EXETER — OK, it might sound a little weird, but it’s a fact: Were it not for a deviated septum and the Vietnam War ending when it did, Ron Petrilla probably wouldn’t be in the profession he’s about to leave after 35 years.
Yet the job is so ingrained in his psyche the man can’t talk about himself before showing off what his organization has accomplished.
“When I started, we had two rooms in the Kirby Health Center in Wilkes-Barre,” the retiring executive director of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Association for the Blind said as he launched an unexpected tour of the agency’s roomy, two-floor home. “We served northern Luzerne County and part of Wyoming County.”
Thanks to numerous donations, the new home, acquired in 2007, includes a community room that hosts everything from support groups to yoga classes, a vision center where those in need can get fitted with glasses at cost, a training kitchen where the vision-impaired can learn to work on a stove and sink and use specially designed carving knives (double-bladed so they slice the right thickness automatically) and a small stock of devices for the blind (talking clocks, talking scales and even talking telephone caller-ID machines) also for sale at cost.
“Now we serve Luzerne, Wyoming, Wayne and Pike counties,” said Petrilla, 58. “We have about 700 legally blind active cases, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg, believe me. Many who qualify for services don’t seek them out.”
Twist of fate
How did an MMI Prep school grad who went straight from what was then Bloomsburg State College into the U.S. Navy pilot training program land here?
“Two things happened,” Petrilla said. “I was halfway through flight training when the war ended and they didn’t need more pilots; they offered me a commission but said it would be on a ship. I only wanted to fly. And I had the grades to go on to jets but I had a problem with rapid altitude changes. They said I had a deviated septum.”
So Petrilla ended up with an honorable discharge and in need of a job — just as the executive director of the Hazleton Area Association for the Blind retired. Petrilla got the job in 1978, moving to the Wilkes-Barre Association six years later when that executive director retired, spending nights and weekends getting his master’s degree and doctorate. He never left.
“I think they thought they’d have to carry me out in a body bag,” he chuckled.
Petrilla, married to a teacher at Hazleton Area High School and the father of four, isn’t retiring to a life of leisure. “I’m not old enough to retire, and I don’t golf,” he quipped. Instead, he’s taking a 15-year avocation — adjunct teaching nights and weekends for Misericordia University (“It keeps me sharp”) — to full-time status.
“The timing is right,” he said. “I don’t want my rear end to grow roots in this seat.”
But he has promised the association’s board of directors he’ll stick around until a replacement is named and a full transition is completed. “I anticipate they will use me quite a bit,” he said with another chuckle, “because they don’t have to pay me.”
Petrilla takes no credit for the association’s growth during his tenure.
“I have a great staff,” he said. “I have one talent: I know my limitations and I know enough to surround myself with people who make up for my limitations.”
While he’s happy to show off all the services in the building, he beams when discussing the summer camp being offered to children.
Proud of children
“I’m just so proud of the camping program we were able to institute since moving in this building,” he said. “You don’t get a lot of thank-yous in this business. You never cure the blindness. You don’t always recognize the progress of a client, until you work with kids.
“We have a graduation ceremony where each one of them gives a little speech. Each one gets up, and they really lay it on the line, how we made them feel, how they feel about themselves now.” His voice takes on a wistful tone. “You haven’t lived until you’ve been hugged by those kids.”
Reminded that he surely had plenty of hugs from his own kids, he grins again.
“That was my job, raising my kids. This is a pleasure.”
Asked what advice he would give his successor, Petrilla had no trouble coming up with an answer. “Really embrace change,” he said, “And don’t set up a comfortable system for yourself. Embrace partnerships. There are many organizations that look at this as being in competition for resources, and we have to work together.”