Born blind, black and impoverished to an alcoholic and abusive father, Fred Bailey had just about every strike against him growing up.
And yet, he persevered.
The 10th of 15 children of share croppers in Gallatin, Bailey was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease at the age of 10. He was sent to the Tennessee School for the Blind in Donelson where he excelled in wrestling – even competing for a state title in 1969.
Not long after graduating from the school in 1975, Bailey married and moved to Hendersonville where he worked for General Electric for several years.
A graduate with honors from Tennessee State University, Bailey is the founder of two non-profit organizations for disadvantaged youth – Children are People in Gallatin and the Susie Brannon McJimpsey Center in North Nashville.
For years, the 67-year-old whose accomplishments have been recognized by local, state and national leaders has been encouraged to pen his life story to inspire others to reach for more than they once thought was possible.
After several years of cajoling by others, and dozens of interviews with Hendersonville writer and CAP volunteer Susan Newell, Bailey’s “Nowhere Near the Bottom,” was released earlier this year on Amazon. With COVID-19 virtually shutting the world as we know it down in March, Bailey’s plans for book signings and promotional tours temporarily evaporated.
However, even with the limited exposure, he says the book is steadily finding an audience - mostly from those who know just a slice of his story and want to learn more.
Fred Bailey’s message to others
The book carries a message, he says, that is needed now more than ever.
“I wrote that book because I needed people to have a guide,” he said. “Basically, the philosophy here is Fred Bailey. Nobody is going to give you anything. Nobody should give you anything. If you get that instilled in them, they’re going to go farther. Whatever I became or didn’t become it was because of my own initiative or lack of.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Bailey doesn’t appreciate the struggles of those who went before him.
He dedicated the book to his parents, Ernest and Mattie Bailey who he credits for instilling in him a strong work ethic, a deep sense of respect for others, and an appreciation for a good education.
“Their lives were just one step up from slavery, and they had to grin and bear a lot just so their kids could get a chance at life,” he wrote.
Bailey also dedicated the book to two younger sisters who died in infancy. “They didn’t even get a chance at life due to our deprived circumstances,” he wrote.
While working at GE in the early 1980’s Bailey first got the idea of founding a non-profit for disadvantaged youth when he saw a panel that included the Rev. Jesse Jackson on television.
“They were discussing why poor people were still having such hard times even after all this [government] money had been spent,” he writes in his book. “And as I was listening to the different panelists talk about the reasons for it – racism, bad neighborhoods, the break-down of the family unit… I thought that all of those things could be factors and all of those things do exist. But you can let those things prepare you rather than define you.”
Reaching out to young people
Bailey says he vowed to work one day with young people and show them what it takes to be successful in America, “Because I know that without respect and work ethic, you’re not going to make it in this system.”
Bailey founded the after-school program Children are People in 2001, first for extended family members. When they started bringing their friends, the program grew.
Children are People Interim Executive Director Susan Superczynski has worked for the non-profit organization since 2007.
“I knew about [Mr. Bailey] and CAP for some time,” she said. “I was looking for a place to feed my soul, and I’ve certainly found it. God put me here and he was like you can’t leave and I’ve just fallen in love.”
In its nearly 20 years of operation, CAP has served nearly 700 at-risk youth in Gallatin.
None of it would have been possible, says Superczynski, without Bailey’s vision.
“He’s the reason this whole organization exists,” she said. “The principles and the standards and the components that he brought to this organization are what make it unique. It’s the work ethic. It’s the old-school mentality. The strict expectations and the genuine love for the kids.”
Superczynski also encouraged Bailey to write ‘Nowhere Near the Bottom.’
“I wanted to make sure his story was captured and not lost,” she said. “Because he is so unique and there’s still so much to be learned from him.”
Bailey left CAP in 2018 to start a non-profit in North Nashville. Named for his mother-in-law, a well-known educator, the Susan Brannon McJimpsey Center targets both at-risk youth and adults with a variety of programs.
Like CAP, the center receives no government funding.
“To me a lot of the programs now are too into the government,” Bailey said. “I got to call it the way I see it so that’s why I don’t do the government thing. I just don’t believe in it. I just don’t.”
Like he did at CAP, Bailey continues to stress personal responsibility and looking inward rather than looking to others for their happiness and success.
It’s a message he hopes his book conveys too.
“I found that as I got older, life doesn’t care about my blackness or my blindness,” he said. “I truly believe that if you respect yourself and respect other people and have a strong work ethic – then you are set. You’re on your way.”