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|Oral History Interview
with Lindsay Cherry
KENNELLY: Was there anyone on the faculty who was a mentor to you here, who was particularly helpful?
CHERRY: There were a few, but one gentleman in particular—when I was here, one thing was I really had serious problems with my eyes, and glasses did not correct the condition. I would get tremendous pain just trying to read, and this gentleman, Dr. David Levi who was in the chemistry—I was in his chemistry class. He went way out of his way to try to help me correct my—he sent me to opticians. They gave me glasses, had me cover one eye and those things, but those things didn't help. In my sophomore year, a group of doctors came from Langley Air Force Base, and when this ophthalmologist, Capt. Edward L. Liva, examined my eyes, he said, "You can't read. How do you stay here? You can't read." I said, "I've been trying to tell people this," because if I had a book to read, I would probably read the front of the book, the back of the book, a little bit in the middle and go and take the test. Reading was an almost impossible thing for me to do.
KENNELLY: So physically you just couldn't read because of the eye condition.
CHERRY: Yes, and he set up for me to have my first eye operations in 1956 during the spring break. A doctor named J. Wickham Taylor in Norfolk, Virginia. He operated on both of my eyes and gave me a series of exercises to do. I came back, and I didn't see any noticeable change in my condition.
KENNELLY: Are you able to read now?
CHERRY: Oh yes. What happened now—when I left here in '57, I went to New York, because this doctor, Edward L. Liva, from Ridgewood, New Jersey, and he operated on my eyes two more times.
KENNELLY: And then finally they were able to help you?
CHERRY: Oh yes, he helped quite a bit.
KENNELLY: Wow. So how could you get by in your courses, then? If you couldn't read the work, did you just have to pick up what you could in class?
CHERRY: Yes, and I'd look at it a little while, and then I'd just have to stop and then look again. But I was never able to really sit down and focus on reading per se. I know we're not going to turn this loose now [chuckle], because those things I don't talk about.
KENNELLY: Was a lot of what you were learning just by listening?
CHERRY: Yes. You know, just being in an environment, you learn a lot. One thing I maintain is if you get out of the process of trying to think and just let your subconscious take over, everything comes faster to you. In other words, if you wanted to play tennis, if you just say, "Bounce, hit," rather than thinking of all the mechanics of hitting a tennis ball, you'd be amazed at how good you would be, because then you go to your genius level. You go past the conscious to that sub-conscious level, and that's where we all try to function out of. You get to the point where you do repetitions to move where you don't have to think about doing things, and once you do that, that's when you are at your best. Do you agree?
KENNELLY: I do.
CHERRY: For instance, if you take a baseball player, as long as he has to think about hitting, he's not going to do well, because that's at the conscious level. You have to be at that level where it just happens. In other words, if you have to think about your heart beating, breathing and all those things—so we have all that genius within us. Things just go on happening. If you continue to tap that, there's no limit to what you can do.
KENNELLY: Was this condition with your eyes—was that something that was happening in high school, too?
CHERRY: Yes, it always—sometimes people thought I was lazy, but I just had a problem reading. It's not something you talk about, you know.
KENNELLY: Well, it's a definite—it's like a physical handicap.
CHERRY: It was a handicap. Well, I realize it now that it was a handicap.
KENNELLY: Yes. If you can't read, and you get an assignment that requires reading 50 pages—
CHERRY: Especially when I got here [chuckle]. Like I told you, people realized that I had ability, but I was not an honor student when I came here.
KENNELLY: Were you able to pass your courses?
CHERRY: What do you mean? Here or in high school?
CHERRY: I did well.
KENNELLY: Could you keep up with them?
CHERRY: Yes, I did well. In the last year, I feel that, after I had that operation -- maybe after the doctor told me, "You can't read," with my eyesight [I thought], "Well I've got a reason now to." I think I was really slacking off then.
KENNELLY: Yes, that got you up in the genius level.
