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OPINION: Remembering a legally blind man who was filled with insight

John L. Smith
John L. Smith
Opinion
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Joe Lambert’s modest home on the edge of Boulder City perched like a hideout on a rocky knoll dotted with greasewood and scrub. Octagonal in structure, it was only partly visible from Pueblo Drive, but offered views of the desert he loved in every direction.

To the west, the horizon swept past the Eldorado Valley and all the way to Clark Mountain at the Nevada-California state line. It was worth the trip to his place just to drink in the panorama it afforded.

By the time I met him, he could see almost none of it. Legally blind, Lambert was hampered by life’s medical fortunes usually experienced by folks in their 80s. A lack of sight slowed his remarkable brain not in the least.

Inside his house, books and papers filled shelves and surfaces. Newspapers sat stacked near his chair. Where once he’d read voraciously, in recent years he’d relied on friends, caregivers and audiobooks to keep him up to speed with bestsellers and current events in Boulder City and around the world.

Some of those friends filled his place on the day I visited him to experience what he laughingly called his “Friday Follies.” The conversation was lively, and the drinks flowed easily as those assembled celebrated and discussed all that was right and wrong with the world, politics and the town they called home. Collectively, they could easily have been mistaken for members of Joe’s personal fan club.

He waved the newcomer in the direction of the adult beverages and snacks as the talk turned from local politics to the state of the news business as we’d once known it. By the time the Follies had ended on that Friday, no peace treaties were signed, but I was reminded that civility still existed in pockets of this polarized world.

When Joe died recently, just a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday, Boulder City lost a dedicated citizen, former planning commissioner and occasional critic who had been part of a group of locals who remained steadfast in support of the town’s slow-growth ordinance. Visitors may not realize that the presence of that ordinance, and the people who have been willing to stand behind it, has a great deal to do with Boulder City maintaining its bucolic, small-town charm in a state hell-bent on development.

Boulder City also lost one of its more endearing characters, a fellow who, in addition to being a good storyteller, held electrical engineering degrees from the University of Cincinnati and University of Southern California. He’d worked in the space division at Rockwell International, ITT, Hughes Aircraft and Packard-Bell to name a few.

At Sysdyne Corp., he worked on classified programs for the Department of Defense and “certain Government Agencies,” according to his resume. His employment history was dotted with work on “NATO Command and Control Systems” and “advanced communications system studies.”

“Skunk Works,” Joe’s friends acknowledged, alluding to the term sometimes used for a small group of innovators conducting groundbreaking research in an often-classified capacity. “I suspected he had worked for the CIA,” one friend put it.

That was Joe Lambert, raconteur, sightless hail fellow and keeper of certain secrets.

As his eyesight worsened, his friend Pat Benke created a phone list in a binder with extremely large type to enable him to call his circle of Follies followers. The community helped him through its Lend a Hand and Meals on Wheels programs.

Even as the magazines and newspapers stacked up, Benke says, “His memory was just incredible. When his phone rang, it would announce the number and he knew who was calling. It’s kind of a lost art, but he appreciated the art of conversation.”

Nicky Collins recalls Joe’s Follies group gaining steam during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the local senior center shuttered, he was determined to keep in contact — if at a safe distance — with his friends. “I’ll certainly miss his conversations and the gatherings he had at his house, especially during COVID when all of us were hiding out in our bunkers,” she says. “It was a lifesaver for all of us, really.”

Amy Bramblett spent a decade caring for Joe and was with him fulltime in the final months of his life. “Joe was just a great mind, he was so intelligent,” she says.

Fred Bachhuber wore many hats on Joe’s behalf, from chauffeur and handyman to caregiver and companion and counts him as a “special person.” But even Fred says there was an air of mystery about the man. Perhaps Joe just wanted everyone to wonder about him, he says.

Former Boulder City Mayor Kiernan McManus credits Lambert with keeping a close eye on the community’s slow-growth ordinance and enjoyed the banter of the Friday Follies. He also notes the irony of the man’s life.

“Civility was important to him, but he also had a very sharp wit and did not hold back when he felt somebody was acting with bad information or just ignoring things. … And he could see through things very easily though his eyesight was failing him.”

There’s something else to like about a civil fellow who didn’t let life’s inevitable insults get him down.

“I always admired Joe’s spirit,” Collins says. “He was in his 80s, blind, having a hard time breathing, but instead of folding, he decides to throw a weekly party at his house! He had a great love of poetry and conversation and the ongoing drama of Boulder City politics. We will all miss his Friday Follies.”

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.

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