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Blind volunteer makes memorable contribution to Pasco elderly nutrition program

John Wimberly asked for a date, any date.

Okay, I said, Dec. 24, 1971, my wedding anniversary.

"It was a Friday,'' he said, correctly. "I read A Separate Peace by John Knowles. My mother had gotten it when I was in 10th grade English. It was a talking book, but I didn't get around to reading it until that Christmas Eve.''

What about Christmas Day?

"Longest football game in history,'' Wimberly responded. "Garo Yepremian kicked a field goal in the second overtime and the Miami Dolphins beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-24.''

We could do this all day.

Diane Cunningham, the assistant manager at Pasco Elderly Nutrition where Wimberly volunteers 40 hours a week, took a turn. She saw the Beatles at Suffolk Downs in Boston on Aug. 18, 1966.

"That was a Thursday,'' he said, closing his eyes and nodding toward the floor. "We were on vacation in the Florida Keys, and on the way back to Miami we had a flat tire on our boat trailer. Dad had to leave us to get it fixed. I listened to a baseball game on the radio — the California Angels and Minnesota Twins. Frank Malzone hit into two double plays.''

"No way,'' I said. "Malzone played his whole career with the Red Sox.''

"Nope,'' Wimberly replied.

I looked it up. He was right.

Wimberly, 62, blind since birth when his mother contracted rubella, can remember details of every day since at least Sept. 3, 1957. "A Tuesday,'' he said. "It was my first day of school. We lived in Miami. The resource teacher said to my mother I would be in a classroom with sighted kids. I didn't know that term. I thought it was like a vegetable or something. I said, 'I don't like sighted kids,' and my mom said, 'You'd better.' ''

Details. He remembers everything, not just historical events like the day the Challenger exploded or JFK was assassinated. His head is full of sports trivia and musical lyrics, which he'll cheerfully demonstrate in a pleasing baritone. Ask him any date over the last half century and it's as if he presses an imaginary button that scans calendars and almanacs. He remembers colors, car models, what he was wearing on a certain day, who said what and when.

He's never been tested, but he almost certainly falls into an exclusive club of individuals with something scientists call "highly superior autobiographical memory.'' They have identified just 33 cases since the first was recognized in 2006.

Researchers, not surprisingly, have found that people with this rare talent have more gray matter in the areas of the brain that control memory. They hope further study of the phenomenon might unlock neurological mysteries such as Alzheimer's.

"To me, it's just natural,'' Wimberly said.

His gift fascinates the folks at Pasco Elderly Nutrition, where he has directed telephone calls since 2006. Manager Gabriel Papadopoulos takes him to meetings and is amazed when weeks later Wimberly can recite even arcane details without notes.

"He's always right,'' Papadopoulos said.

Wimberly grew up in Miami. His father, Billy, was an Air Force veteran who worked in law enforcement. His mother, Betty, was a registered nurse with 29 years service in the Navy and Air Force. They also had another son, William, five years younger than John. Both boys graduated from Miami Southwest High. John secured a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1975 at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he lived in a dorm.

Despite that education and further training in real estate, he was unable to find suitable employment. "I wanted to work like everyone else,'' he said, "but 75 to 85 percent of blind people in this country are unemployed.''

He moved with his parents to Winter Haven and Orlando and grew depressed at his inability to support himself. A doctor suggested he might feel better if he started volunteering and in 1988 he signed on with the Orange County Legal Aid Society. He stayed there until his parents moved to New Port Richey in 1993. (John knows the exact day.)

He volunteered several years at First Call for Help, an information and referral service, and the Good Samaritan Health Clinic before settling at the elderly nutrition program. In 2008, the Pasco County Commission honored him for his service and inspiration.

"This is the best place I've ever been,'' he said. "These are moral, dedicated people. Since my parents died (in 2004 and 2006), they have been my family.''

Diane Cunningham, the assistant manager, says the feeling is more than mutual. "He does more for us, believe me,'' she said. "We love John.''

The program serves 800 people a day through home delivery and congregate meals. It depends heavily on volunteers, especially during the recent recession and budget cuts. The volunteer program was honored with a "Best of Category'' this year by the National Association of Counties.

Wimberly intends to stay there as long as his health permits. He's happiest during the week because he can go to work. It helps him cope with the downside of his fantastic memory. The pain of losing his parents is always fresh.

It also defines his primary goal: "I want to be good in life so when my time does come, I can be with my parents. I miss them terribly.''

Blind volunteer makes memorable contribution to Pasco elderly nutrition program 07/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 7:06pm]
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