KENNELLY: I mean then you started to be conscious of it in a way.
CHERRY: I think maybe I didn't try as hard. You know, you're revealing things here that I don't talk to other people about.
KENNELLY: That happens sometimes in an interview. But you'll get to review the whole thing, and we can talk about it. Did you experience any racial discrimination from your professors? Did you feel like—
CHERRY: I want to say the one professor I really remember in a great way was "Bull" Wright. When he'd give you an exam, he would draw a big bull's eye on the board, and he would say, "Hit the eye, but don't shoot the bull," and I just thought that he was probably one of the most marvelous people I ever met. But I did have a case where one teacher gave me an F, and I thought for sure I would get no less than a B in that course. That was only one instance. Otherwise, I found the teachers all very fair.
KENNELLY: So it was like unfair?
CHERRY: I'm not saying. It could have been that I really failed, but I thought I was going to get a B in the course or a minimum of a C. There's another time when I thought I would get a C in the course, and the teacher gave me an A, so what are you going to do? It goes both ways.
KENNELLY: Yes. Did you talk to the professor who gave you the—
CHERRY: No, I didn't.
KENNELLY: What was your social life like when you were here?
CHERRY: Yes. In what way?
KENNELLY: Well, [unclear -- both talking at once].
CHERRY: Well, we did not associate too much with the kids on campus. There was a very small black community here. I went to church often and sang in the choir over on Clay Street. People were very nice, though, a very quiet community. It was a different type of environment from that of the city, and I really enjoyed living up here in these hills. I became a hillbilly [chuckle].
KENNELLY: Did you date?
KENNELLY: Did you go out on dates?
CHERRY: Well, we talked to people, you know, but it was not a big deal. A few of the guys had girlfriends back at home. I didn't, but there were a few people I talked to, no big deal.
KENNELLY: What about the school dances? Did you ever wish that you could take a girl and go to some of the school dances?
CHERRY: Oh talking about that, we would go to—during that time, the rock 'n roll shows would be in Roanoke, and we'd go to things like that.
KENNELLY: Rock 'n roll shows?
CHERRY: Yes, during the '50s at Roanoke Arena.
KENNELLY: Was that a live concert type thing?
CHERRY: Yes, and during those shows, blacks were downstairs, and the whites would be upstairs.
KENNELLY: And then they'd bring in various singers?
KENNELLY: That probably was kind of fun.
CHERRY: It was okay.
KENNELLY: What about school dances here?
CHERRY: What about them?
KENNELLY: Did you want to go?
CHERRY: Not particularly.
KENNELLY: Did it feel hard to be excluded from a lot of— [tape ends].
[End Side A; begin Side B]
CHERRY: See, one thing I—well, even then I find that life—You can sit down and make yourself miserable if you want to, or you can go on and enjoy life. If you can enjoy yourself why are you worried about other things? And I enjoyed me, and I enjoyed the other people around me. If you didn't want me, I sure didn't want to be around you. That was my attitude, you know. With some people, you do feel that you know you are as good as others, and if you feel people treat you differently, you may have some thoughts about it, but some people may internalize it. Others just pass it off and keep moving. I tend to try to pass it off and keep moving, but there were times when people once or twice made me pretty angry.
KENNELLY: What happened?
CHERRY: I don't know [chuckle].
KENNELLY: Did you ever go to the Lyric Theatre?
CHERRY: No—oh, the movie theater? Is that the name of it?
CHERRY: Oh, yes. We sat upstairs.
KENNELLY: Did you ever try to sit downstairs?
CHERRY: No. I didn't make waves. We were here for an education. That was our—well, to me anyway. I had enough problems trying to get those assignments learned [laughter].
KENNELLY: I understand. What about going to the barber? Was that a problem here?
CHERRY: Well, we were not allowed to. I'm sure you've heard of that. We were not allowed to. I really don't want to get into a lot of controversial stuff. We were not allowed to get our hair cut on campus, so there was another gentleman we went to, a gentleman [Charles Johnson] in town, who cut our hair.
