Hoby Wedler - Part 1

Photograph of Hoby Wedler, July 2011Perhaps once or even twice in a lifetime we are fortunate enough to meet an exceptional young person, someone with incredible promise, someone who is bright and giving enough to at some point make a difference in the world. This month I had the opportunity to talk with Hoby Wedler and with his mother, Terry. I believe that Hoby is one of these very few exceptional young people. His story is presented in two parts. In Part 1 Terry's recollection of Hoby from the time he was born helps us to understand why this incredible young man is who he is. The discussion with Hoby which begins in Part 1 and is concluded in Part 2 is presented in a question and answer format. Hoby is 24 years of age and is working on his doctorate – he's in his first year of a five to six year Ph.D. program in organic chemistry. He is an inspiration and is a role model for young and old alike.

(This is the first part of a two-part story)

PART 1: Just Call Me Hoby

I was born totally blind in Petaluma, California. As a blind child, I always wondered how things worked; I probably frustrated my parents with the many questions that I asked. My love for an understanding of how the world worked paired with an exceptional high school chemistry instructor led me to study chemistry in college. Not knowing if science would ever fail me, I also received a degree in United States history. When I discovered that I could make computational organic chemistry accessible, I applied and was accepted to graduate school in chemistry. Without the access to printed materials provided by DAISY and Learning Ally in particular, I would probably not be studying chemistry in graduate school today. I'm not sure what I would be doing but I say with conviction that Learning Ally played a tremendous role in making my career possible. This is my story.

In the Beginning: Terry – Hoby's Mom

I was a math and biology teacher by profession. To be honest I wasn't completely happy with disciplining a whole class of kids. After five years I took a leave of absence when our first son Jessie was born and then went back to school to train for nursing. Then Hoby was born and an interesting thing happened – I developed a real desire to make things better.

When Hoby was born, right when he was born, the doctor said that something was wrong with his eyes. It was very upsetting. Then that first night I thought "that's the kind of work I could do, it would make sense and I would have the knowledge to help him to be as strong as he can be." That was when I decided I would at some point go back to school for certification as a teacher of children who were visually impaired (which I did when Hoby was one). I'd never known, not even met, anyone who was blind.

Our pediatrician was amazing. I spoke with friends and relatives – everyone was supportive. When I talked with my cousin about Hoby she told me she was going to marry a man who was blind and said that I should relax, that Hoby could live a normal life.

When Hoby was a month old, our whole family started training with a counselor from the Blind Babies Foundation. They were amazing and provided us with a great deal of helpful and useful information. They told us to talk all the time, to explain what we were doing and describe what was going on around Hoby. I felt like a tour guide sometimes, speaking about everything I was doing. We all got very good at it!

He would be on the floor with toys all around him to stimulate his desire to learn, but at first he wasn't interested in toys, he was interested in moving. Hoby would 'stand' on his head and feet and was more interested in what I was doing in the kitchen than he was in the toys. He preferred to play with the pots, pans and spoons.

Rocking horse on springs We learned about the importance of stimulating the Vestibular System in a child who is blind. (The Vestibular System consists of the parts of the inner ear and nervous system that control equilibrium, balance and orientation.) So we got a rocking horse, actually a 'horse on springs' for Hoby. He would rock for two or three hours a day, and he loved it. It was something Hoby wanted to do, something he chose to do, and all the while he was moving and getting his Vestibular System working.

I read to him – a lot!

Naturally Inquisitive

Hoby has always been naturally inquisitive, even when he was tiny. He started talking very early and before he was two he was forming complete sentences. Language was a gift for him. He was fascinated with everything, including the garbage man and truck. There were so many questions and his interests kept expanding and he talked with everybody – adults and kids. His dad helped him a lot, explaining everything, showing him how things in the house worked. We'd take him to places in the community so he could understand how things outside of his immediate environment worked too. Hoby was so curious about everything.

At 3 he started preschool. In elementary school he was guided and inspired by his great teachers. He performed in plays, wrote many stories, participated in group projects, made good friends, worked as a volunteer reading teacher in a special mentor program and basically began the process of learning how to learn. He was fascinated with everything and took notes frantically. Hoby was completely engaged and sat at the front of the room. He was persistent – if he didn't understand, he'd raise his hand and ask the teacher to explain it. He advocated for himself, he spoke up. He had a Braille teacher and student aids to help him copy information from the board.

Another turning point: Hoby decided that from 7th grade on he wouldn't have anyone help him; he would do it on his own. When he was in 8th grade he was the student body president. He was an excellent speaker and he worked very hard.

Hoby's father and I always told him and thought ourselves that he could do anything in life that he wanted to do. We also did everything that we wanted to do and never felt limited by Hoby not being able to see. He came everywhere with us: hiking, open ocean fishing, lake fishing, hunting, shooting, skiing, rock climbing, boogie boarding, traveling to Mexico, Romania, Hungary. We had so much fun together as a family.

Hoby's Story: in Conversation

How did you come by the name 'Hoby'?

A Hobart Stick Welder My father was a welder for a power company. His surname was Wedler, and there were machines they used called "Hobart Welders", so they started to call my Dad "Hobart Welder", then "Hoby Welder". Both of my parents really liked the name Hoby long before I was around and they started to call me even Hoby before I was born. After I arrived my parents decided that the name fit me but they felt I needed a more formal name as well, so they added "Henry". That's my 'formal' or professional name, but most people who know me call me 'Hoby'.

Have you always been so inquisitive?

I've always loved asking questions, learning, and getting at as much material as possible. I want to know how things, tangible or intangible, fit together. Having my textbooks in audio format made it that much easier for me to learn how things work on my own.

I have a strong desire to know 'how' and 'why'. "Mathimagics" is wonderful, it's math in the mind, on the spot. My need to know 'how' and 'why' has evolved from early thoughts to now thinking 'how do these molecules fit together?'. This curiosity started before I was two. I wondered about things like 'How do we get water in our house? There's water in the rain, outside, but how does it get into the house?' My dad let me feel the water feed line running into the house so that I could understand the answer to my question. My father has always done work around the house himself and he's very skilled at it. Through working with him I learned how to fix things and more broadly how to problem solve. Problem solving is something both my parents were good at – they taught me by example.

Photograph of Hoby holding a molecular model in the foreground It is this drive to know why and learn how that makes me love chemistry and figure out how molecules form bonds. We don't really know why but we can make logical conclusions. My question is 'How can we use this to our advantage?'

I have an undergraduate degree in math – I love math, and I also love history, asking myself 'why do these people do what they do?' I believe that it is important for people to think and to question, not to simply act without reason.

In February, Hoby received Learning Ally's National Achievement Award at the 52nd annual National Achievement Awards celebration in Washington D.C. He was one of six high achievers recognized by the organization for scholastic excellence, exemplary leadership, and service to others (Learning Ally press release). In Part 2 of his story which will be published in April, Hoby tells us about his ability to visualize and how this has served him in his study of chemistry. He also talks about his love of chemistry, about reading, and, about his interest in wine and wine tasting!