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Unknown Stories of WNY: Enlightened by 'darkness'

A Buffalo man's life was turned around through the power of friendship, and it inspired one of the most popular songs of all time.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sanford Greenberg grew up poor in Buffalo, but ascended to become one of the leading inventors, authors, and philanthropists in the field of treating and preventing blindness. Dr. Greenberg is now the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's Wilmer Eye Institute. That rise was the result of a friendship, struck up in college, that changed both men's lives, and in the process led to one of the most popular songs of all time.

Greenberg has seen a lot of changes during his life, but there has been one constant, almost from the start. 

"Sue and I met in sixth grade," Greenberg said.

It was a love that, well, smoldered for a bit says Greenberg. 

"That was the most natural thing in the world, not to speak to a beautiful young woman who ignores you.," Greenberg said.

But once they got to Bennett High School, Greenberg finally mustered the courage to ask her to the Charity Ball at Kleinhans Music Hall their sophomore year. 

"I will never forget the excitement the sheer excitement I had when I was going to pick her up at her home," Greenberg said.

Greenberg started to come into his own at Bennett. He was elected class president, president of the student council, and president of the Buffalo inter-high student council. He played the trumpet and ran cross-country and track. He was also named prom king.

This all paved his way to Columbia University where his life changed forever. He made friends, things were going well, until the summer after his sophomore year. Greenberg's vision began to fail during a baseball game and quickly grew worse. 

What was thought to be conjunctivitis was actually glaucoma and by the end of the first semester, Greenberg couldn't even finish his finals. He went home and was told he needed immediate surgery, after that, he was told he would soon be blind. 

Greenberg decided to quit school. 

"I was sitting at home in Buffalo quite depressed. I didn't have much of a fighting view of the upside for myself my career. I didn't want to see anybody, so I didn't talk to anybody, didn't write. One day my beloved friend Arthur shows up and he says Sanford, we must talk."

Arthur was Greenberg's best friend and roommate at Columbia. As they walked up and down Saranac Avenue, Arthur told Greenberg he would be his eyes, he would read him his assignments, and help get him through. 

Over the objections of his family — although Sue said she would support any decision Greenberg made — Greenberg returned. Arthur kept his promise, and even adopted a new nickname, "Darkness." 

"He would walk into the room, and at first this surprised me, and he said Sanford, Darkness is going to read to you from the 'Iliad' today," Greenberg said.

The greatest lesson Arthur taught Sandy was when they were at Grand Central Station, Arthur told Greenberg he had to leave. Greenberg had to find his own way back to Columbia. It was a trek full of terror and frustration recalls Greenberg. 

"Such as my falling down at one point and hanging halfway over the track. There was a moment there in which I begged God to let the train sever me," Greenberg said.

But he eventually made it back, Arthur had been following all the way. 

"I felt that I could do anything in the world because, after all, I just went through the New York City subway station. That little episode, and that little colloquy, defined me. It defined me then and defines me to this day, after that the whole world opened up to me," Greenberg said.

They ultimately graduated, Greenberg went on to Harvard and Oxford. Much to his disappointment, his old friend Arthur decided to leave architecture school and pursue a different path. 

One day Greenberg received a phone call, Arthur asked him for a $400 loan. Despite the fact that Greenberg and Sue, who were then married, had only $404 in their checking account, Greenberg didn't hesitate. He was extremely grateful to be able to return the favor to Arthur. 

"I don't know if there's a time in my life that I ever felt better about myself, about him, and the world," Greenberg said.

Arthur had partnered with another old friend, Paul. The loan funded their debut album, which spawned a song that would ultimately rise to number one on the billboard charts in 1966. 

"It was so beautiful, when I first heard it I was transfixed. I couldn't move and I began to appreciate it more and more over the years," Greenberg said. 

Arthur, or Art Garfunkel, and Paul Simon's song "Sound of Silence" was an homage to the friendship of Arthur and Greenberg, a friendship that remains strong to this very day. 

"We're both each other's lifelines, still," Greenberg said. 

The two are so close that Arthur is the godfather to the Greenberg's three children. 

And by the way, Greenberg says as beautiful as he thinks the "Sound of Silence" is, his favorite Simon and Garfunkel song is actually "Bridge Over Troubled Water." He thinks that song just amazingly captured their friendship, a friendship that changed two lives, for the better.

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