KENNELLY: Did you belong to any organizations or—
CHERRY: No, but Yates did.
KENNELLY: He did, but as far as you? You didn't?
CHERRY: I didn't qualify [chuckle].
KENNELLY: Did you feel comfortable in Blacksburg just walking around?
CHERRY: Oh yes, never a problem.
CHERRY: There were times I'd get out there and hitch hike. Maybe I shouldn't tell it now, but just get out on the road and hitch hike.
KENNELLY: Did people pick you up?
CHERRY: Oh, yes.
KENNELLY: And no one ever—
CHERRY: Never a problem. I would hitch hike all the way to Norfolk.
KENNELLY: Oh, you did?
KENNELLY: That's how you'd get home?
CHERRY: Well no, I remember one time hitch hiking for a Thanksgiving Day affair. I hitch hiked all the way to Norfolk.
KENNELLY: Did you have your uniform on?
KENNELLY: I bet that would make a difference, too.
CHERRY: Yes, and you find out how nice—people are really nice. You may find one or two, but generally people, I believe, are kind hearted. Unfortunately, that one or two can run havoc, you know.
KENNELLY: That's true.
CHERRY: And it runs across color lines, you know.
KENNELLY: Yes, I suppose. When you think of your time at Tech, are there any incidents that stand out in your memory?
CHERRY: Well, I had this incident when I started working as a programmer [around 1970-1971] for the postal service. They had this problem for about six months. No one could resolve it, and they looked at me and said, "Nah, he certainly can't resolve it." [chuckle] So they gave it to different people for about six months. I say about six months. It may have been less time. Finally, they gave it to me and in two minutes, bam, it was resolved.
KENNELLY: You got it?
CHERRY: Yes, because it was a three-dimensional matrix. It was hidden in the program. During that time, you developed programs where you didn't want other people to try to understand them so you would always have a job. But after that, they all came—[laughter]. Following that, they gave me the financial system for the postal service to build, the budgetary system. That was for the whole country, now. That's not just local, so I became a superstar after that three-dimensional matrix, and I stuck with what would work.
KENNELLY: Because of your technical base?
CHERRY: I had that technical background.
KENNELLY: When you're talking about that post office --
CHERRY: Postal service.
KENNELLY: Postal service—that's after you were at Tech—where you got it to work. And you were working where at that point?
CHERRY: New York Postal Data Center.
KENNELLY: So did you end up working with computers and things then?
CHERRY: Yes, I was in computers. I call myself a systems engineer. I gave myself my own title.
KENNELLY: Now, what happened then? You went here for three years.
KENNELLY: And then what happened then?
CHERRY: I went to New York primarily to talk to the doctor who had recommended that I get my eyes operated on. I primarily went there to see him, because I felt that he could help me correct my problem. But while there, I decided to try to become a singer—amateur stuff. I was at the Apollo Theatre twice.
KENNELLY: You were at the Apollo Theatre?
CHERRY: Yes, on an amateur show.
CHERRY: Carnegie Hall—I sang there and Town Hall, those places.
KENNELLY: Oh my.
CHERRY: Yes, but it was only amateur like stuff. But when I left here, I really felt I was wearing a badge of dishonor because I felt I had really let a lot of people down who expected a lot more from me. That's the way I felt, and it was later that my feelings changed, and I felt I became a very productive person, very productive.
KENNELLY: Did you do anything else in the military after leaving here?
CHERRY: I was drafted in 1960 but only as an enlisted man. I managed a field house in Korea and things like that.
KENNELLY: That's what they had you do?
CHERRY: That's what I did, yes.
KENNELLY: I mean because wouldn't your eyes affect it at that point, or were your eyes okay by then?
CHERRY: I didn't have to read doing that. Oh, my eyes—by 1960, I had had two additional operations.
