Interview'My eyes became cloudy, steamy. The world became fractured'

Inventor, blindness activist and former roommate of Art Garfunkel honored at Harvard

The musician inspired Sanford Greenberg to push on with his studies at Columbia after losing his sight. In turn, he helped inspire the classic anthem, ‘The Sound of Silence’

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Sanford Greenberg in Washington, DC, September 25, 2017. (Courtesy)
    Sanford Greenberg in Washington, DC, September 25, 2017. (Courtesy)
  • Sanford Greenberg with longtime friend Art Garfunkel in an undated photo. (Courtesy)
    Sanford Greenberg with longtime friend Art Garfunkel in an undated photo. (Courtesy)
  • Sanford Greenberg, bottom row left, at the Eight Over 80 recognition by the New Jewish Home. (Courtesy)
    Sanford Greenberg, bottom row left, at the Eight Over 80 recognition by the New Jewish Home. (Courtesy)

Almost six decades after earning his PhD at Harvard University, Sanford “Sandy” Greenberg was back on campus. This time, he was sitting next to Tom Hanks, the 2023 commencement speaker. The beloved actor and star of hit films including “Forrest Gump,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “Sully” gave a speech addressing the theme of superheroes and the concept of “truth, justice and the American way.”

“There was a thread of serious political thinking, but couched in a very relatable [way] and often humorous injections,” Greenberg said.

The previous day, May 24, Greenberg had been recognized by his alma mater as one of its Centennial Medal recipients in a ceremony. The medal, the highest honor awarded by Harvard’s Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, celebrates individuals who seek to better humanity through their work. Greenberg certainly qualifies through his amazing life story.

Born into a Jewish-American family in Buffalo, New York, he lost his father at an early age. While attending Columbia University, Greenberg was diagnosed with glaucoma. Ultimately, he lost his vision. Although becoming blind caused him physical and emotional pain, and while his career prospects were downplayed, he decided to return to Columbia.

The classmates who helped him make up lost ground included an enduring friend who would go on to a legendary musical career — Art Garfunkel. The two were roommates, and Garfunkel selflessly volunteered his time to read Greenberg the textbooks he could no longer see. Garfunkel would refer to himself as “Darkness” whenever he would announce his arrival: “Sanford, Darkness is here to read from the Iliad.” This greeting resurfaced in the hit song Garfunkel recorded with longtime musical partner Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence.”

“I wish I were articulate enough to explain the depth and breadth of our friendship,” Greenberg said. “It has fortunately lasted all these decades to this very moment. He has enriched my life beyond measure.”

Sanford Greenberg with longtime friend Art Garfunkel in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

“Frankly,” Greenberg added, “this is all based upon a deep and lasting love and respect each of us has for the other. We speak quite regularly.”

Not only did Greenberg graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia, he pursued postgraduate study as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford; earned two graduate degrees from Harvard, an A.M. and PhD; worked in Lyndon Johnson’s White House; and channeled his interest in helping visually impaired people to become an entrepreneur and philanthropist. He married, raised a family and became a grandfather. He has established an End Blindness Prize in the amount of $3 million, with further research toward this goal occurring at a center named after Greenberg and his wife — the Sanford and Susan Greenberg Center to End Blindness at Johns Hopkins University.

‘Hello Darkness, My Old Friend,’ by Sanford Greenberg. (Courtesy)

In 2020, Greenberg wrote a memoir of his diverse experiences, “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: How Daring Dreams and Unyielding Friendship Turned One Man’s Blindness into an Extraordinary Vision for Life,” with an introduction from Garfunkel and a foreword from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom the author described as a longtime friend, neighbor and eshet chayil or woman of valor, the title of a Shabbat song. Bestselling novelist Margaret Atwood, who volunteered to read to blind students at Harvard during her graduate study days there in the 1960s, wrote the afterword. The book was reprinted in paperback this year.

‘The world became fractured’

Greenberg remembers the day he first began experiencing vision problems. He was back home from Columbia, pitching in a baseball game.

“My eyes became cloudy, steamy,” he said. “The world became fractured.”

Greenberg nearly hit a batter with a pitch, headed for the sidelines and collapsed. His girlfriend put his head in her lap. Eventually, his eyesight returned, but it wasn’t long before it was interrupted by cloudiness again.

