People with strength of purpose have always fascinated me. Battling the odds and obstacles through perseverance. Finding refuge--as well as strength in purpose--an essential plateau to regroup and reorganize one’s thoughts when the voices of doubt threaten to overturn any sense of progress, is an art in itself. It takes a person of enormous heart and focus, whose basic concepts of how to live and thrive have been turned upside down and tested, at times beyond endurance, to regain momentum within to pursue the twin aspirations of hope and optimism.
It is a remarkable gift, and yet an empty one if not tied to something larger than oneself. Dave Gray’s life and purpose was, in part, harnessing the dynamics of implementation through a concerted course of common sense, tenacity, decency, personal knowledge and follow through, leading to helping people with disabilities live more constructive lives.
Most all of us need someone who can give us the extra help, guidance, encouragement and inspiration to tackle our dreams. What radiates out of these relationships very often is reciprocal in nature, from one individual to another, to a group, to a community, to the world. Kerri Morgan is one of the people Dr. Gray helped. And it turned out to be more than reciprocal. The trajectory of their relationship lay many years in the future. I want to start with an introduction to Dr. David Gray.
I met Dr. Gray in a visit I made to St. Louis in 2010. I was there to let him and his wife Margy (Dr. Margaret Gray, Fontbonne University) know I was in love with their daughter, Polly. I was in the living room waiting for Dr. Gray to come down from upstairs. The clicks and whirs from the elevator signaled his approach. The door opened and he shot into the room with daggers in his eyes. His intensity was magnified by the fact he was in a wheelchair. What those eyes were saying was do not mess with my daughter! Shortly thereafter, we walked/rolled down to the Loop, to have dinner at the restaurant Pi. Within an hour or so Dr. Gray--Dave from that point forward--and I were friends.
Dave and I both shared a love of history: Eisenhower, WWII, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. Dave, Margy, Polly and I would watch many an Inspector Morse—multiple episodes, in fact, while visiting St. Louis. I always enjoyed our far ranging conversations around the dining room table, our treks to Blueberry Hill on Delmar, not far from their house, for burgers and more good times. He was a remarkable person, as is the Gray family.
He graduated from Lawrence University in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Dave earned a master’s degree in experimental psychology from Western Michigan University, in 1970, and a doctorate in psychology and genetics from the University of Minnesota, in 1974.
In 1976 Dave fell from a rain-slicked roof in an attempt to cover a leaking chimney that had been under construction. He had on the wrong shoes. The fall broke his neck—fracturing the C5/6 vertebra and damaging his spinal cord. In that instant his life and that of his family changed forever. Dave’s life did not stop. Many gave him support during this very trying period of his life, none more than his wife, Margy. Their marriage is a testament to love, sacrifice, and partnership.
Dave put his immediate focus on getting back into life, albeit with major adaptations. “What can I do?” A simple question but of the utmost importance in how he would begin to shape his future. He was encouraged to rely on his intellect and develop supportive relationships by Dr. Joachim Optiz, his physiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. “Develop your brain. Put your time and energy and effort into what you can do!”
Dave took the advice.
Dave sought places that he could apply his education and skills to have maximum impact on people’s quality of life. He went on to work for several agencies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was appointed director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research by President Ronald Reagan and was an important advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. He was present when President George H.W. Bush signed the bill into law.
Dave’s disability was the result of a tragic fall. Kerri Morgan’s fate began very early in her life. At the age of one, she developed an infection that entered her spinal cord causing paralysis from the chest to the lower body. She grew up in an active family in Port Jefferson, NY, where there were no resources for her disability. I asked her about the family environment in which she was raised. “My brother, Michael, was an athlete, a wrestler. Very good at it, and very competitive.” She was living in a void watching her brother wrestle. The idea of competition for her was unrealistic. There was a neighborhood swim team she belonged to. She could swim, but without the use of her legs, she couldn’t compete in the races. They let her commandeer the clipboard on the sidelines.
Kerri’s family, while loving her greatly, didn’t treat her as someone with a disability. She was expected to take up the slack and contribute with the rest or get run over. Kerri laughed when I asked her if I had an accurate read on the family dynamic. She said yes that was pretty much the way it was, providing her with an inner strength that she capitalized on later in life.
It wasn’t until her twenties that the competition outlet she had wanted but missed out on as a kid finally revealed itself. In an almost haphazard fashion she was asked to join a rugby team in 2002. They needed someone to fill in a slot that was open. She wasn’t sure if it was even something she wanted to do or not. The person asking her persisted and she finally showed up, discovering that “this is pretty fun!” Kerri was involved with top-level athletes in this sport. It opened up a whole new world for her. She was also given active encouragement from another person on the team.
Between the invite to join the team, the encouragement she received, and her considerable efforts, a virtual torrent was unleashed consisting of travel and experience that she would have never dreamed possible.
In 2009 she became the first woman to join the U.S. Quad Rugby Team. They won gold in Buenos Aires at the Americas Zone Championship. Her talents as a player and as a competitive person in wheelchair rugby opened her up to expanding her horizons by taking to the track to improve her speed. This resulted in her discovering she had a talent, as well, for wheelchair racing. (The classification she races under is T52).
