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Being blind doesn’t slow down Marshalltown man

January 15, 2011

"Des Moines has Simon Estes," wrote Marshalltown's Blaine Moore in a letter, referring to the world-renown opera singer who has performed in the capital city.

"We have Ron Hughes."

Hughes, 66, who has lived here since 1974, has a musical gift too.

Article Photos

Ron Hughes, 66, is shown Thursday afternoon at his Marshalltown home playing an electric keyboard. Despite being afflicted with blindness 52 years go, Hughes worked to earn a college degree with majors in physics and math.

According to Moore, who has worked for Hughes, he can play a song on his keyboard or upright piano after hearing it once.

Be it classical, country, opera, pop or rock n' roll, Hughes has the ability to play the songs.

"Come listen to him make these 88 ivory keys on the piano sing aloud," Moore wrote. "He must know hundreds (no exaggeration here) of songs he has taught himself to play on an old piano, even older than he is."

Hughes can readily display his talent despite being blind.

He explained.

"I was born two months premature," he said. "They used oxygen, only then they did not know how it could damage eyesight."

Hughes suffered retinal burns, which deteriorated his eyesight over time.

The blindness set in when he was 14.

He was in eighth grade.

However, he has not let the disability get in the way of achieving personal goals.

He completed high school, then two years of college in North Carolina before moving on to the University of Idaho. After three years of study, he graduated with a B.S. degree in 1973.

His majors were physics and math. Additionally, he earned teaching certificates in both fields.

He rounded out his college education with a minor in music.

With degrees and certificate in hand, he sought work in Idaho.

"In Idaho then they had many small schools," Hughes said. "I couldn't get a job because they also wanted the person hired to coach."

He also looked for work in Iowa.

Joining him were spouse Patricia and their young two daughters.

"I wanted to teach blind or disabled kids," he said. "But I was told (in order to teach them) I had to have two additional years of education from the University of Illinois," he said. "We had two small kids at home then. I didn't want to move to Chicago."

A move to Marshalltown followed, generated by hopes of getting a job with then Fisher Controls. It didn't work out, but the family stayed.

Hughes subsequently worked on hobbies-electronics, televisions and radio equipment.

"He could work on anything with a tube in it," Moore said.

Hughes developed an interest in amateur radio, also known as ham radio.

"The Iowa Commission for the Blind helped me study for the tests to get a license," he said. "I went down to Des Moines and passed the novice test. Then I passed the general class test. Next, I passed the advanced class."

He enjoyed the amateur radio until a bulging disc prevented him from working on equipment.

Hughes now can spend as much, or as little time as he wants with music.

Thursday afternoon at his kitchen table Hughes was seated behind a Casio keyboard.

Joining him were Moore and Patricia.

His hands searched for the on/off switch.

Once found and the unit then plugged in, Hughes re-acquainted himself with the equipment.

Among others he played "Anytime," a song made popular by the late Eddy Arnold.

Hughes can play songs on the keyboard or on an upright piano, built in 1888.

On a previous visit, Hughes played "Puff the Magic Dragon," then a ragtime number and other songs from memory on the vintage piano.

In between the songs at the kitchen table session came stories about Hughes' growing up in rural Alaska.

The state was then a territory and the family lived in the small village of Cantwell.

"We could see Mt. McKinley from the kitchen window," he said.

His father's skill as a heavy equipment operator brought the family there. Workers and equipment were needed to build the Alaska-Canadian highway.

His father's work required the family to travel to other states.

"I bet I have been in three-fourths of the United States," Hughes said.

A telephone conversation later revealed Hughes' sense of humor.

"This happened at the old Hawkeye Bank, where U.S. Bank is now," he said. "I don't recall the yea. Patricia and I were there to cash a check. We handed the teller a note with a list of denominations wanted. I dropped my cane. Patricia said 'pick it up.'

The teller said 'I hope you didn't say what I think you said.'

Hughes followed with the punch line.

"The teller thought Patricia said, 'this is a stick-up' after I had just handed her the list of denominations we wanted."

Contact Mike Donahey at 641-753-6611 or



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