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Blind Ambition

Jim Kutsch and guide dog taken at The Seeing Eye.

Written by Zack Harold
Photographed by Mary Kang

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Jim Kutsch has always been a do-it-yourselfer. As a teenager, he learned Morse code and got his ham radio license. He bought a tube tester and, this being the 1960s, earned cash changing the vacuum tubes in his neighbors’ televisions and radios. He scoured junkyards for parts for his Volkswagen.

Kutsch also started building his own fireworks. One day, during the summer before his senior year in high school, he was demonstrating his explosive expertise to a young neighbor. A glass jar blew up in his hand. The explosion tore away most of Kutsch’s right hand. The shrapnel left him blind. He spent months in the hospital recovering. But the accident did not quash his can-do attitude. 


“I remember thinking, there was a lot of life left,” said Kutsch, BA ’72, Psychology, MS ’73, Computer Science. “You can’t always help what cards you’re going to get. But you can play them as best you can.”


Adjusting to a sightless life was not easy, but he used his mechanical skills to tackle the challenges that arose. When he discovered he had no means of telling the time, he took his alarm clock to his workbench and removed the glass, so he could touch the clock hands with his fingertips. 


“I started looking at [blindness] as an engineering problem. How do you do things that used to require sight with your other senses?” he said. 


After graduating high school, he went to a three-month rehabilitation program in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he learned to cook, use power tools, get around with a cane, and read and write Braille. He also attended a presentation by The Seeing Eye, the world’s oldest guide dog school, learning what it was like to navigate with a guide dog. Kutsch also took a demo walk with a dog.


The skills he learned at rehab readied him for his next endeavor, pursuing an electrical engineering degree at West Virginia University. The school wasn’t quite ready for him, though. On the second day of class, his adviser called and said there was a problem. The chemistry department didn’t know how to accommodate a blind person. 


“Or maybe it was just this one particular blind guy,” he joked.


Either way, Kutsch switched his major to philosophy. He then switched again to psychology, thinking he might go into special education.


The summer after his freshman year, he went to The Seeing Eye campus in Morristown, N.J., to receive his first guide dog and go through the required monthlong training. It was a life-altering experience in more ways than one. 


Not only did he receive the first of his many guide dogs, he also befriended another student — a guy in his 30s who, despite his blindness, worked as a computer programmer. This piqued Kutsch’s interest. Upon returning to Morgantown, dog leash in hand, Kutsch started taking computer science classes. 


He loved it so much that he got a job in the University data center, located in the basement of Stewart Hall. And although he graduated with a psychology degree — which he completed in only three years thanks to summer classes — he had enough computer science credits to enter the University’s new computer science master’s program. 


These were the days before screens, when computers ran on punch cards and paper printouts. This did not make things easy for blind people. For a while, Kutsch just cornered undergrads to read the printouts to him. But he determined to find a better way.


He wrote software to use a teletype machine — a machine that worked like an automatic typewriter —to emit Morse code by printing loud- and quiet-sounding letters. But this was still an imperfect solution. Braille printers existed by this point, but were extremely expensive. So Kutsch created his own, programming a typewriter-style line printer to indent dots into paper.


Kutsch continued his research on adaptive technologies while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, using technology originally designed for automated telephone systems to design the first text-to-speech reader.


Doctorate in hand, he returned to WVU in 1976 and became the first computer science professor at the University with a doctorate in computer science. He taught for three years before leaving for a research job at Bell Labs where he was part of a team that experimented with cutting-edge concepts like conference calling, caller ID and picture phones. 


From 1990 to 1996, he worked as vice president of computing and network services for AT&T’s Universal Card Services, a combination credit card and long distance calling card. He then spent 10 years as vice president of strategic technology at Convergys, a telecom company that pioneered the use of call centers in India. 


By 2006, he decided he was finished working in telecommunications, but he wasn’t quite finished working. 


“I started thinking of doing one more thing before I retired,” he said. 


He thought about returning to academia, but then an opportunity arose to become president and CEO of The Seeing Eye. Kutsch had been involved with the organization since receiving his first dog as a WVU undergrad. He had continued to use dogs throughout his life and served on its board of trustees since 1996. His daughter even raised puppies for the group. 


“The two organizations that made the most transformative impact in my life were WVU and The Seeing Eye,” Kutsch said. “When I was a professor at WVU, I was moved by the difference four years at WVU made in a young person’s life. They were different people in very meaningful ways. The Seeing Eye does the same thing. But we do it in four weeks.” 


He became president of the organization in 2006 and immediately set to work making a legacy. He oversaw major renovation and construction projects, including the creation of a new kennel wing. He helped the school improve its finances, reducing expenses while still maintaining program quality. Kutsch also strengthened the school’s endowment, kicking off a five-year campaign that raised $10 million. 


Kutsch retired from The Seeing Eye in December 2019. He doesn’t yet know what his next venture will entail. But he is not ready to do nothing. 


There is still a lot of life left, and he’s still got cards left to play.