Georgia Griffith, the First Lady of Cyberspace
July 12, 2009
Georgia Griffith was the first lady of CompuServe and thus, of cyberspace when you had to explain to most people what email was. Few could comprehend online forums, interactive communications, and what would evolve into social networking. Two events have had me thinking of the old CompuServe lately. One was the death of Compuserve Classic this month and the other was the death of one of the classic pioneers of CompuServe, Sally Ryce. Both events led me to reminisce about my friend, Georgia Griffith who help build some of the strongest communities and developed standards of online behavior that have never been surpassed.
Why the First Lady of Cyber-Space Has Inspired Thousands
She graduated cum laude from Capital University where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She was been a music teacher, could play 12 instruments knew at least 7 languages. She was featured in Discover and People magazines, conversed online with the Vice President, had an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution and was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame. She single-handedly designed the IBM Special Needs Data Base and held the highest certification as a Braille music proof-reader for the Library of Congress. For eighteen years she managed some of the busiest and most volatile forums on CompuServe with a membership of thousands. She was a woman of deep personal faith.
Incidentally, Georgia Griffith had been blind since birth and was deaf for over 40 years.
Georgia’s achievements would have been noteworthy for a sighted and hearing person. In fact, most of us who met her in cyberspace would never suspected that she was “handicapped.” I use the word, “Handicap” because that is Georgia’s word. She detested the term, “disabled.”
“I am not disabled. I’m handicapped—just like in golf,” Georgia reminded me time and time again. And I have never heard her complain about those handicaps.
Because, for many years, I have been preparing to write her biography. My personal files are filled with newspaper and magazine clippings, letters of congratulations from people in high places, including former President Ronald Reagan, and personal glimpses into the life and achievements of this remarkable woman that I called, “friend.” I have copies of awards, videos, interviews, and e-mails to inform my writing, but I have much more.
My memories are blessed by daily conversations over about 10 years, and two personal visits. I did not go to Lancaster, Ohio where Georgia lived alone in the home where she was raised. Georgia visited us, her Calfiornia friends. It was hard to keep her locked away in one place.
She came to California with her long-time friend, Bettye Krolick with whom she served on the Board of Directors of the National Braille Association. Georgia loved to travel and she loved to sight-see. I will never forget taking her to the Science and Technology Museum in San Jose . Her curiosity and sense of wonder were active in the wide smile she displayed at we outlined words describing the exhibits in her hand. She touched displays and asked questions. During lulls in the action, she yanked on her friends beards with a girlish giggle.
Georgia loved to eat too. Her mouth watered in San Jose for a cup of strong, sweet, Vietnamese coffee with a plate of noodles. The stronger and hotter the better.
At a banquet for Braille transcribers, people lined up to shake her hand and tell her how much she had meant to them through the years and how inspired they were by her life. She barely got through her dinner, but she had a genuine smile and word of encouragement for each.
When honored, she always tried to deflect some of that recognition to her friends and assistants. As an example of her humility, I have often received e-mails to this effect:
“Hurry! Write me an acceptance speech—you know, the usual, ‘I’m a nobody, but thanks for this great honor.’”
When Georgia went out in public, she used a wheelchair because of balance problems. However, in her home, she shunned that help and pulled herself up on a railing or crawled. Her work schedule was grueling for a young person, much less a septuagenarian. She was constantly reading, writing, and thinking using her specially equipped Braille “monitor” on her computer. Instead of tired eyes, Georgia occasionally complained of sore hands—but she kept going and going and going. In the evenings she read the Bible and a novel. Retirement was never mentioned.
Every day, Georgia answered hundreds of e-mails and managed online forums with thousands of posted messages, library files, and management duties. She dealt with contentious people with grace, humor, and firmness. Everyone was welcome in her forums, but they had to comply with the rules and respect other people and their views.
"No potty mouths."
Not that she was a prude. Her humor was quick and sometimes naughty, but never rude or degrading.
When Georgia reads what was on her computer, she did not scan a screen or quickly view graphics. She had to convert graphical interfaces to text and read one line at a time. Having taught herself several computer languages in 1980, Georgia had to learn to navigate the world of the Worldwide web with all it’s “purty pictures” in the nineties. She did so with determination, grace, and prayer as she has tackled every other task in her life. It took her longer to read all the material—because of the limitations of Braille technology, but once she had read it, she knew it.
Her capacity for learning, digesting, storing, and retrieving information put most people to shame.
A word of advice to the novice was, "Never challenge Georgia to a battle of wits. You will lose."
Another word was, "Do not procratinate." Georgia was a quick-turn-around task manager who lived that way and expected her subordinates to do the same.
I also learned not to go "incommunicado" for long. If I did, I'd get an email with these words in the message header, "Are you dead?"
Georgia often said, ”to live is to give” and she lived by that philosophy. Her generosity is celebrated by many, as I can testify. Each of us, sworn to silence, is prevented from widely discussing her kindnesses to us. Therefore, we talk about her keen humor, lively faith, honesty, work ethic, compassion, fairness, and drive. . Mostly, we are grateful for her friendship.
However, now that she is gone, I can say that it would not be unusual for her to ship back-to-school presents to the children of her forum staff, find out that someone needed a new computer and silently order one for them, or just write a check for someone whose need she read about online.
When I first met Georgia in the early nineties, she had recently lost her beloved mother, Toots. We prayed and talked a lot about Heaven and God’s grace. But through the years, I have learned far more about grace from her than I could have ever imparted. I am privileged to have called this pioneering woman, my dear friend and sister.
Through Georgia, I met and interviewed famous and powerful people online and even arragned a conference with the Vice President of the United States. Well known writers, thinkers, and leaders adrmired her. She was an encouragement for many who had no idea they could overcome their personal limitations until they witnessed her overcoming hers.
She was intimidated by no one. She gave nicknames to everyone.
Once in a conference "room" online with the Inspector General of the Justice Department before a question and answer session we were hosting, she informed the dignified young man that "we" had nicknamed him, "Iggy" for "IG" for "Inspector General." "Iggy" took it in good stride.
Remind me to tell a funny story about her conversations with Vice President Al Gore and the time her preacher friend rolled dice for the Vice President. That will be a different story for a different day.
Georgia was a pioneer -- as a woman in a world dominated by male egos, as a person with sight and sound "disabilities" in a world that was becoming more visually and auditorially driven, as a diplomat, manager, writer, programmer, communicator, and friend, she had no pattern to follow, but blazed the trail.
Georgia wrote one book and was working on a second. The one she wrote, to the disappointment to some of us, was not about herself at all, but about her friends and family. She really did believe that she was just an ordinary person surrounded by extraordianary people.
Georgia worked until "she dropped" - literally. She had a stroke in 2005 and died two weeks later.She never woke up. It took three people to fill her jobs on CompuServe including the author. No one has been able to take her place.
PS - My friend, Bev Sykes, wrote a wonderful tribute to Georgia and posted this video on YouTube. Bev was with GG in Washington D.C. when she was honored at the Smithsonian Institution and presented with those honors by General Colin Powell.
Note - Even though Compuserve Classic is no more, CompuServe Forums live on. Three of Georgia's remain: