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Paddling Professor; Legally Blind, a Florida Business Guru Pursues His Dream By Kayak

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Hamilton Spectator, December 28, 2001.

Right, left, right, left. Bill Quain's paddle arcs through the air, then splits the water on the downstroke with barely a sound or ripple. Swiftly, rhythmically, he scoots along the shoreline, looking like a man sandwiched between two whirling windmills.

The Florida International University professor is commuting to work, as he does always, in a five-metre kayak. Depending on the headwinds and the currents, it takes about 40 minutes to cover the approximate 4 kilometers from Quain's townhouse in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., to the Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami. Legally blind, Quain can't drive.

So in shorts, T-shirt, sun hat and boat shoes, he takes to the Intracoastal Waterway. Sticking to the shallows off Oleta River State Recreational Area, he paddles southward, finally rounding a spit of land and entering an inlet that conveniently fronts his classroom and office building.

Pulling his kayak up the rocky bank, he drags the plastic, lightweight low rider to a palm tree where he anchors it with a chain.

"I always point out to my students that it's locked," he says, "because I know if I were a student, I'd be tempted to hide it or do something I thought was funny."

His quick humour makes for instant student rapport.

Introducing two visitors to his classroom, he notes, "It's just part of the ongoing FBI probe." Then turning to the visitors, he says, "I thought I was just playing golf with O.J. Simpson."

In talking about his visual handicap, he can't help sharing the irony that he has a free, lifetime hunting permit. It came with the free, lifetime fishing permit granted all Floridians who are legally blind.

"If you see me driving down the street with something strapped across the hood of my car, you should be really worried," he cracks.

Quain was 14 when he began losing his vision to macular degeneration, a condition affecting the retina that makes it impossible to see what is directly in front of him.

Yet, with the help of hired readers and reading machines, he graduated from high school and college and went on to get a Ph.D. There is no clue in his appearance or the way he navigates (on land or water) that suggests he has only peripheral vision. Indeed, he stoops to pick up a shred of paper on the carpet.

"My hotel training," says Quain, who teaches hotel and restaurant administration in FIU's School of Hospitality Management.

In his office, he has a magnifying reader that expands the type on his monitor to 6 centimeters or higher. He also has a computer with speech capability to read the text on his screen.

Quain is popular with his students, who find motivation in his philosophy and role modeling.

"He encourages us not to settle for just anything, but to strive for the best," says JaMee Davis.

"He relates his personal stories to his teaching," says freshman Dana Marano. "It makes the class interesting. It makes us think more about what he's saying."

Suzette Demetrius, a junior, says when she learned Quain was visually disabled, "I didn't feel sorry for him. I was just in awe."

Not surprising when you consider that at age 19, Quain owned and managed a hotel, and at 20, he owned and managed a restaurant.

Now at 49, he is the author of 10 books on business, marketing and personal growth, including Reclaiming the American Dream, his first big seller at 125,000 copies, and Pro-Sumer Power, "400,000 copies in 12 languages." He is also much in demand as a motivational and business speaker.

And recently, this energetic business guru expanded in yet another direction, as host of a TV pilot called Cooking Without Looking, aimed at the blind and visually handicapped.

"I've always wanted to do a cooking show," says Quain, who in addition to everything else is a trained chef. "I taught food preparation in the hotel school at the University of New Orleans."

He is very much the epitome of the philosophy espoused in his books. Simply put, he thinks you can design your own destiny, build and achieve your dreams.

"Our motto is the least we'll do is whatever it takes," he says, explaining how he became a kayaker.

"Jeanne (his wife) and I are both big dream builders. One of our goals was to live on water and for me to get to and from work on my own power."

The idea came to him in 1993 while on a South Florida vacation. At the time, he and his wife lived in Orlando, Fla.

"We were having lunch on the water in Fort Lauderdale. I saw a huge yacht going by. ... We decided at that point we'd move to the water." How great it would be, he thought, embellishing the dream, to commute to work on the water. It seemed a far-fetched notion at the time. But four years ago, Quain got a position at FIU, and he and Jeanne immediately looked for a waterfront home. His first commuter vessel was a 7-meter sailboat. "It had a 5-hp motor, so it didn't go any faster than my kayak," he says. Nor was it as maneuverable. And it could never travel the shallows, which is far safer than cruising down the middle of the Intracoastal. When the engine broke, Quain tried a kayak and was immediately converted.

"It has a certain cachet," he says.

Before setting off this particular morning, Quain twice chases down the family dog to put back in the house. He then collects his paddle, bottle of water, cell phone, radio and knapsack. Once he gets to work, he showers and changes into the shirt, tie and slacks tucked into the knapsack.

Strapped to the hull of his bright yellow kayak is his radio, tuned to National Public Radio.

"I listen to the news. This is my drive time," he notes before pushing off. Only when there are hurricane-force winds or lightning does he take the land route to work. Then his wife or someone else must drive him. It's far more pleasant to glide along the waterway than fight the rush-hour traffic on the asphalt. The sun is just climbing above the horizon. Pelicans are on the wing, cormorants dive for breakfast and an occasional ray slips by.

"A couple of times dolphins have charged the kayak," Quain says. "They do occasionally get aggressive."

In the soft light of sundown, he's paddling home.

A couple weeks ago, neighbors taking out the boat to watch the sun set went looking for Quain so he could join them for a beer and hors d'oeuvres. They spotted the paddling professor in the Intracoastal, hauled him and his kayak aboard, and together they reveled in the goodness of South Florida living, till the sun was swallowed by the night.

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