KENNELLY: Right. I just meant generally, as far as being drafted, that wouldn't have been a—
CHERRY: That wouldn't be a deterrent.
CHERRY: I was in great shape. It's just that, if I tried to read over an extended period of time, the pain was just too great. See, when you read—you may not know it, but when you read, your eyes converge. See, I couldn't do that. My eyes tended to move out. The outside muscles were stronger than the inside muscles.
KENNELLY: So you could see for a while, maybe, or—
CHERRY: Very short periods.
KENNELLY: A short period.
CHERRY: Very short, yes.
KENNELLY: But after the operations, was that still a problem? Was reading still a problem for you then?
CHERRY: Reading is only a problem, because I never did become a speed reader. I still—you know when you learn in school—I don't know how you learned to read, but we learned word by word, "Come see Jane," you know, and I was around a lot of people who could read a whole page at one time. I went to a few classes for speed reading, but I never did become a speed reader. I still read, in my mind you know, word by word. How do you read?
KENNELLY: I don't know. I mean I love to read. I—
CHERRY: Would you consider yourself more than average?
KENNELLY: I read a lot, a lot more than my son wants to read. He doesn't want to read at all. But I like to read.
CHERRY: But how long does it take you to get through a page?
KENNELLY: I'm probably fast but definitely not a speed reader. I mean I—
CHERRY: Well, compared to me you are a speed reader.
KENNELLY: I don't know.
CHERRY: But you know you really find that that is a limiting factor here, that your reading level is not high—plus your comprehension. The faster you read, the better your comprehension also.
KENNELLY: I think it would be, in college especially, it would be a terrific—
CHERRY: Yes, if you're in certain responsible positions, and mail pile up on your desk like this, and you have to get through all that stuff. But I never could speed read. I never could improve my reading to the point where I was comfortable.
KENNELLY: Well, how did you manage with that in your professional life? Were you able to compensate for that because you didn't have to do any reading, or you just—
CHERRY: Oh, I did a lot of reading. I love to read. Now, I read a book in a minute. I became very good at reading. I would try to read at least one book a week once I became good at it, not but...—I started reading and was able to read.
KENNELLY: Once you had the operation, did it change for you?
CHERRY: Once I had the operation, I still didn't do anything. It was only in 1968 that I really started making a move to really make my life more meaningful.
KENNELLY: What made you decide to do that then?
CHERRY: Martin Luther King's death.
CHERRY: Yes. I said, "Now, here's a man who has given his life to make my life better, and I'm sitting around here just wiling away the time," and at that time, I redefined myself and transformed my life at that moment. I became a different person.
KENNELLY: How did you transform your life?
CHERRY: Well, I decided on having goals. I went into the computer field.
KENNELLY: You went into the computer field?
CHERRY: Yes, and there was no looking back.
KENNELLY: It sounds like you had a mind for that. I mean what you were saying about fixing that problem. I think it was what you called the matrix thing, that maybe that was something that was good for you the way you could do it.
CHERRY: Yes. I think I can do anything. Don't you feel that way about life?
KENNELLY: I don't know if I could play tennis, like you say, at the genius level.
KENNELLY: When you're talking about the genius level, I mean I wish I could play tennis like that.
CHERRY: You know the key thing in life is your belief system. That drives you, you know. What you believe doesn't necessarily have to be true, but if you believe it, you will achieve. But you have to believe you can do it, and if you truly believe you can do it, there's nothing to keep you from really accomplishing it. Do you agree?
KENNELLY: Yes, I think I do.
CHERRY: You know, you take people who really don't believe that they—who believe they cannot do—
KENNELLY: If you believe you can't, you'll never do it.
CHERRY: Yes, so just as you believe you can't, that's not necessarily true, but the fact that you believe it means that what? You can't do it, so why not turn and be positive about it and say, "Hey, believe that you can. Why believe that you can't? Always believe that you can, and you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish." I just believe that I can do anything. It doesn't have to be true, but I believe it.