He Saw a Need to Help Blind "Read" News
By Bonnie Henry
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 12.07.2009
Every day, thousands of Tucsonans "read" the news not with their eyes but with their ears.
They are the visually impaired who get their news — along with magazine articles, books, even grocery ads — via Sun Sounds of Arizona.
Begun in Phoenix in 1979 and expanded to Tucson in 1985, the free radio service is piped 24 hours a day from KUAT-FM into special receivers the blind also get for free.
Ironically, one of those listeners here in Tucson is Frank Kells, who more than three decades ago was instrumental in starting Sun Sounds of Arizona.
Now totally blind from retinitis pigmentosa, Kells, 85, endured a double whammy in July of 2008 when he suffered a stroke — rendering the thoughts of this educated and intelligent man difficult, but not impossible, to articulate.
Slowly, and with occasional prompting from his devoted wife, Janet, Kells recently shared with me the story of his life and how he came to found Sun Sounds of Arizona.
Born in Aurora, Ill., in 1924, Kells was an only child whose father served as vocal coach for popular big-band leader Kay Kyser.
Young Kells also wanted to direct a band — only this time it would be a school band.
That he did, first in elementary schools, then at high schools in New Jersey and Long Island. But in the early '50s, his eyesight started to fail him, and he no longer could see the band formations on the ball field.
"I resigned from the high school and took up editing of a local weekly newspaper in Long Island," says Kells. "My eyesight was still adequate enough to read."
In 1954, he sought counseling at the Industrial Home for the Blind in Brooklyn, NY. "They gave me a job instead," says Kells, who went to work at a social-service agency offering recreational programs to the school.
At the agency, he fell in love with its administrative secretary, Janet Knebel, and asked her to marry him.
"I said 'no,' " says Janet, who would indeed become his wife five decades later. "I was the sole support of my two parents, and I did not feel free to ask anyone to support them."
In 1956, Frank Kells did marry, this time to fellow worker Anne Sherman. The marriage, which produced two daughters, lasted until her death in 2001.
In the late '50s, Kells had cataract surgery, and in 1961 he took a job as director of the Sacramento (Calif.) Society for the blind. Three years later, he moved to Phoenix as director of what was is now the Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
In the early '70s, Kells pursued first a master's degree and then an education doctorate in vocational rehabilitation counseling at the University of Arizona.
"I still had some vision at that point, and Anne drove me around," says Kells, whose retinitis pigmentosa was relentlessly shaving away his peripheral vision.
After earning his doctorate, he went to work in Phoenix for the Arizona Rehabilitation Services Administration and was put in charge of program development and evaluation.
In 1978, Arlene Bansal, director of the Arizona Talking Book Library, and Allen Woody, director of the Arizona Center for the Blind, conducted a survey among the state's 10,000 Talking Book users.
What they found was that users would indeed be interested in having a radio reading service, similar to the one started a few years earlier through Minnesota Public Radio.
Kells, along with other members of the committee trying to start such a service in Arizona, sprung into action, lining up a radio station, federal funding and volunteers.
"I had hundreds of contacts because of my job," says Kells, who chaired the committee.
He also was lucky enough to have on that committee Jean Joines, former assistant director of the Minnesota station that had offered the radio-reader service. Joines became Sun Sounds of Arizona's first director. "She was just the right person to get this project off to a great start," says Kells.
Eighteen months after the idea was launched, Sun Sounds went on the air in October of 1979. It has since expanded to Tucson, as well as Flagstaff and Yuma.
Meanwhile, Janet retired, and by 1990 she had moved from Long Island to Tucson. "Five days of sunshine in five months was not enough," she says.
She also learned that Kells was living in Phoenix and visited him and Anne there. After Anne died, Kells rekindled his friendship with Janet, whose own eyesight was deteriorating by then.
In 2003, he asked her to marry him. Again. This time, she said yes.
Today, Janet Kells also is blind, afflicted with both glaucoma and adult macular degeneration. She can, however, see well enough to use a special computer program to help Frank write his memoirs. "It's called 'Twice Twilight,' " he says.
Who knows? Someday, Sun Sounds listeners just might be listening to an account of his life.
Bonnie Henry's column appears Sundays and Mondays. Reach her at 434-4074 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
or write to 3295 W. Ina Road, Suite 125, Tucson, AZ 85741.
See this article and photos at AZ Daily Star. Log-in required.