Russell Kletzing, a former state water resources official who was a forceful voice for social justice as a leader of organizations for blind people, died Feb. 18. He was 87.
He died of complications from a fall that he suffered a year and a half ago, said his wife, Ruth.
Blinded at 18 months by retinoblastoma, an eye cancer, Mr. Kletzing went on to graduate from UC Berkeley law school, help pioneer the field of environmental law and travel abroad through senior enrichment programs. In addition, he led local and state groups for blind people and served as president of the National Federation of the Blind from 1962 to 1966.
He led efforts to change conventional beliefs about people with disabilities following his own battles against discrimination. As a young lawyer, he sued the federal government in 1958 for taking his name off a civil service list because he was blind. He eventually got an exempt position, but he considered his lawsuit a success because rules against blind people in many civil service jobs were eliminated.
"Blindness is primarily a physical nuisance," he said in 1962. "The handicap arises more from people's attitudes toward the blind."
Mr. Kletzing took another public stand in 1968, when a front-page photo in The Bee showed security officers carrying him from the Sky Glide ride at the California State Fair. He was arrested for refusing to leave after operators told him that he couldn't board the aerial ride, which barred pregnant and disabled people, without signing a waiver. The case later was dropped.
Meanwhile, Mr. Kletzing spent 30 years as a lawyer for the California Department of Water Resources. He helped develop early protections for the environment that paved the way for the landmark California Environmental Quality Act. He retired as assistant chief counsel in 1988.
He volunteered with Sacramento CASA as an advocate for children in foster cases. He served on the board of the Renaissance Society at California State University, Sacramento, a learning-in-retirement program, and organized a Northern California tour for members. He traveled abroad with Elderhostel, a learning and travel group for seniors.
The son of a Methodist minister, Mr. Kletzing was born in 1925 in Chicago and moved with his family to the Bay Area. He graduated from UC Berkeley and began law school at the University of Chicago before hitchhiking back home to graduate from Boalt Hall.
Mr. Kletzing was married for 59 years and had two sons with his wife, a former president of the Older Women's League of California. Active in social issues, he often wrote letters to The Bee and to public officials at all levels from the U.S. president to members of Congress to the UC Board of Regents.
"I was very disappointed when the regents voted against affirmative action, so I wrote and told them so," he said in 1995. "Most people just take things like this in stride, so I suppose it won't make any difference. But it is satisfying."
Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @bob_davila.