Visually impaired veteran uses his experiences to help others

Jack Oberleitner is an author, artist, volunteer and founder of non-profit organizations.

While about 1.1 billion people worldwide are living with some form of visual impairment, many of these are continuing to enjoy full and active lives.

John Lloyd (Jack) Oberleitner of Washington Township developed a rare form of glaucoma after he received a head injury in Vietnam while serving in the Army in the 1960′s. After the injury, he lost nearly all vision in his left eye overnight.

“My right eye was reasonably OK,” Oberleitner said. “But after many years of operations and medications, I lost most of my vision in that eye as well. I’m now looking at the world through a tiny pinhole.”

Oberleitner, who was eventually able to compensate by mastering Braille and using speech recognition technology, retired from military service in 1970.

“A lot of people told me I was very lucky,” Oberleitner said. “Because the government would take care of me for the rest of my life. But that didn’t seem like a good idea to me.”

Oberleitner came up with a new acronym – Begin Learning in New Directions (BLIND) and this has defined his adult life post military service.

“I went to art school and specialized in painting, woodcut and pen and ink drawing,” Oberleitner said. “My remaining vision was starting to decrease at that time, so I was faced with the question of what to do with the rest of my life.”

Oberleitner went to a military blind rehabilitation center in Chicago where he learned Braille and how to walk with a cane. Since he could no longer paint or draw as he had before, he decided to start writing.

“Writing gave me a different outlet to express my creative nature,” Oberleitner said.

He wrote about his younger years growing up in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and his family’s background in the entertainment business in the 1930′s. Oberleitner came to Dayton in the 1970′s while working for Chakeres Theaters.

“I met my wife, Marian, while she was working as an administrative assistant to the president of Chakeres,” Oberleitner said.

Oberleitner had an opportunity to take some film courses at the University of London, so the couple lived there for about six months. A publisher approached him to consider writing a children’s book after his writing started getting noticed.

“I wrote “The Bookmouse House” as a pop-up book for ages three and up,” Oberleitner said. “I ended up doing a series of four books for children.”

In 1995, he published one of his favorite books – “Stanzi: A Magic Christmas Story,” designed for older readers and adult audiences.

“The book has done well and has been considered for a movie by Disney and a radio drama by the BBC,” Oberleitner said. “That book, along with my association with the Veteran’s Administration, has opened a lot of doors.”

As a 100% service-connected blind veteran, Oberleitner has shared his inspiring story with groups of all types, including people working to overcome disabilities. He serves on a Visual Impairment Services Team (VISN 10) and works with a network of other professionals to improve the lives of veterans.

“I share my journey from a fully sighted individual to everything that has brought me to where I am today,” Oberleitner said. “When I first lost my sight, I became very depressed and morose and had no desire to go further in my life.”

Oberleitner knew he wanted to help others through his experience. And it was that service mentality that he said got him through that low point in his life. He said a good friend and mentor reminded him that there can always be a better tomorrow and those words resonated.

“People just need encouragement to begin learning in a new direction,” Oberleitner said.

Over the years, Oberleitner has been involved in creating several non-profits, including two in the Springfield area – Forging Responsible Youth, Inc. which is designed to bring free speaking engagements to schools and churches and a food pantry and secondhand clothing outreach called Friends Eating and Sharing Together. And today he is working closely with the Dayton Veterans Administration on a program with the Dayton Art Institute designed to help visually impaired veterans explore their creativity through art. This has rekindled Oberleitner’s own love of painting, abandoned years ago due to his blindness.

“It’s been more than a half century since I’ve painted and I find I’m enjoying it so much,” he said.

Oberleitner ‘s bucket list includes meeting the president to ask for more federal funding to support blind veterans; going on an Honor Flight to Washington DC to visit the Vietnam memorial; visiting Vienna, Austria where many of his family members live; and having his Christmas book, Stanzi, made into a film.

“I’ve had an interesting life and I haven’t let my blindness define me,” Oberleitner said. “I just had to figure out how to learn in new ways.”

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