The Bookbinder Saga: Inspirational

by Jeff Lytle

As a retired executive of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, Mike Reagen remains wired to civic affairs. When I asked him recently for ideas for uplifting articles, he turned to his network of friends and contacts.

One of the responses started like this: “I believe my husband and I have an amazing story to be told. He is totally blind, yet works and volunteers  his head off. He is one of the founders and now chairman of Lighthouse of Collier for the blind and visually impaired; he is an executive board member of the Naples Discussion Group; and more.

“He also has had four cancers.” Sue Bookbinder had my attention, yet she kept going: “I have multiple sclerosis and, with all the unknowns associated with that condition, had a career in human resources in New York until early retirement.” Her eloquent conclusion: “My husband and I believe we have had the successful (although challenging) lives we have had because we were blessed – and now we need to give back as much as possible.”

Art and Sue Bookbinder, 77 and 73 respectively, are role models for selfless spirit and joy of life. Aptly, the Bookbinders have reaped a bounty of accolades from organizations ranging from  Temple Shalom, the Jewish National Fund’s regional chapter, Champions  for Learning and Collier County government. The recognition carries an overarching theme – succeeding against tall odds and making the world a better place.

“Art and Sue are the epitome of what makes our community great,” sums up Jackie Faffer, CEO of the Naples Senior Center. Their road to Naples started in Brooklyn, where Sue aspired to be a lawyer like her father and Art was immersed in sports and music. He won a baseball skills contest at age 12; the prize was interviewing Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson on live TV. (A surviving audio recording includes Ebbets Field hecklers of Robinson  being held back by security guards.) Bookbinder played pickup basketball with future pros Connie Hawkins and Billy Cunningham. He sang doo-wop for fun with stars-to-be Neil Diamond and Jay & The Americans.

Hobbies gave way to a career, in building and managing medical clinics. And then, a game changer. A diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa in 1976 led him to plan ahead for work after
blindness, which his doctor said would come within 10 years (actually, 14). His wife (they met in 1968 and married two years later) spotted a serendipitous “help wanted” ad in the New York Times for a Silicon Valley company pioneering technology for the blind, placing him on the ground floor of reading and writing breakthroughs still used today.

Sue, meanwhile, compiled a stellar career in human resources for big banks and other companies in New York, New Jersey and Europe, reducing turnover rates via education and upward mobility. Her game changer, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, came in 1986,  with retirement 12 years later.

The Bookbinders’ arrival in Naples in the year 2000 represented retirement in name only. They looked for good causes to support and started one of their own – Lighthouse, whose staff of 10 helps patients of all ages and their families deal with sight loss. For children and teens that means summer camp, for fun as well as social skills. “There are millions of great stories,” says Art. (His trademark fedora is one more. A friend gave him dozens
as he faced chemotherapy in 1999. He kept his hair – and the stylish hat look.)

Dr. Stephen Schwartz, a Lighthouse board member and medical director of the prestigious  Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Naples, puts the Bookbinders’ impact in context: “We have many excellent ophthalmologists and optometrists in Naples, but none of them really do what Lighthouse does.

“The Bookbinders are admirable people, and I think they are role models for what we could all do if we really tried.” Sue herself has led local fundraising for the Israeli Technicon research center and heads up a 150 member Contemporary Women’s Fiction
Book Club. She works as Art’s “sidekick” mentoring students with Champions for Learning and is a member of the Women’s Giving Circle to empower the disadvantaged.

The Bookbinders’ salute from Collier County government was a natural. The Against All Odds’ award is given annually to “someone who has overcome great obstacles and has given back to the Collier County community.” A more personal kudo comes from Greg Hardwig, sports editor at the Naples Daily News, whose daughter is blind. “Art and Sue
have supported Sarah at youth camp,” he relates, help promote an annual golf fundraiser for her, Lighthouse and the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

Which brings our story back to Mike Reagen. “Susan and Art Bookbinder daily inspire hundreds to follow their leadership to better the lives of thousands of our most challenged,” says Reagen. “Truly, they are extraordinary leaders.”

1 reply
  1. Maureen Hickey
    Maureen Hickey says:

    Dear Sue, I haven’t really loved and enjoyed a man so full of fun, bravery, spiritual grace and love for a long time. One can feel it when you are with him or when he holds your hand. I was my honor to have met Art and Sue. I especially loved it when Sue laughed with us when Art came up with some funy story.
    Take care Sue and many blessings especiall on Easter Sunday. Art will be up there counting his Easter eggs…
    Mauree Hickey


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