A friendship to talk about
By TUCKER McQUEEN
The pilot talked about the thrill of flying a jumbo jetliner. He took his audience along on a flight, from the chatter with the control tower through midflight turbulence and finally, a smooth landing. He mentioned the twinkling lights in the cities below as the plane flew between Dayton, Ohio, and Atlanta.
At the end of the Cobb Toastmasters competition, Mark Gasaway plopped onto the floor and reached for a pillow placed there by his friend, Oleada Warden. Pretending to wake up from deep sleep, he rubbed his eyes and remarked about the dream he'd had.
"I've always wanted to be a pilot since I was little," he said. "But how can I fly an airplane? I'm blind and deaf. All I can do is dream. Dreaming helps me cope."
Gasaway, 49, didn't win the recent Toastmasters Tall Tales contest at an east Cobb County library, but he did win a district contest eight years earlier. He also has achieved the public speaking club's highest level of Distinguished Toastmaster. The idea for his latest speech came from frequent plane trips he takes as a board member of the American Blind-Deaf Association.
His story about overcoming deafness and blindness is remarkable enough. But his friendship with a former co-worker is a tale in itself.
Gasaway met Warden, 64, when they worked at the IRS in Chamblee. Their first encounter, at a disability awareness committee meeting, didn't go well. She said hello to Gasaway, but he didn't reply.
"She told me she thought I was rude," he said. "She didn't know I couldn't see or hear."
Gasaway, a Georgia native, lost most of his sight and all of his hearing after a bout with encephalitis when he was 8. He understands sign language and can talk, although with an impediment. He can read close up, if the print is large enough.
He moved to Atlanta 18 years ago with his wife, whom he met when they were students in Washington at Gallaudet University, a school mainly for the deaf. He worked for the IRS for 10 years before leaving to work on a master's degree in organizational management.
He and Warden overcame that initial gaffe and have remained in touch since he left work.
Warden communicated with him at first through an interpreter and then learned sign language.
Their friendship started after he told her about freezing during a talk before the disabilities group. She encouraged him to join the Toastmasters club, which she had joined in 1979. She volunteered to be his secretary and help him understand what goes on at meetings. She has sat next to him at meetings for 11 years, first writing the minutes in jumbo-size print before switching to a laptop computer with giant type. Although she is only 15 years older, Warden is like a mother, Gasaway said.
"Oleada has been more than a friend, although friend is the best word to use," he said. "She does so much more than take notes at meetings. She takes me to the food store and sends her husband, Bill, to help me."
After Warden changed her membership to the Polk Street Toastmasters club in Marietta two years ago, he also joined that group, although it meant he had to travel from his DeKalb County home.
The bimonthly trips are a challenge, sometimes taking three hours one way. He catches a bus near his home in Tucker and transfers to a train at the Lindbergh MARTA station.
He hooks up with Warden, an analyst at the IRS, at the Arts Center transit stop for another bus ride to Kennesaw. He stays at her home after the meetings, and she drives him home the next day on her way to work.
He said the trips -- they don't always go smoothly -- are a test of his independence. He leaves his hearing-assistance dog with his wife when he travels to Marietta. He recalled a rainy night ride a month ago that almost got the best of him.
"My bus was late, and I didn't get to the Arts Center station until close to 5 p.m. There was no Oleada," he said. "What do I do? Do I go back home or get on the bus to Kennesaw? Will she be there if I get on the bus to Cobb? "
A worried Warden had waited for her friend for an hour before catching a bus to the Park and Ride lot near her home in east Cobb. They just missed each other in Atlanta.
Gasaway decided not to turn back and caught a later bus. He told the woman next to him that he was blind and deaf and asked her to make a call to his friend on her cellphone. Warden was waiting for him when he arrived. They joked about the incident afterward.
"He lives and believes a philosophy of anything's possible," she said. "He continues to inspire me to go beyond what I normally might do in my own life."
Last summer, Warden helped him train for the Peachtree Road Race. She measured a 6-mile route near his home on LaVista Road so he would know how far to run.
On a training run, he ran into a telephone guide wire, but that didn't stop him from entering the race or running without a partner. Warden calls him a determined cuss with a great sense of humor.
She remembers a typical Mark moment at this year's Toastmasters Christmas fund-raiser. He bought a singing Christmas tree, although everyone knew he couldn't hear it. She said he got the biggest kick out of turning it on and feeling the vibration of the tree as it sang Christmas tunes.
Gasaway said his humor helps him cope with life, as mean as it often is to him. He said he goes after life as he sees it, and that makes it good for him.
"Oleada understands that about me. She knows what I am made of," he said. "I thank her for more than being there. She makes me feel like I can take on the world and make it spin."
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