One of the early signals that little Kristen Eyring was losing her sight came when the strong-willed, competitive tomboy took off her glasses and squinted in a vain effort to read the menu at a McDonald's near her Sandy home.

From that day more than 20 years ago to the day last week when the governor of Maryland introduced Kristen Eyring Cox as his running mate in his bid for re-election, family and friends in Utah say the force of Cox's personality has knocked down nearly all of the barriers created by her blindness.

"Once she's decided something," said her older sister, Trina Eyring, "it's decided, and you go along for the ride."

Cox, 36, will appear on the Maryland ballot this November as the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is seeking a second term.

Ehrlich's decision to add her to the ticket thrust Cox, with her striking blond hair, onto the front pages of Maryland newspapers. The blanket coverage is a new experience for Cox, who attended Brighton High School and and graduated from Brigham Young University. But she has been in the public eye since 2004, when Ehrlich named her secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities, the first Cabinet-level position in the United States that focuses on disabilities.

It's an improbable career arc for a woman with Stargardt disease — an inherited form of juvenile macular degeneration — who 10 years ago was a stay-at-home mom with her first child, Tanner.

After Ehrlich introduced Cox as his running mate on June 29, most of the next day's news stories focused on her blindness, highlighting the pink suit she wore and white cane she carried during the announcement.

"Blindness is a novelty," Cox said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News. "I think people are curious about it and have questions, which is fair and legitimate."

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She said she hopes the questions and curiosity go beyond her blindness as the campaign continues.

Her mother, Connie Merrill, couldn't imagine it when she first heard the diagnosis.

"It was terrible," Merrill told the News at her Sandy home. "I was devastated," especially after visiting a home for the blind and thinking, "there has to be more for her than this."

Merrill was a teacher in the Jordan School District and had seen disabled children withdraw, but "Kris didn't withdraw."

Instead, she barged forward, continuing to play soccer until her eyesight worsened when she reached the Brighton High junior varsity team. She also ran track. At school, she pushed down the halls a cart with large-print books and a reading machine.

The only time the family ever saw her cry was when she learned she'd never drive a car. Instead, her parents bought her a red scooter.

"It was insanity," her mother said. "She went up and down our street 16 million times. It was her freedom. Neighbors always talked about the blond girl bombing up and down the street."

She quit riding the scooter when she recognized her eyesight was worsening. Cox is legally blind, though she has a little peripheral vision in her left eye.

She graduated from Brighton a year early and attended what was then known as Southern Utah State College in Cedar City for two years.

Then she served an 18-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Brazil, although she couldn't read her Scriptures after her reading machine was trashed going through customs. She learned to speak fluent Portuguese, which she said is now a little rusty.

When Cox returned to Utah, she transferred to BYU and sought the help of Ron Gardner, a blind man who had served as a mentor when she was a child. Gardner had earned undergraduate and law degrees at BYU. "It's a great day to be a blind guy now," he said, "but back when she was going to college, it was very difficult."

Gardner helped her find a place to study and set up a reading machine to project the pages of her textbooks onto a large screen. She could only use the machine for minutes at a time because of eye and neck strain and fatigue, so she hired readers and memorized most of the lectures.

"She has incredible recall," her sister said.

That recall was only one of the characteristics that impressed the National Federation for the Blind after she was elected the Utah chapter president in 1997. The national president hired her to work on legislative affairs at the organization's headquarters in Maryland. She first met Ehrlich when he was a Maryland congressman and she was lobbying Congress on issues relating to blind people.

Cox said she realized through her work with the Utah chapter how public policy decisions affect lives. She had watched her mom seek to understand policies affecting blind students and special education programs. She decided she wanted to help change policies that don't encourage independent living for the blind.

In 2001, President Bush appointed her assistant to the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration in the Department of Education. In 2003, Ehrlich recruited her to be the director of Maryland's Office of Individuals with Disabilities, then elevated it to a Cabinet position a year later.

Gardner isn't surprised by Eyring's rapid rise in politics.

"In less than 10 years she's gone from president of a nonprofit organization to running for lieutenant governor of Maryland," he said. "She's a bright person. She has a personality that just attracts people. She's very, very articulate."

Gardner has always had even larger plans for her. "I haven't given up my hope she will one day return to Utah and run for Congress or possibly even governor of our state," he said.

Cox said she is focused now on the Ehrlich-Cox ticket. Her cabinet position has allowed her to work on everything from emergency preparedness and planning to transportation to health care issues, she said.

"I think people's perceptions of disabilities are not as expansive as I'd like them to be," Cox said. "I have been schooled in more issues than people would expect," including writing, passing and overseeing the implementation of legislation.

Cox now uses a special computer that reads everything to her, including e-mails. And it reads fast.

"She's trained her ears," said Trina Eyring, a former Utah radio personality and now a Salt Lake area corporate headhunter. "It's so interesting how she listens to the computer. It's unintelligible to me."

Gardner said blind people need role models such as Cox. He said a school counselor told him blind people didn't go to college, but he had an older brother who had done it, so he knew better.

"Once you know somebody else has done it, you know it's possible," Gardner said.

Cox and her husband, Randy, had a second child, Riley, last year. Her older sister said that despite her visual impairment, Cox lives a pretty normal life, including the usual frustrations.

"She can't get the baby to sleep at night, she can't get anyone to watch the kids . . . and she's running for lieutenant governor of Maryland."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com; suzanne@desnews.com