For your approval
Ernie Berry of Green Springs is to have a book signing 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday at Paper and Ink in downtown Tiffin. “Tried, Tested & Being Approved: The Ernie Berry Story” is an autobiographical account of Berry’s first 26 years of life with observations and personal principles woven into the inspirational story.
Berry, 29, has accomplished much in spite of serious physical conditions. He puts his Christian beliefs in the forefront as an important force in his life, with God mentioned in the first sentence of the book. Succeeding paragraphs pay tribute to his parents, good friends and other people who have enriched his life. A sense of humor also is detectable early on.
“I was born April 15, 1984 – tax day, the Titanic sunk, Abraham Lincoln died. It’s a tragic day in history I was born,” Berry said.
Blind from birth, he can see light and dark, but he cannot distinguish colors or shapes. Even so, Berry does not consider his life tragic, but triumphant.
The Berry family lived in east Toledo, where his dad was a city bus driver and his mom was a teacher for students with learning disabilities. Berry has an older brother and a younger sister. His mother homeschooled him until third grade and signed him up for summer camps at the Ohio State School for the Blind in Columbus.
“In the fourth grade, my parents thought it was necessary to allow me to go to a classroom that had adaptive computer software and technology for the blind and visually impaired. That classroom in Toledo was at the Elmhurst Elementary School, which was on the west side, so I had to commute,” Berry said.
Commuting meant he had to learn how to cross busy streets and ride public transportation without assistance. His senses became sharper to detect the sounds and air movements from passing vehicles and people. Even then, he suffered numerous falls, bumps and bruises from obstacles and from rowdy passers-by.
At the same time, he tried to focus on the positive events of each day rather than on the negatives.
After that year, the teacher thought mainstreaming Berry would give him more opportunities for social interaction and academic advancement. So he started fifth grade at Reymer Elementary, closer to his home. His parents took him on trips and tried to give him as many experiences as possible to increase his knowledge and self-confidence.
“Mom would make me hike the Grand Canyon, Hocking Hills, Machu Picchu in Peru,” Berry said.
Then it was on to East Toledo Junior High School. In spite of his low vision, Berry was able to participate in several sports as long as his teammates directed him toward the ball. He ran cross country races and did triathlons with his dad; however, the physical activity abruptly stopped when Berry was in eighth grade.
After an “acute neurological attack,” he was hospitalized for nearly a month while his doctors were trying to make a diagnosis. During that time, he took pleasure in playing chess, which he had learned a few years before that. Not long after his release, Berry won a chess tournament.
Berry was diagnosed with spastic paraplegic neuropathy, a group of diseases that includes cerebral palsy. In an effort to understand his condition, Berry studied the nervous system. In the process, he also learned to process and remember information quickly and accurately.
The malfunctioning nerves in Berry’s legs caused spasms, rigidity, weakness and difficulty bearing weight. Physical therapy did bring some mobility but also plenty of pain. Somehow, Berry surmised he would need to overcome his limitations with even more optimism and determination. Those assets also helped him to break his dependence on prescription pain medications.
The next adventure was classes at Waite High School. The gym teacher there encouraged Berry to lift weights to develop his upper body. He was able to compete and win awards in weightlifting competitions.
Berry said succeeding at chess and weightlifting gave him a sense of accomplishment.
“Neither one of them puts bread on the table, but it shows what is possible if you put your mind to it,” he observed.
Because he could no longer partake in physical activities, he took honors classes and concentrated on academics. During his junior year, Berry looked into acquiring a service dog so he could travel without a cane. He thought a dog would notice hanging branches and other obstacles a cane does not detect.
The main drawback was training facilities that did not want to match a highly-trained dog with a person in certain social situations, such as a busy high school setting.
Berry decided to take post-secondary classes his senior year at The University of Toledo.
“At that time, I had all the necessary computer hardware and software that allowed me to learn,” Berry said. “I have a computer program called Kursweil Educational System. It was actually developed by Ray Kursweil back in the late ’70s. Kursweil made keyboards, and one of his biggest clients was Stevie Wonder.”
Later, Kursweil invented a device that could convert text to audio. Initially, the unit was as large as a washing machine, but the latest versions can be applied on an iPhone. Berry said he can scan a book two pages at a time and then the voice- synthesizing feature reads it back to him at a rate of 600 words per minute. He can read about 300 pages in 90 minutes.
