This story ran in the Idaho Statesman March 13, 2013.
It’s been about 15 years since Fred Riggers started going blind.
It happened so slowly that he didn’t notice at first. Spots went missing and the fabric of perception grew thin, but his brain compensated and stitched the world whole.
It took a failed driver’s license vision test to convince him that he really had a problem.
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Riggers, a little man with a white cane and dark glasses, might be the most recognizable figure in the Statehouse, even though he doesn’t have an official job there. Spend any time at the Capitol and you’re sure to run into him. He’s the one with the Idaho-shaped name tag that simply reads, “Fred.”
“It makes people comfortable, “ he said. “They can call me by name, so then we start a conversation.”
And Fred does like to talk. He spends most mornings in the joint budget committee, greeting agency directors and legislators like old friends. He likes to follow the money trail, learning each department’s priorities.
Then he’ll wander toward the lobbyist room, stopping to gab along the way.
If a big hearing is scheduled in the Capitol auditorium, Riggers might head down there, standing near the back. That’s when people start to realize he’s not your average blind guy.
“When I come into a room, I always try to make a point of saying hello to someone who’s standing by themselves, “ he said. “You’d be surprised how many interesting people you can find in the corners.”
Riggers is legally blind - he has lost his ability to focus - but he can see shapes and recognize people. He identifies them by their size and the way they walk. It’s a bit disconcerting, though, when he steps up next to someone and says, “I almost didn’t see you there.”
Riggers grew up in Nezperce. His grandfather homesteaded the place in 1895; he was from Germany and didn’t speak a word of English when he got to Idaho. Riggers still has his German-English dictionary, worn almost to pieces.
Growing wheat and barley on a Camas Prairie farm didn’t do much to spark an interest in politics. That did not change until 2000, when Riggers started coming to Boise to take classes.
“I had to go to school to learn how to be blind, “ he said.
One class took a field trip to the Legislature. It was interesting enough that Riggers came back for a second look. Now he’s here pretty much every day.
Lawmakers weren’t sure what to make of him. He didn’t lobby them and didn’t represent any organizations - and he had that white cane - so many just ignored him.
“I had a terrible time the first year, year and a half, “ Riggers said. “When you’re disabled, people shun you. But I kept trying.”
One day he was standing at a crosswalk, coming back from lunch, when a senator stopped next to him. The light turned green and he crossed the road. On the other side the senator asked how he knew when it was safe to walk.
“I used you as my guide dog, “ Riggers replied.
Once he stopped laughing, the senator started talking to Riggers. After that, lawmakers approached him more often, knowing he didn’t want anything - except maybe to talk.
“My wife tells me I talk too much, “ he said.
He met her on a double date with a friend. They went to a movie in Orofino, but he fell asleep in the back seat and ignored her. She didn’t hold it against him - this month marks their 49th anniversary.
After all his time in the Statehouse, Riggers is convinced most people don’t understand how things work there.
“There are three lessons for getting things done here, “ he said. “Be polite, be polite and be polite. Coming in with a chip on your shoulder doesn’t work.”
It has been 13 years since Riggers started coming to the Legislature. Rather than breed contempt, his familiarity with Idaho’s citizen lawmakers seems to have bred respect.
“They have to be pretty good just to make it here, “ he said of legislators.