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Posted on February 22, 2006
Section: News 
Page: 1


It's not about sight, it's about vision

Washington students learn about power of overcoming challenges

In some respects, Bill Wedekind is a lot like other baby boomers.

He talks about his grandchildren and his hobbies. He loves old western television shows from the 1950s and '60s and he loves making pottery.

Wedekind has one other passion - showing students what challenges can be overcome with perseverance. He should know, because even though he has lived most of his adult life as a blind double-amputee, he's become an accomplished potter.

Wedekind, 56, and his wife, Diana, braved the frigid temperatures last week, traveling from their home in Westmoreland, Kan., to do pottery demonstrations for about 300 students at Washington High School on Friday.

Wedekind was a Marine in Vietnam in 1968, and an explosion cost him both of his hands and his sight. He was 19 years old.

"By the time I went home, my grandmother figured out what I could do," said Wedekind. "She thought I could make pottery. I thought she was crazy, I couldn't even dress myself, but when I tried it, I knew this was it. I fell in love with it."

Wedekind tried prosthetics, but they did not work because blind people must have a sense of touch. By the early 1970s, doctors had split his forearms to essentially create two "fingers" on each arm. He's taken college courses for his art, but couldn't earn an arts degree because art is visual, he said. He learned most of his craft through his grandmother and through trial and error, and now produces several hundred pieces of pottery a year.

Wedekind told the students that packed into Chuck Watson's art class about his history, which included alcohol abuse in his family

"I had two choices: I could feel sorry for myself, or I could get up and make something of myself, and self-pity didn't work for me," Wedekind said. "I was also third-generation Marine and I was taught to never quit."

Watson met Wedekind last year at the Winfield Bluegrass Festival.

"I found him personable and inspiring because throwing pottery is not as easy as it looks," said Watson. "A lot of my students want to give up and don't want to go on with it and I wanted them to see him do it."

Michael Young, 17, a senior at Washington, was one of the students who took a lot more away from Wedekind's presentation.

"I learned today that it doesn't matter what your problems are, you can do anything if you put your mind to it," said Young. "He set his mind to do pottery and if any of us put our mind to it, we can do anything in this world."

Wedekind began talking to students when his son, who is now grown, was in preschool. He said he thinks it is important to help students understand that people with disabilities may look different, but they are the same as anyone on the outside.

"Seeing me takes those preconceived notions away for some," said Wedekind.

Even after all of these years, talking to students still makes him anxious and he likes to try to plan out what he will say.

"I don't write speeches; they wouldn't help, since I don't read notes," he quips.

Even so, "after getting up in the middle of the night and four hours of planning what I would say, I went completely off track," he said.

That didn't seem to matter to the students, who watched him throw pottery while telling the story of his life and improvising with some jokes. "I have the most fun of making fun of myself," he tells students.

Some students wanted to know whether he remembered the last television show he saw before he went blind; one student asked whether it bothered him when people call him "disabled," (it doesn't) and another wanted to know how he knows what colors to make his pottery.

"That's difficult sometimes, because they didn't have all the fancy names for colors back when I could see," said Wedekind. "Pink was pink, it wasn't mauve."

Wedekind showed some of his finished pottery, which he sells at several art and pottery shows each year. Diana helps finish the pottery and is an artist as well.

He also gave the students a polished stone to carry with them. When things get tough, he wants them to remember him.

"Most of these kids have faced or will face tough times in their lives," said Wedekind. "It's easy to give up, especially if they believe what they are facing is the toughest thing anyone could face. I want them to say, 'Look at what he's done; what's ahead of me is a piece of cake.' "

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