Also, Berry has closed-circuit television that can magnify images up to 36 times, ZoomText software to magnify computer-based content and a cell phone that can receive a complete text file from his computer and convert it to audio.
Berry did get a service dog, Calypso, a boxer, from Pilot Dogs in Columbus. The organization trains about 150 guide dogs annually and places them with people all over the world. Pilot Dogs prefers breeds such as golden retrievers, standard poodles, German shepherds and boxers.
During his first year of college, Berry also graduated from high school. His achievements earned him the Ohio State Arrow Award for scholastic proficiency. He hosted a radio show at the UT radio station playing music and offering commentary on “anything that was not fiction.”
As a college senior, Berry interned at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., with intentions of going on to law school. Witnessing “too many kangaroo courts and show trials” changed his opinion of the legal system.
“You had the guy with the gun and the fingerprints and all this evidence, but because of the composition of the jury, they let him off, just because. … When I saw that first-hand, I figured I can do better and not waste three or four years in law school. There’s already an over-saturation of lawyers in Toledo and all over the place,” Berry said.
After graduating from UT, Berry ran for Toledo City Council. While campaigning, someone mistook him for an intoxicated person with a pit bull and called the police.
“That was an interesting experience, walking with Calypso, tripping up and down the steps and sidewalks, door-to-dooring it, city fairs and all the rest, Berry said.
Although he lost the race, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner hired Berry to work in his administration for about five years. Berry also completed a master’s degree in public administration and a post-graduate degree in non-profit management and municipal administration.
Berry also paid $1 for a ramshackle house in a run-down Toledo neighborhood, rehabilitated it and sold it. When Michael Bell became mayor of Toledo, Berry continued on the city payroll, but working in a bureaucracy became frustrating for him. He called it “a microcosm of the federal government.”
“I resigned and went to Bible college down in Columbus, Valor Christian College,” Berry said. “Right after my second semester, I studied in Israel for a month. … It was a comprehensive study tour of Israel and Jordan from the standpoint of language, culture and geography.”
The hiking and traveling he had done in younger years was good preparation for the trip, which took place last summer. Berry said the group visited sites that were important in the region’s history as well as in Biblical history. He read “Lawrence of Arabia” and other literature related to the area.
Since returning to the U.S., Berry has been working as a lecturer for Answers In Genesis, traveling and speaking at churches, nursing homes and schools. This past spring, he was the featured speaker at the Lions Club awards ceremony at Old Fort High School.
He also is to address the congregation at Old Fort United Methodist Church at 10 a.m. Sunday, the day after the book signing.
“I go really wherever anybody will have me. I’m talking to kids in schools. … they’re not afraid to ask difficult questions,” Berry said. “I love talking to people who are thinkers, but also doers.”
Although he came from a charismatic Christian background, Berry never planned to do full-time ministry. It came about while pursuing other occupations and discovering “what really matters.”
Now, his goal is to pass along what he has learned to others. He said people of all ages can find something of value in his story.
“If it was my preference, I wouldn’t have a story,” Berry said.
Because he may not ever return to a given venue, he likes to pack a lot of information into his talks. Sometimes, his parents drive him to speaking engagements, but he is not afraid to travel with just his service dog. When Calypso died, Berry received Blue about two months ago. (He finds the humor in her name, Blue Berry).
Calypso was with Berry for 11 years.
“She made it through college and the next master’s program, graduate school, Washington, D.C., and all over the place. Now, it’s Blue’s turn,” Berry said.
The boxer is helping Berry to navigate his new career and place of residence. The family ended up in Green Springs when the author’s father retired after 31 years of driving a bus in Toledo. They live on a dairy farm formerly owned by his mother’s parents, Oral and Alice Barto, and farmed by an uncle for a time.
“The house was vacant and they just worked on selling their house on the east side and recently came out, about two months ago. Along with us came all those storms,” Berry said.
A huge barn that had stood next to the house on the property collapsed during the storms in early July. Living in Seneca County is giving Berry new venues at which to promote his book, which he self-published in 2010. So much more has transpired since then he is planning to write a sequel.
“Life is not to be coped with; it’s to be overcome,” he said.