by Jim Price
He has nothing against progress, but Kevin Utter hates construction.
"I swear, all my life construction has followed me wherever I go," he smiled. "Just about the time I would learn a new route, they would tear it up and I would have to find a different way."
It was one of those construction sites in his hometown of Ft. Collins, Colo., that finally convinced him it was time to get a guide dog. He's been blind since birth and he spent more than 40 years getting by with just his wits and a cane. "My wife, who also has been blind all her life, used to have a guide dog and we talked about it often but the time was just never quite right. It would have been difficult having a puppy with three little kids."
With a master's degree in music, Kevin has spent much of his life in the practice room or on stage playing the organ, but is also an expert on the piano, synthesizer, and most recently, the theremin.
As Kevin talked, he unconsciously stroked the silky blond ears of his new Guide Dog, Bingo, a male yellow Lab. They were relaxing in GDB's downtown lounge in Portland. Kevin was in Oregon for three weeks of training with Bingo since his first guide, Jaylee, was recently retired after working for seven years. She was placed as a pet with friends of Kevin who live across the street from his church.
"So it was a Saturday afternoon and I had walked to the church to do some practicing for the Sunday service," he said, getting back to that fateful construction site. "All was clear. But on the way home I found a big sign, like a stop sign, on a tripod right in the middle of the intersection. Without really thinking about it I found it with my cane then darted around it. As soon as I did I thought to myself, 'Oh my gosh, what are you doing?' That sign could have been blocking a manhole, or the street could have been completely torn up. The point is I didn't know. Right then and there I decided it was time to get a guide dog."
Within weeks he was headed to GDB's California campus in San Rafael for four weeks of training with Jaylee. "I got my dog right away and within a few days I remember thinking, 'Look what I have been missing!' With a cane, I would run into things that were there some days and not there others. In the mall I was forever tapping into an island display, working my way around it, then tapping into another. That takes a lot of time. Then I would tap a sign a little harder than I expected and it would wiggle-wobble, wiggle-wobble, while I was standing there wondering if it was going to crash to the floor.
"Suddenly, with Jaylee, all I had to do was let her show me a way around. At first there is certainly the trust factor. You have to learn to trust someone besides yourself, and it's a creature that can't talk to you, as such. Then there is wondering what the obstacle is in your path. Finally I realized it didn't really matter. The most important thing is getting around it. In a very short time I was trusting her completely to keep me safe, and she never let me down."
At 48, Kevin Utter has not let his lack of sight slow him down. He is a father of three teenagers, one of whom is blind. He's a performer, a music producer and the devoted husband of Valerie, his childhood sweetheart. "We are quite a sight walking down the street," he chuckled. "Two blind adults, one with a cane and one with a dog. Two sighted kids and the middle child walking with a cane."
Even though he and Bingo had been together only a few weeks, Kevin said, "I am really starting to enjoy him. As a guide, I knew right away he was going to be great. And he has perfect obedience. I already have a lot of trust in him, but he is much more reserved than Jaylee." As Kevin talked, what he didn't realize was that Bingo sat watching his every move with a look of profound and unconditional love.
Editor's note: In May of 2009, Valerie was paired with Fathom, a black Lab, at Guide Dogs' Oregon campus. Both are enjoying life with their new guides. The couple's daughter, Alison, has decided to wait a few years for hers.