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John Morris can see quite well — just not with his eyes. The owner of John Morris Heating and Sheet Metal in Santa Rosa routinely beats out competitors for duct work on construction projects in Sonoma County and beyond.

“In seventh grade, I was always fascinated with metal,” Morris said. He took metal shop and wood shop in high school in Santa Rosa. “I could already weld.”

He learned that he could earn several times as much in sheet-metal work as he was making as a kid working at a gas station. He passed the necessary tests and became a journeyman in a sheet-metal union, working in San Francisco, Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

“My eyes started to go bad in 1985,” Morris said.

Morris has retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease that causes retinal degeneration, more common in men than women. The retina at the back of the eye captures images. As photoreceptor retinal cells die, people who have the disease progressively lose vision, typically starting in adolescents or young adults. Most are legally blind by age 40.

About 100,000 people in the United States have the disease. An estimated 400 people have retinitis pigmentosa in the North Bay Business Journal coverage area of Sonoma, Solano, Marin and Napa counties.

Morris had a Press Democrat paper route starting when he was about 13.

“I could see OK then,” he said. “Then I went to get my driver’s license. I passed the driver’s test, but I had a hard time seeing at night.” He was unable to drive after dusk. Night blindness is one of the earliest symptoms of retinitis pigmentosa.

“That couldn’t stop me,” he said. “I still worked. I could outwork anybody.”

But soon he could not see road signs and had to stop driving.

“I already knew how to work the metal,” Morris said. In his home shop, he constructed jigs to help cut and crimp sheet metal into shapes needed for ducting. “I have a little click rule,” he said, demonstrating a device that allows him to measure sheet metal to the nearest 16th of an inch by feel instead of eyesight.

He took a test to get his contractor’s license

“They had to read it to me,” he said. “I passed. I have an excellent memory.”

In 1986 at about age 32, he started his own business — John Morris Heating and Sheet Metal. He could still see bold marks made on metal with Sharpie felt-tip pens.

The gradualness of his eyesight decline allowed him to adapt slowly. By feel he can tell whether galvanized or stainless-steel sheet metal is 26-gauge down to 16-gauge, in increments. He printed special business cards in the shape of a parallelogram so he can fish one out of his wallet by feel.

In about year 2000, he got a computer and memorized the location of letters on the keyboard and keystroke commands so that he could run the computer without seeing.

Today he has almost no vision left, though he can broadly discern lightness and darkness.

“My hands are too rough for Braille,” he said. “But I type” to send emails. “I can’t see the mouse.”

He hired employees early and now has about eight. “I had to have someone drive me,” Morris said. He pays his top workers about $30 an hour. One employee comes in once a week to do billing. A bookkeeper does payroll.

Most jobs handled by his company are located in Sonoma County, though one to install a metal roof is on Cobb Mountain. He used to do more work in Marin County. One job for Burbank Housing involves 60 homes in Sonoma County, doing duct work, heaters, air conditioners, gutters and flashing.

“I don’t work in the field too much anymore,” Morris said. Sometimes he crawls up into attics on job sites to run heating ducts. “I feel around behind them and tape them” to eliminate leaks, he said. “You can feel, this is the flex pipe, this is the metal it goes on. You don’t have to be able to see. Just feel around.”

For high-end clients, Morris installs half-round copper gutters and downspouts, very expensive at $50 to $60 a foot but extraordinarily durable. “We make that stuff,” he said, out of rolls of copper. “I have two gutter machines.”

One job in Windsor involved some 1,900 feet of copper gutter, a $95,000 billing, for Bill and Lori DenBeste, who established a Windsor-based transportation company in 1981, hauling hazardous and non-hazardous materials in California then later adding tank rentals and liquid storage. The whole project amounted to $120,000, with soldered joints. “The house is 29,000 square feet,” Morris said, including a guest house, a full gymnasium and a helicopter-landing strip.

“I bend metal in the shop all the time,” Morris said, using a click-ruler that allows him to measure by feel. “I feel the bump,” he said, with extensions from 6 inches to a foot. He demonstrates how to calculate 9 and 3/16 inches. Every thread is a 16th. “It’s more precise than a tape measure,” he said.

A Z-shaped crimp of a piece of sheet metal might be three inches in one part of the fold then 1.5 inches and half an inch. Morris invented a gauge that makes measurements more quickly and accurately than many others could do in the industry using prick-punches. “I’m pretty well known around here,” he said. “I’m blind, but I still operate my business. I can’t see the dots. I can bend it faster my way than a guy who can see.”

Morris has a 25-year-old son who helps in the business. So far, the son shows no sign of retinitis pigmentosa, with a 1-in-400 chance of developing it based on genetics. “My brother has it. My sisters don’t have it,” Morris said.

Nothing dampens his can-do spirit. “I could be worse,” Morris said. “I could be in a wheelchair. I know one guy who is blind and in a wheelchair. He is always pretty happy.”

He used to enjoy going to antique car shows and can discern the year of a car by feeling its outlines. “Guys don’t like you touching their cars,” he said, so he resorts to other senses. “I can hear them and smell them.”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257