He saw two ophthalmologists on separate occasions. The second was renowned in Erie County, yet Greenberg said his treatment made the situation much worse.

Sanford Greenberg with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who wrote the foreword to his memoir. (Courtesy)

“He very regrettably gave me topical steroids for my eyes for a period of months,” Greenberg said. “It poisoned or corroded my eyesight until there was nothing left of it. That period was quite hellish.”

Greenberg subsequently went to another doctor at Sinai Hospital in Detroit. This doctor said that Greenberg’s eyeballs had deteriorated to the point where to save them, he would have to be blinded. He told his young patient: “Son, you are going to be blind tomorrow.”

“That one statement changed my life completely, to this very moment,” Greenberg said. “It left me in a state of despair.”

Yet he responded with several decisive steps. He promised God that once he was in a position to do so, he would work to end blindness. Following a negative experience with a blind rabbi who attempted to show Greenberg how to live as a blind man, Greenberg vowed that he would never use a cane or a guide dog to get around.

Hello, Darkness

Greenberg ultimately made good on both promises. First, however, he had to prove to himself, his family and others that he could successfully return to Columbia.

“I felt the deep need to return and complete my education,” Greenberg said. “For certain, if I didn’t, I would be truly lost, or so I felt.”

Sanford Greenberg with his future wife Susan Greenberg at their prom. (Courtesy)

College friends proved helpful, notably Garfunkel. Not only did Garfunkel read to Greenberg, but it was through the future songwriter that Greenberg found he could navigate New York City on his own. One day, the two were in midtown Manhattan, and Greenberg had an appointment back at Columbia. Garfunkel, who was studying architecture, said that he could not accompany Greenberg back at that time because he had to sketch the Seagram Building for an assignment. Greenberg willed himself to take the subway back on his own. The journey involved some stumbles, a cut forehead, and a brush with boxing greatness. It concluded with Greenberg making it back to school successfully. Without divulging the details here, Garfunkel’s role in the experience was somewhat larger than merely saying he couldn’t go with his friend back to school at that hour.

As Garfunkel and other friends read to him, Greenberg wondered whether it was possible to speed up recordings of the human voice to absorb more information at a faster pace. This led him to work on developing a device for that purpose. There were challenges — speeding up a cassette too much risked breaking the equipment and making the voice sound like Donald Duck. Yet Greenberg and colleagues eventually found a way through these challenges. The resulting invention — “Apparatus for Reducing Time Duration of Signal Reproduction” — was patented on November 25, 1969.

The late 1960s saw Greenberg’s career take off like a moon rocket. In fact, one of his achievements in those years was assisting with the design of technology used aboard the lunar excursion module on Apollo 11. A key contact in that endeavor was Bill Moyers, the future PBS host. When Greenberg was a White House fellow during the Johnson years, he got to know Moyers, who was then a special assistant to the president. Later, Greenberg convinced Moyers to join the board of his new software corporation, with projects including the technology for the Apollo 11 mission.

Dean Emma Dench of the Kenneth Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard with Sanford Greenberg, who the school awarded a Centennial Medal. (Courtesy)

As Greenberg continued his work in business, he made contacts in national and international politics. He worked to bring together Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and then-Israeli ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin. A dinner-time meeting led to a warmer relationship between Muskie and the future prime minister. Another Democratic senator — Bill Bradley, the former New York Knick who represented New Jersey in the Senate — became such a close friend that he suited up for a 3-on-3 basketball game with Greenberg. The game was a family affair, involving Greenberg, his two sons, his brother-in-law and another friend. For a while, the Greenbergs were winning, but then Bradley’s competitive instincts kicked in.

“He shut us down very quickly, I have to confess,” Greenberg said. “We did not win. Nevertheless, it was exciting, fulfilling and memorable.”

These are words that could also be used to describe many other times in Greenberg’s life. Following his honor by Harvard, he received another award – inclusion in the New Jewish Home’s Eight Over Eighty, alongside such fellow greats as writer Erica Jong and Grammy winner Ron Carter.

“I have often been asked by people with and without a disability how to approach the world,” Greenberg said. “I said that Einstein stated the case best. What he said was, ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.’”

“If you can’t marvel,” Greenberg said, “you miss the magic of daily life.”

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