funkel walked off, leav­ing Green­berg alone in Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal. Green­berg, bewil­dered, stum­bled through the rush-hour crowd. He took a train to Times Square, then trans­ferred to an­other train. Six kilo­me­tres later, he got off at the Columbia Univer­sity stop. At the univer­sity’s gates, some­one bumped into him. “Oops, ex­cuse me, sir.” Green­berg knew the voice. It was Gar­funkel’s. Green­berg’s first re­ac­tion was rage, but in the next sec­ond, he re­alised what he had just ac­com­plished – and re­alised, too, who had made it pos­si­ble.

“It was one of the most bril­liant strate­gies,” says Green­berg. “Arthur, of course, had been with me the whole way.”

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, Green­berg got his MBA from Columbia and a PhD from Har­vard. He mar­ried his girl­friend Sue, was a White House fel­low in the John­son ad­min­is­tra­tion, and went on to be­come a suc­cess­ful in­ven­tor, busi­ness­man and a cham­pion for the blind.

Gar­funkel went on to be­come one-half of the 1960s folk-rock duo Si­mon & Gar­funkel.

Re­cently, Green­berg re­cal led Gar funkel read­ing him Our Town by Thorn­ton Wilder. The play’s mes­sage is that hu­mans, caught up in daily con­cerns, fai l to ap­pre­ci­ate life’s beauty and pre­cious­ness. “That’s all hu­man be­ings are!” says the char­ac­ter Emily Webb Gibbs, a dead wo­man look­ing down upon the liv­ing and as­ton­ished by their folly. “Just blind peo­ple!”

Not Green­berg. He sees ev­ery­thing, sings ev­ery bless­ing, great and small: from the love of his fam­ily and friends to the dew-­dap­pled grooves of a blade of grass.

“You are talk­ing,” he says to­day, “to the luck­i­est man in the world.”

The two friends dur­ing their univer­sity days in the early ’60s

San­ford Green­berg (left) and Art Gar­funkel in the grounds of Columbia Univer­sity in 2016

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