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Inspirational doesn’t begin to describe local resident
Jim Stegall, who, at 85 and in company
with his guide dog Emilio, celebrates the 20th
anniversary of his almost four-month, 12,000-
mile trip through South America. By the time he
set off, Stegall and his 70-year old travel partner,
David Hopkins, were both legally blind and eager
to see what the world had to offer. What Stegall
discovered, and continues to rediscover every day,
is that the most challenging parts of an adventure
are the parts most worth remembering.

Reminiscing, Stegall said, “I’m so glad that trip
is there for me to relive.” And what a trip it was.
He and Hopkins traveled by train, bus, car, cargo
ship, and plane. They saw things with their limited
vision that full-sighted tourists would never
have seen: they rode on top of a boxcar train,
stayed at the top of Machu Picchu, ate guinea
pig, saw armed men patrol the streets of Bolivia
during a city-wide strike, and visited a waterfall-filled
national park in Argentina and Brazil
that made Niagara Falls look like a sprinkler.
Remarking about an Indian market in La Paz,
Stegall summed up his trip: “It sounds like absolute
chaos, and it was.”

But in spite of the chaos and the challenges—age, tunnel
vision, altitude sickness, language barriers—Stegall and
Hopkins kept traveling, and kept writing home with updates.
And over the course of their trip, these updates helped garner
support and raise $8,500 from donations back home for the
Foundation Fighting Blindness. “We knew there’d be tough
days,” Stegall said, “but this was motivation to keep our feet
moving south.”
Over the years, Stegall has been motivated to travel in all
directions, not just south. He’s gone east to Europe and north
to Alaska, across his home state of California and well into
neighboring states. And no matter where he went, he kept his
feet moving—a trait he’d had since childhood. From the late
1930s, Stegall and his sister, Lee Sturdivant, performed as tap
dancers on the Orpheum and Paramount Circuit during the
final gasp of vaudeville. “A lot of things were thrown at us
then,” Stegall recalled, “and we had to learn to deal with it.”
Another thing he had to deal with since childhood was
night blindness, which Stegall was told he would grow out
of. And even while his night blindness persisted and his
peripheral vision weakened, he continued to overcome challenges.
Stegall was drafted into the army and served during
the Korean War. Upon his return, he established himself
professionally as a top salesman of construction equipment.
Stegall attributes his perseverance to his unorthodox mentality.
“You can’t play your cards like everyone else when your
cards are different. You’ve got to design a new game and a
new way of playing.”

It was this mentality that got Stegall through a pivotal
period, after he was declared legally blind, after he surrendered
his driver’s license, and after he gave up his drivingdependent
sales career. When he realized that his anger would
take him nowhere, Stegall moved on.

There was no brilliant thought to spur his forward
momentum. Instead, he said, “I exhausted myself banging
my head against the wall, and realized the only thing beginning
to soften up was my head.” Taking a counselor’s suggestion,
Stegall joined—and eventually facilitated—support
groups where people could talk through their problems. Only
later did he realize all that he gained through these groups. “I
evaluated myself. I saw myself from different perspectives.”
Though his vision had failed him, his broadening perspective
helped him to do and see things that were out of the ordinary.
Doing what he did best, Stegall reinvented himself once
again. First he spent seven years helping grow his sister’s
beachfront clothing store into an enterprise with 100 employees
and a window display at Macy’s on 5th Avenue.

Then Stegall persisted for months until the private school
he’d targeted finally hired him. And he continued to persist
and sell and grow the school for 13 years until the newly
hired president pushed him out—after which he persisted in
filing and winning a lawsuit.

Through it all, Stegall has faced endless challenges—from
blindness to prejudice to introspection and self-reinvention.
Among his many sources of support, he credits travel as
broadening his outlook. “Traveling without an itinerary [in
South America] was the only way we wanted to do it. Why
be afraid of the unknown, why be afraid of the [challenging]
events? They find you whether you have an itinerary or not.”
Though it’s been two years since Stegall completely lost his
vision, his outlook is as clear and strong as ever. “I think of
myself as being very lucky. Since I was 50 years old,” which
was a decade after he was declared legally blind, “I’ve really
understood how lucky I’ve been.”

"Through it all, Stegall has faced endless challenges—from blindness to prejudice to introspection and self-reinvention."