Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Blind Pastor/Coach Has Great Vision

[By Joe Cannon, Cleveland, TN Daily Banner]

An old Iranian proverbs says, “A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind.”

Such is the case of Jonathan Dukes, who despite having just 10 percent sight in the one eye he can see out of, sees better than many of us who have full vision.

One can call Dukes many things — a loving father and husband, an associate pastor, an author, a sports announcer, a softball pitcher — but to call him handicapped would show you don’t know him.

“I’m sure it freaks some people out to drive by and see me changing the letters on the church sign while I’m holding my white cane,” Dukes laughs. “Of course I guess no more so than seeing me be led to the pitching rubber on the softball field.”

The associate pastor of Keith Street Ministries Church of God of Prophecy, Dukes’ duties range from occasionally preaching to administrating the Practical Ministries Department to changing the messages on the church sign, just to mention a few.

“As Practical Ministries Director he connects members of our church with people who have practical needs so that those needs can be met,” Keith Street senior pastor John A. Stone explained.

“He’s also a very talented singer and often sings specials during services or for funerals,” Pastor Stone added. “He’s a tremendous help to me. He is loved by this congregation and a highly valued and respected minister of the Gospel.”

Dukes’ influence goes far beyond the four walls of his church. He is also a member of the Lee University baseball program, serving as the public address announcer for Flames’ home games.

“Jonathan is more than just a member of our support staff, he’s a personal friend” Lee head coach Mark Brew commented. “When we play out of town, he listens to the games on the radio or webcast and I’ll get an e-mail of congratulations or support from him after each game.”

“It’s not a job for him. He’s in it for the kids. He has a great, positive outlook on everything,” Coach Brew continued. “Each year before the season starts we have lunch with all the coaching staff and Jonathan and go over the team and the upcoming season. He’s an inspiration to me, my staff and the players. He’s great to have in our program.”

Letting young people know that obstacles in life can become opportunities, Dukes says one of the highest honors he’s ever received occurred when the Flames were awarded their NAIA Region XIII championship rings. The team presented him with one, as well.

“It’s a thrill for me to work with the Lee program, Mark (Brew) and all the coaches,” Dukes remarked. “When they gave me that ring it really let me know I am more than just a P.A. announcer — a part of the team. It made me feel I belong there.”

Dukes got the job with the Flames when his wife, Mary, an Instructor of Telecommunication at Lee, heard they were looking for someone to announce the games. “I told them my husband would be very interested in the job,” she related. “He loves sports and he jumped at the chance to be a part of the program.”

Dukes took over the Flame microphone in February of 2001 and until she became pregnant 2 1/2 years ago and could no longer climb the stairs to the press box, Mary was by his side running the scoreboard and playing the music between innings.

One of the highlights of his sports career came when Lee Sports Information Director George Starr asked him to do color commentary on a radio broadcast of a game between the Flames and Cumberland University.

“I loved doing the game with George and because of that people still think I do the radio,” Dukes commented.

“Working that game with Jonathan was one of the highlights of my broadcast career,” Starr commented. “Despite his vision problems, he still found a way to follow the action and came up with some of the most amazing descriptions and statistics I’ve ever heard.”

“He is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known,” Starr continued. “He is always upbeat and willing to contribute in any way to help the program.”

Dukes’ sports enthusiasm is not limited to the broadcast booth. Last summer he returned to the playing field for the first time since 1998, pitching slow-pitch softball for Keith Street’s men’s church league team.

Wearing a special helmet with a face mask, Dukes is led to the rubber and can see the ball when it is rolled back to him between pitches.

“I first started playing softball when we lived in Mississippi and Mary coached a co-ed team,” Dukes related. “In co-ed they use two different size balls for the men and women and the umpire would change them out. I’d occasionally hear an ump holler ‘sorry’ as he would forget to roll the ball and throw it at me instead.” Like many athletes, Dukes suffered a couple of injuries. Once he was hit in the head by a line drive before he started wearing a helmet, but the most serious problem came when he did see the ball. “It was a little roller back at me and when I saw the ball I went to field it and my leg twisted,” he explained. Dukes broke his leg in two places and actually disconnected his foot from his leg. “They had to go in an put five screws in to reattach his foot to his ankle,” Mary explained.

“I actually had a sports injury,” Dukes proudly declares.

A self-described “sports junkie,” Dukes proclaims, “I love all kinds of sports. l even watch hockey, World Cup soccer, whatever I can.” “In 1980, while I was attending Georgia Southern, my brother-in-law got me a job as a student worker in the Sports Information Department and I couldn’t believe that someone would pay me to go to ball games. I loved it,” the Waycross, Ga. native declared.

He was later the editor of a Georgia Southern booster club newsletter before working for a year as a sports writer for the Statesboro, Ga., Herald. He moved to Cleveland the first time in 1987 to be an editorial assistant for the White Wing Publishing House.

After meeting Mary in 1989 and marrying her in 1991, the couple moved away for a few years before returning in 1999 when she was hired at Lee.

Suffering from choroideremia, a rare form of retinitis pigmentosa that affects night and periferal vision, Dukes’ sight has slowly degenerated since childhood. It is an X-linked genetic disorder that only affects men. “I was first diagnosed when I was 12 and the doctor told my parents, in front of me, to teach me Braille, because I would be totally blind by the time I was 32,” he related. “I’m 46 now and can still read and see a computer screen.”

“He can’t see anything out of his left eye and his right eye vision is like if you take your hand and make a circle and hold it up to your eye,” Mary explained. “His sight has stabilized over the last several years.”

One of the most wonderful sights he sees these days is his daughter, Sara-Allison. After 14 years of marriage the couple was blessed with their only child 21 months ago and they couldn’t be happier. “I’m a kept man and a stay at home dad now. That’s my No. 1 job,” the proud Papa declares.

In the humorous book Blind Sighted he authored in the late 1990s, Dukes summed up his outlook on life by stating, “My campaign is to present that eyesight is not necessary for vision. Physical disease cannot touch the spirit. Hope is killed only by despair.”

[Copyright © 2008 Cleveland Daily Banner, a division of Cleveland Newspapers, Inc.]

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