After I graduated from high school in the summer of 1986, I got ready to move across the country for college. The move was difficult for me in many ways. Not only was I transitioning to a new phase of my life, but my dad had recently been transferred in his job, which meant that I was also leaving the neighborhood I grew up in, probably for good. I had spent my high school career active in sports, training for what is now the Paralympics. The coaching staff at my high school provided unwavering support. The head football coach was someone I grew incredibly close to, and he took two hours out of his schedule every day to train with me. I remember, as a freshman, wheeling around the track to try and work out by myself. Coach Joyce, my health teacher, came out and asked me what I was doing. When I told him what I was training for, he suggested that I talk to Coach Cripps, the head football coach, to see if he would be willing to map out a workout routine for me to follow.
Icy chills ran through my body at the very thought of it. He was suggesting that I go talk to the head football coach? Didn’t Coach Joyce understand I was only a freshman? I thought I would crumble under the weight of my nerves. I tried to communicate my fear to Coach Joyce and he responded with a chuckle, a twinkle in his eye and a suggestion.
“How about I go with you, Lorraine?”
A few days later we met with Coach Cripps who outlined a whole workout routine for me by the next day and as I said, worked out with me for two hours every day for the remainder of the time I was in high school. Throughout the process, Coach Joyce cheered me on and supported me in countless ways. Every semester he had me talk to his health class about cerebral palsy. When I worked out with the football team, Coach Joyce kept an eye on me as well, rooting for me to beat my best time in the 400-meter dash and making me laugh in the process.
When I graduated college and started my Master’s program, my dad made a major life change as well. He left the cooperate world and opened a bagel shop in the neighborhood where we used to live. Coach Joyce was a frequent customer. One day, after catching up with my dad about the things I was doing, Coach Joyce said: “Lorraine is one of my heroes.” When my dad relayed that story to me, I teared up. I don’t think there is a bigger compliment anyone can give me than saying I have been a hero to them.
Right back at you, Coach Joyce!
Can I tell you about two more of my heroes?
In late May of 1995, Christopher Reeve, the actor who had played Superman, was thrown from a horse. He sustained a high-level spinal cord injury which paralyzed him from the shoulders down and made him dependent on a ventilator to breathe.
At first, he did not want to live. He had been extremely active up until that point in his life, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to live in a body that made him so dependent on others. His wife Dana made a deal with him. “You are still you, and I love you. But it is your life and your body, which makes this your decision” she said. “I just want you to wait two years. If you don’t want to live after two years, I will find a way to help you end your life.”
It would have been totally understandable, given his physical limitations if Christopher Reeve lived out the remainder of his days out of the spotlight. But he was Christopher Reeve, and that is not what he was made of.
So he started the journey of rehabilitation and tried to recover as much movement and feeling as he could. In the process, he started what is now the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has a mission to cure paralysis. That is a huge goal that Christopher Reeve thought was entirely attainable. He even underwent some experimental surgery to further the research about his level of injury. And he didn’t stop there. Christopher Reeve was a tireless advocate on behalf of people with disabilities. He testified in front of Congress about the need for accessible affordable durable medical equipment and spoke about what is now the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act which was ultimately signed into law by President Obama.
He also spoke at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.
“I have heard for many years about this thing called ‘family values’ he said. I wasn’t really sure what it meant until I was injured a year and a half ago. Now I have a pretty clear idea about how I define it. I think it means that as Americans we are all family, and we all have value.”
You go, Christopher Reeve!
This amazing man passed away from complications of his spinal cord injury on October 10, 2004. He left behind a wife and a son and an inspiring example for me to follow. In the ten years since his death, I have tried to pursue my dreams as passionately as he did.
They say behind every superman is a super woman. Dana Reeve was no exception to that rule. As hard as her husband worked for spinal cord injury and stem cell research, she worked on spotlighting the needs of the caregivers of people with disabilities and developed programs that enhanced the lives of those living with all kinds of disabling conditions. She helped everyone that she could in a countless number of ways, and was a beautiful example of the kind of person I aspire to be some day.
When she passed away from lung cancer on March 6th, 2006, the world was stunned. So many people wondered why so much tragedy had struck this family in such a short period of time.
There were many theories, but I definitely have one that I like best.
There are few great loves in the world. Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra. Bogie and Bacall. Christopher and Dana Reeve need to be included on that list. Why does it make sense to me that they died only seventeen months apart? Because they have always belonged together.
And when I think of my heroes and the tremendous influences they have had on my life, whether it be a former actor or a former health teacher, one phrase comes first and foremost to my mind.
Ronnie Joyce retired health teacher and assistant football coach. Stratford High School. Houston, Texas