Kerri’s perspective: “Growing up with a disability, if anyone had told me I would be competing much less winning in most of these events, I would’ve never believed them.” If Kerri’s accomplishments in sports were the only thing to define her it would be more than impressive. There is so much more to her story.
Kerri studied under Dr. David Gray at the Master of Science and Occupational Therapy (MSOT) program at Washington University in St. Louis from 1996-98. Dr. Gray had just joined the faculty. Kerri was at that time the only student with, as she put it, a visible disability. She says she didn’t grow up with a role model and didn’t have one until she met Dr. Gray. She was witness to his approach to life and work, an embodiment of the belief of having no limits with regard to a disability. Dr. Gray asked Kerri to help in his lab for six months following her graduation. Positions with good opportunities for Occupational Therapists were scarce. She worked as a research assistant on his grants. They worked together for ten years writing grants, starting community-based programs at Paraquad. Kerri was so proficient at securing grants that she was promoted to the faculty, taking over one of Dr. Gray’s courses (Introduction to Assistive Technology). Six months turned into sixteen years. She’s still at Washington University School of Medicine, known to her students and faculty as Dr. Kerri Morgan.
Dr. Gray showed her the importance of research. He also stressed the importance of having people with disabilities directly involved. As a mentor, he helped set her on the path to her life’s work.
She was her own person, though.
“Dr. Gray was a big picture guy,” she said, “I was more realistic. He was ten years ahead of everyone else.”
Having a vision, thinking bigger, persistence…Kerri learned from his approach.
The same tenacity she displayed in her efforts as an athlete also contributed mightily to obtaining her doctorate degree. With Dr. David Gray’s help and encouragement, she met that dream, along with changing her expectations.
Dr. Gray led by example. He was proof that a person could be whatever they wanted to be. She valued how he embraced and respected people, how he made his dealings with people personal. It wasn’t all about business.
“His sense of communication with people was very important,” she told me.
A smile can go a long way. He was whip smart on top of it all. He was inquisitive and could communicate as well as listen. She said, “He would always ask about the family, how they were doing, what was going on with them. It was genuine on his part,” she continued. “It really gets down to personalities. Dr. Gray simply had an affinity to others.” Not that he couldn’t be extremely frustrated by the walls he encountered. I spoke with Dave about this at his home in St. Louis. He shared with me being lectured by those in authority pontificating on matters they had no practical knowledge about. From his perspective it was at times humiliating trying to relate the urgency and necessity of a program he wanted to have see the light of day. That disconnect rarely slowed him down. Dave’s basic drive was to foster the importance of independent living for people with disabilities.
In the book, Transitions: Navigating Change
Memoirs of Dr. David B. Gray, I wrote:
“His achievements included raising awareness and understanding of the myriad issues confronting the disability and abled communities alike. He combined practical solutions and their application, coupled with compassion and dignity for the human spirit, acknowledging the importance of self-determination and self-worth, thus empowering the communities and world we live in.”
In my conversation with Kerri about those issues, as well as the common misconceptions, she gave me more pointed examples.
“I feel I live in a bubble,” she said in reference to her life in the lab. “You get used to your work environment and people you come in contact with there.”
Essentially, when she’s traveling or just out in public, she gets a reality check from those without disabilities. She has been asked almost incredulously,
“You drive a CAR?”
On other occasions, people will come up and ask a question about her to the person standing next to her as if she’s not even there. She is all but ignored. Unfortunately, these scenarios are not all that uncommon.
Society has a misconception about how people with disabilities fit in the strata of economics—do they have financial means? How do they take care of themselves?
Are they bright? Have they gone to school? Are they educated?
She’s been asked innumerable times, “Do you need help?”
She is quick to point out that, “They don’t mean anything by it.”
In our conversations I was struck by the consistent formality of Kerri’s references to Dave. She said even though they were good friends as well as colleagues, she still calls him Dr. Gray out of deep respect. Kerri and Dr. Gray had a connection, not only in their work, but also in their love of sports. He played hockey in high school and college, as well as running track in high school. They also did quite a lot of traveling with each other. In Dr. Gray’s memoirs, she tells of their being last off the flight. The flight attendants are speaking in front of them, once again, as if they’re not there.
“Let’s get her off the flight first,” since they perceived she “moved better” than he did. On another flight they asked Dr. Gray if just this one time he could walk himself off the plane. Kerri playfully said to him, “They asked so nicely that maybe you should consider doing it just this once!”
My wife, Polly, told me a similar story, “He was asked if he could just walk up these couple of steps.” It’s hard to blame people for their perceptions. Wheelchairs are often in use, particularly at airports, to assist people. You don’t know if they can walk or not. One solution might be to simply ask if the person is capable of walking.
More often, the person making the demands is more concerned about their life being made easier, as opposed to being sensitive to the person in the wheelchair.
