Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blind teen, known for his ability to "see with sound," dies

From a McClatchy Newspapers story about Ben Underwood's memorial service:

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Ben Underwood, the remarkable blind Elk Grove, Calif., boy who inspired people around the world, continued to do so Monday even in death.

Close to 2,000 people, many of whom knew Ben (pictured) only from news stories about his religious commitment and his amazing ability to "see" with sound, gathered to pay their respects to him and his family.

They were treated to a nearly three-hour celebration of Ben's life -- a sort of spiritual revival and a mini concert from iconic musician Stevie Wonder, who befriended the teenager after his story became public.

Wonder called Ben "a prince of love" who "could not see, but had vision." He also sang two songs, including a gospel version of "Happy Birthday," as people snapped photos with their cellphones. Ben, who would have turned 17 years old on Monday, died a week ago from a recurrence of cancer that took both of his eyes when he was a toddler.

His blindness never stopped him from navigating the world. Ben used his extraordinary senses of hearing, smell and touch, combined with a skill known as echolocation that has rarely been documented in humans, to live a life of adventure.

By making clicking noises with his tongue and listening to the sound waves he created, he learned to identify objects and get around safely. Motivated by his mother, Aquanetta Gordon, Ben attended mainstream schools and refused to carry a white cane identifying him as blind. He played basketball, danced, practiced karate, surfed, and skated and bicycled through his Elk Grove neighborhood.

After the Sacramento, Calif., Bee newspaper published his story in May 2006, he became a worldwide celebrity, an Internet sensation and an inspirational speaker. He traveled across the country and as far away as Japan and Great Britain to tell his story. He was featured in network television news broadcasts, documentaries, radio interviews and TV variety shows including the Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey programs.

Monday's service was held in an auditorium that holds 1,325 people, and every seat was filled, with hundreds of others standing shoulder to shoulder along the sides and back of the room.

People clapped, swayed and sang along as a band played spiritual songs and speaker after speaker talked about Ben. Ben's brothers performed a song they wrote about him, and Ben's own voice, in a gospel rap tune that he wrote, served as a backdrop to a picture collage of him and his family shown on a video screen.

Stevie Wonder met Ben at a convention after hearing about him on TV, he told the crowd.

"Ben had the vision," he said. "I was blessed to have the pleasure of meeting the prince of love."

Since then, the musician has quietly visited the family in Elk Grove, even accompanying Ben to some of his medical appointments. On Monday, he sat in the front row next to Gordon.

"Ben was my little hero," said his mother, who has four other children ages 13 and up.
He was brave, sarcastic, creative and kind, Gordon said at the service. But above all, she said, he was fearless. Because of his belief in God and heaven, she said, he had no fear of dying.

"When I told him 'Baby, you might die,' after he was diagnosed, he told me 'You just be ready to meet me"' in heaven, Gordon said.

"Ben could see beyond what we call sight," she said. "Ben saw the heart of a man. I know where Ben is now, and he is 100 percent, perfectly whole."

Wearing a white suit and a red carnation, Gordon smiled broadly.

After the service concluded, relatives and friends formed an orderly line and walked one by one to the front of the Harvest Church auditorium, where Ben's body was laid out in a lime green shirt and black tie with green dots.

Each person passed his casket, bidding him a final goodbye. Some cried. Some were somber. Others said they were filled with joy at having known Ben. Wonder bent down and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek.

Then Ben's mother stared at her incredible son for a long, final time. Pallbearers, including two of his brothers, surrounded his casket and carried it outside to a limousine, which took Ben to his final resting place.