A Strong Sense of Vision
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown is no stranger to challenging circumstances. Born into a very poor family in a small, racially segregated Texas town, Mayor Brown earned his first dollar as a shoe-shine boy. Throughout high school he worked as a janitor, a crop harvester and a messenger. Upon graduation, he moved to San Francisco, bringing with him little more than a cardboard suitcase and his dreams. He diligently worked his way through college and graduated from San Francisco State University and from the Hastings College of Law. Brown was admitted to the California State Bar and worked hard to build a booming law practice during the turbulent times of the early sixties.
Although Brown lost his first run for the California State Assembly, he didn't let defeat stop him, and two years later, in 1964, claimed victory. He was re-elected 16 times. From 1980 to 1995, Brown served as Speaker of the Assembly, arguably a position of power second only to thatof the governor. The state's only African-American Speaker, he held the position for an unprecedented 15 years.
While those were remarkable years professionally for Brown, it was also during that time that he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a disease that presently has no cure and that would slowly steal his eyesight. RP is a hereditary disease that causes a continual loss of peripheral vision and often leads to total blindness. Brown's two sisters were also diagnosed with RP.
"Having RP is a challenge," said the Mayor. "As Speaker of the Assembly it was very important that I recognize people in the halls of the Legislature. But I couldn't see people unless they were right in front of me. I needed to have the security people give me notes to tell me who was in the room. Reading is also very difficult so I use larger print notes and memos. Living with RP means having to use more of your brain function-I listen more intently, I memorize vast amounts of information, and I have trained my computer to recognize numerous verbal commands."
But Mayor Brown, a man of indomitable spirit, didn't let his disease get in his way. In 1995, he successfully ran for mayor of San Francisco and was re-elected four years later. Although Brown's eyesight may be less than perfect, it has never dampened his tremendous sense of vision, which is why he was just recently chosen to serve on the transition team of California's new Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"It's difficult having RP," said Brown. "But I've been very fortunate, I still have some useful vision. So many people with this tragic disease are completely blind at a young age. But I am hopeful that The Foundation will one day find a cure. They are doing a magnificent job, and I applaud their efforts."