Remembering Leaders
in the Field of Blindness and Visual Impairment

The following article appeared in BALTIMORE SUN by Frederick N. Rasmussen, Baltimore Sun reporter - November 30, 2007

Betsy A. Zaborowski

Betsy A. Zaborowski

[ Age 58 ] The former executive director of an innovative institute helped blind people pursue independent lives.

Betsy A. Zaborowski, who had been diagnosed with retinal blastoma at a young age and later became blind, devoted her entire life to fighting the notion that blindness is a tragedy.

Dr. Zaborowski, former executive director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, died early yesterday of cancer at her Denver home. The former Ednor Gardens resident, who had moved to Colorado only this week, was 58.

It was Dr. Zaborowski's wish that she return to the new Denver home that she and her husband had purchased last month, and on Tuesday, she left Baltimore for the last time aboard an air ambulance.

She had served as executive director of the innovative institute, the first of its type in the nation, which provided education, employment and adaptive technology for the blind, from 2003 until this year, when she stepped down because of failing health.

At her death, Dr. Zaborowski was a senior adviser to the NFB.

"Dr. Betsy Zaborowski's service to the blind of the nation was extraordinary," Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said in a statement released yesterday.

"As the first director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, she materially increased opportunities for blind youth and blind adults for at least the next generation," he said. "She was an extraordinary leader, and she had a warm heart."

"Betsy's work and accomplishment represents the spirit and imaginative approach she brought to changing lives in a positive way," said Mark Riccobono, who succeeded Dr. Zaborowski as director of the Jernigan Institute in July.

"She was brilliant at thinking of what the next big thing was going to be and how we could put the pieces together, and then she used her leadership skills to make it happen," he said. "She was a dynamic lady that got things done, and I always marveled how she used her Midwestern people skills to that end."

Mr. Riccobono praised the "vigorous attitude" that she brought to whatever she was doing.

"However, there was always a balance in her life between work and play, and she could do both extremely well. She achieved a lot but always recommended that there be a balance and people were to have fun," he said.

Dr. Zaborowski was born Oct. 7, 1949, and raised in Thorp, Wis., where she graduated from high school.

"She was 3 years old when diagnosed with retinal blastoma and was treated at the University of Chicago Medical Center. It's a very rare cancer, and most children diagnosed with it don't survive, but Betsy did," said her husband of 18 years, James Gashel, vice president of marketing for K-NFB Reading Technology Inc. and former executive director for strategic initiatives for the NFB.

"She grew up and functioned as a blind person," he said.

Dr. Zaborowski held a bachelor's and master's degree in educational counseling from the University of Wisconsin in Menomonie, and earned her doctorate in psychology from the University of Denver in 1985.

From 1970 to 1976, Dr. Zaborowski worked as a junior and senior high school guidance counselor on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

In 1976, she moved to Colorado, where she was a mental health and university-based counselor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 1980, she worked in the field of health psychology for Kaiser Permanente in Denver, while studying for her doctorate.

After moving to Baltimore in 1987, Dr. Zaborowski, a clinical psychologist, established a private practice specializing in women's issues. She also was an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Continuing Studies, where she taught a graduate education counseling course.

She also frequently lectured at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Kennedy Krieger Institute.

In 1995, Dr. Zaborowski joined the NFB as director of special programs, a position she held until 2003, when she was named executive director of the Jernigan Institute.

"She was an incredible leader and mentor for all blind Americans and especially for me personally," said John Pare, current director for strategic initiatives for the NFB.

"She was internationally known and even spoke at a United Nations meeting in New York on behalf of the blind concerning Web site accessibility. She has traveled all over the world on behalf of the blind," he said.

"She was a very energetic and vibrant. You'd be sitting in a chair one moment listening to her and the next you'd be on your feet because of her ideas and energy," he said.

In 1998, she was selected one of Maryland's Top 100 Women, and again in 2000, by The Daily Record. In 2004, Smart Woman magazine featured her on its cover, and the next year, Smart CEO featured her as one of 25 admired Maryland leaders.

Then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed her to the Maryland Information Technology Board, and later was the first chairwoman of the Mayor's Commission on Disabilities. She also served two terms on the Baltimore City Women's Commission.

Dr. Zaborowski was an avid gardener and entertainer.

"She had the best flower garden in the 1300 block of East 36th Street," her husband said. "And she loved to throw what she called her 'Polish Christmas Party.' She loved the Polish side of her family and would have 80 or 100 people over for a holiday party."

Dr. Zaborowski had been a longtime communicant of SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church on North Charles Street.

"Betsy would like to be remembered for three things," Mr. Gashel said. "That she was Polish, a Roman Catholic and a Packers fan."

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Therese' Roman Catholic Church in Aurora, Colo.

Also surviving are a stepson, Eric Gashel of Ruston, La.; two stepdaughters, Andrea Beasley of Littleton, Colo., and Valerie Costanza of Keller, Texas; and two grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com