Blind Valedictorian Is Headed to Med School

Notre Dame Student Credits 'Just Hard Work' for His Success

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 1998

SOUTH BEND, Ind., May 17-- Sure but sightless, Timothy Cordes arrived on the University of Notre Dame campus four years ago, an 18-year-old freshman from Eldrigde, Iowa, who wanted to enroll in the biochemistry program. Faculty members tried, politely, to dissuade him. Just how, they wondered aloud, could a blind student keep up with the rigorous courses and demanding laboratory work of biochemistry?

Cordes graduated today from Notre Dame today with a degree in biochemistry and a 3.991 grade point average. He was the last of Notre Dame's 2,000 seniors to enter the croweded auditorium for commencement. His German shepard, Electra, led him to the lectern to deliver the valedictory speech as his classmates rose, cheered, applauded and yelled his name affectionately.

Cordes starts medical school in two months, only the second blind person ever admitted to a U.S. medical school. He does not plan to practice medicine. His interest is in research, he said: "I've just always loved science." His life has been both an act of open, mannerly defience and unshakeable faith. And this unassuming, slightly built young man with a choirboy's face awes acquaintences and friends. Armed with Electra, a high-powered personal computer and a quick wit, Cordes managed a near-perfect academic record, an A-minus in a Spanish class the only blemish. Two weeks ago, he earned a black belt in the martial arts tae kwon do and jujitsu.

"He is really a remarkable yound man," said Paul Helquist, a Notre Dame biochemistry professor. Helquist at first had doubts but ultimately recommended Cordes for medical school. "He is by far the most brilliant student I've ever come across in my 24 years of teaching," the professor said. If others find some noble lessons in his life, Cordes percieves it more prosaically: He's merely shown up for life and done what was necessary to reach his goals.

"I don't see myself as some sort of 'Profiles in Courage' story," he said. "If people are inspired by what I've done, that's great, but the truth is that I did it all for me. It was just hard work. It's like getting the black belt. It's not like it took one long lesson. It was showing up every day, and sweating and learning and practicing. You have your bad days and you just keep going.

Despite his academic accomplishments, Cordes led a fairly ordinary life in college, debating, for example, the merits of the old and new "Star Trek" series with Patrick Murowsky, a 22-year-old psychology major from Cleveland who roomed with Cordes their sophomore year.

"The thing about Tim is that he's fearless and he just seems to have this faith. Once when we were late for a football game and we had to run to the stadium. He had no qualms about running at top speed while I yelled 'jump,' or I would yell 'duck' and he would duck. And we made it. He is simply amazing to be around sometimes," said Murowshy. Cordes has Leber's disease, a genetic condition that gradually diminished his vision until he was blind at age 14.

When the doctors at the University of Iowa first diagnosed the disease when he was 2, "it was the saddest moment of my life," said his mother, Therese, 50.

"The doctor's...told us: 'He won't be able to do this, and don't expect him to be able to do this,'" Therese Cordes recalled. " So I went home and just ignored everything they said."

The ability to conceptualize images has greatly helped Cordes in his studies, Helquist said. The study of biochemistry relies heavily on graphics and diagrams to illustrate complicated molecular structures. Cordes compensated for his inability to see by asking other students to describe the visual aides or by using his computer to re-create the images in three-dimensional forms on a special screen he could touch.

Cordes applied to eight medical schools. Only the University of Wisconsin accepted him. (The first blind medical student was David Hartman, who graduated from Temple University in 1976 and is a psychiatrist in Roanoke, Va.)

"Tim has always exceeded people's expectations of him," said Therese Cordes, who with her husband, Tom, watched Tim graduate. "He really does inspire me."

Back to Irish Reveries