Which led me to ask Kerri a question about educating the public. Does she give speeches to the community, for example, and do her topics cover those areas of misconceptions? “Yes I do,” she said, “Part of my talk is to address those misconceptions and attitudes by pointing out what is appropriate and inappropriate. About 90% of my speeches I do for free: Boy Scouts, civic groups, etc.” She gives approximately 8 to 10 speeches a year. Her talks also center on her being an athlete. “People can relate to athletics,” she told me.
Much of what she conveys is done through story telling, sharing how a person with a disability can compete and have accomplishments like anyone else.
During Disability Awareness Month, her stories illuminate what it was like to grow up with a disability. She is matter of fact about it all, which makes it that much more real to those unaffected. Kerri is 5’1” and an absolute dynamo, by the way.
Dr. Kerri Morgan brings a lot to these talks. Her credentials--which I’ve taken directly from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis website--span the following categories:
March 19, 2016 Kerri married Meghan Gottlieb at Crystal Cove State Park, Newport Coast, CA. Kerri and Meghan, beyond their love for one another, share a mutual love of family and friends, competing in sports, eating fine foods, drinking craft beers and fine wines, and exploring the world. They met at Washington University through a mutual acquaintance.
In the song, “Under The Radar,” I wrote: when a gentle tap upon my shoulder, left me reeling from the past. It is about our fragile lives and the memories that tie us together. Sharing love, joy and tears, grateful for our short time together.
My notes follow from February, 2015 (on tour with Leftover Salmon)
I’m on 6 & 91 in UT heading towards Moab. The destination is Durango, CO.
The wind has picked up considerably as I put pen to paper. I hope I can decipher my notes later. Bright sun, scattered clouds, mountains to the left, mesas and sagebrush, set against flat land stretching for many miles.
A time to reflect.
A few days ago, February 12, I was traveling from Missoula, MT, to Boise, ID. My wife, Polly, had left Missoula earlier that morning, having spent time with me on a run I was making with Leftover Salmon. That afternoon, as she was picking up mail at the post office, she had gotten a text from her brother saying that something had happened to their dad.
She gave me a call letting me know something was wrong. Before she could tell me more, the signal dropped. In this world of instant and constant communication, she and I were untethered for several hours. The van I was in went through a dead zone in the National Forrest on the backside of Missoula. We were on a steady stream of winding roads, the sign we passed indicating we had another 91 miles of those roads to go. Interminable.
We were finally climbing after hours of endless decent. I felt there might be a signal as we began to crest the summit, and there was. I reached Polly and she told me her dad was en route to the hospital, he had suffered a heart attack, she was waiting for the news, not much was known. The phone lost signal again for at least another hour. Entering back into cell reception the familiar sound of a text came through. I ignored it and called her back.
He didn’t make it.
During the Holiday Season, 2016, Polly, Margy, and I went to visit Kerri at a new facility in St. Louis, The Paraquad Health and Wellness Center. Kerri, who is Chairperson of the Board, took us on a comprehensive tour that afternoon with her ever-present companion and service dog, Twix, an eight-year-old female black lab. There was an impressive array of strength and endurance equipment in the main room, which also had a skills course with ramps, curbs, curb cuts, any manner of obstacles that people using wheelchairs, canes, crutches, walkers, and other devices could practice mobility for real life settings. A multi-purpose room functions for yoga, bike-spinning classes, and group exercise of all kinds. We were shown a conference room for staff meetings, a kitchen, areas for research. Kerri also discussed with us the potential of future expansion, as well.
The purpose of the Center is for people with disabilities and their families to have a place to engage in programs that encourage a philosophy of independent living.
The facility is staffed with four professionals, and heavily augmented with students from a host of schools and universities. For students doing their fieldwork and making use of a clinical site for their degrees, it is a constructive use of resources and sensible solutions that benefit everyone.
The Center also has two partners they work with: Washington University Occupational Therapy and Logan Chiropractic Clinic.
I asked Kerri how they made decisions in helping those coming to the Center for the first time. Along with group participation, she said that many of the programs were geared toward the individual; that while the staff helped set goals, the participant was questioned first on what he or she wanted to accomplish.
Kerri emphasized two other important factors: Choice and Opportunity.
Having the kinds of programs that appeal to those with modest to more progressive goals is reflected in both those factors. Based on what we saw, the community is being well served.
A minimum of 51 percent of Paraquad board members are people with disabilities. This, in part, reflects Dr. Gray’s philosophy of those with disabilities being invested as role models and mentors. The responsibilities of all that work there share in that investment, as well. After all, it takes everyone working and interacting together to create a complete and successful environment.
Kerri’s commitment, along with the staff at Paraquad, to expanding understanding to the community at large and to helping those within the disability community, is in concert with the spirit of independence and dignity, principals held as firm attributes in our connections as human beings to one another.
The facility is dedicated to Dr. David B. Gray.
The tenuous hold
gave way in increments of progressive silence
Recovered briefly on the mountain’s summit
only to fall into the void on the descent
a flutter of a soul
revealed a life hard fought and ceaseless
I would encourage a visit to Paraquad.org for more information and how to contribute.
with much love to Dave, Margy, Polly, David, Beth, and Kerri Morgan