Bringing Chess to Visually Impaired People

The Gazette - May 2015

Edited by Julie Leonard
The views expressed in the Gazette do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the BCA, nor those of the editor.

Obituary for David Hodgkins

This moving eulogy was written by David’s sister, Sally Kenealy, and read at the funeral by nephew, Sam Gledhill.

Born in 1969 David was the surprise bundle of joy following Dad’s six month hospital confinement, and, our parents’ alternative offer to a holiday at Lake Garda in Italy. What choice did either Jane or I have! As a baby he was adored by us all. Jane and I loved helping Mum look after him. We called him Solemn Sam as despite all our cooing and face pulling we could never get him to smile. It soon became apparent that David had severe vision impairment. For the first few years of his life he wore thick lensed glasses and resembled one of the comedian Benny Hill’s characters, which produced many a stare. Jane and I became fiercely defensive of our little brother. When he was cross, or doing things that a blind toddler should not have been doing, the glasses were the first to go. Dad used to get quite cross with the frequent visits to the opticians to get yet another pair of glasses repaired. Colour TV had not long been developed and Dad, although not one for “modern technology”, bought one in the hope that it would help David see the picture better. We were really excited as it was the ‘in thing’ and some of our school friends had one. Unfortunately for Jane and me we didn’t see much of it as David sat on his little stool with his face about an inch from the screen blocking our view completely.

At the age of four David lost what little sight he had and became totally blind, unable to differentiate light from dark. It didn’t bother him though and he learnt to ride a bike in the back garden. The family were supporters of the Coventry Bees speedway team and, encouraged by Jane I hasten to add, the two of them rode their bikes round and round pretending to be speedway riders much to Mum and Dad’s annoyance as they wore the grass away on the back lawn.

David needed special education that the local school could not provide and it was decided that he should attend Lickey Grange School for the Blind as a weekly boarder. We were horrified at the thought of our little brother going to boarding school and had visions of the horrors portrayed in Oliver and Tom Brown’s School Days. We needn’t have worried. All the staff, especially the house mothers, were kind and friendly and the facilities excellent. Best of all they had a slide in the dining room that took you into the play area outside, we were very envious. David loved his time at Lickey and made many friends there. Dad would pick him up every Friday evening and after a game of billiards with his housemates would bring him home via a quick stop off at the Crab Mill pub for a pint. He started at an early age as you can see! They would arrive home to the wrath of Mum as they were late for tea. One such weekend Mum was quizzing David over what he had done that week and David proudly informed us that he had played in a football match, the dim team versus the bright team and he had played for the dim team. She was indignant and demanded to know why they thought he was dim. David laughingly replied that the dim team players were totally blind and the bright team players all had a little sight. She calmed down instantly.

David loved most sport and became a follower of Liverpool and later Hereford, despite Dad’s coaxing to support Aston Villa. One season Baz and I took him to Highfield Road to watch Coventry play Liverpool; Baz quickly learnt the art of giving a running commentary to David during play. Always exuberant and a little on the loud side David could not contain his enthusiasm and repeatedly cheered the Liverpool players. This would have been fine but unfortunately we were seated in the Coventry end. You can imagine the glares we got. David, unaware of this, carried on regardless despite my pleas to pipe down as I thought we were going to be lynched. It was during his years at Lickey that he was introduced to chess and judo; he joined the Braille Chess Association and began to play in chess tournaments as a junior member and also started to compete in judo competitions. At sixteen David left Lickey Grange to continue his studies at Hereford College for the Blind. On leaving college he trained for his first guide dog, Vance, and began his career in telecommunications and business, working for Coventry Health Authority, NatWest Bank and finally Apex Credit Management.

As David’s success in judo and love of chess continued life became a little hectic trying to work and attend tournaments and competitions both in Britain and overseas. David’s spirited persuasion to help with travel led to him forming his own personal taxi company, Dad being his number one driver and Baz his number two, filling in when Dad was delayed through work or yet another hospital stay. He went to France and won a Silver Medal in the European Judo Championships and in 1988 David and another local lad, Richard, were selected to represent Britain in the Summer Paralympics in Seoul, David competing in judo and Richard in athletics. Whitnash had a fundraising campaign for the two of them to help with the cost. Never a contender for weightwatcher of the year, David fought in the heavyweight category and won a Bronze Medal. We were all very proud of him. A welcome home party at the Hodcarrier was organised by the fundraisers for both of them and they played “He Ain’t Heavy” by The Hollies. Irrespective of his protests Jane and I managed to get him up on the dancefloor. Contender for Strictly’s glitter ball he was not. This as far as I know was the only time he ever danced, preferring to prop the bar up at parties. I mention this as this is the reason the song is being played later and not because of his size although David I expect would have found the irony amusing. He was selected again for the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics but was unsuccessful in gaining a medal and following an injury to his leg gave judo up to concentrate on his chess. Ever on the lookout for new blood to join the BCA and with a view to gaining a few more human guide dogs for his trips abroad, his powers of persuasion again came into play and the Kenealy household joined the BCA and later even Sam was coerced into joining so that he could accompany him to Ireland.

Once again David enthusiastically gave his all, playing in tournaments all over the British Isles; he played for the British Braille chess team on many occasions throughout Europe and the world, playing in the Olympiads in Brazil and more recently in India where I went as his guide. A trip certainly to be remembered. I actually managed to get him in the swimming pool for the price of a couple of pints.

For many years David has worked for the BCA as organiser of the British contingent to the IBIS tournament in Haaksbergen. David often worked in his bedroom while Mum was relaxing downstairs. She would suddenly hear him shout, “Mother can I borrow your eyes for a minute?” Haaksbergen was a favourite of David’s and the family’s. Many long standing friendships have been made over the years.

David was a familiar figure around Leamington. All four of his guide dogs were trained in his regular walks to the Whitnash pubs and local club and of course to the bookies on a Saturday. Cheltenham Festival was a particular favourite of his and this year Sarah, Danny, David and I had tickets for Ladies Day. We will toast him with a glass or two especially if his horse comes in.

David lived life to the full, never letting his blindness and in later years his hearing impairment hinder him. He had a brilliant sense of humour and, never one for political correctness, would often make jokes about not being able to see. As he once told me, Sally you are the one with a visual impairment because you wear glasses; I haven’t any vision to impair I’m just blind. He was hard working, kind and loving, a genuinely lovely man but he was also as stubborn as a mule, wanted everything yesterday and could at times ‘be a pain in the backside’ as my Dad used to say. I have been astounded at the number of cards, flowers and tributes paid to him and I know the rest of the family feel the same. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you. He was a friend to many and touched so many lives. He achieved so much and as his big sister I am extremely proud of him. His life reminds me of an opening to a chess game the Two Knights Defence, where on an unsuspecting player the game is cut short too soon. And so David as we bid our farewells we say God Bless and checkmate.