No more shut-ins: Wade Harris, He got people moving, gave them hope

There are only a few people who have a profound effect upon your life. Let me tell you about one. […]

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wade-harrisThere are only a few people who have a profound effect upon your life. Let me tell you about one. It was nine years after I fractured my neck, in about 1979 or 1980. I hadn’t done anything in my life to make a real positive step forward. I’d taken some college courses and done small things to occupy my time. But I had this deep-rooted feeling that most disabled people couldn’t really make it on their own and only a lucky few could. Surely quadriplegics couldn’t.I was at a point in my life where I was catching a glimpse of hope, though.

The disabled were becoming active and demanding a chance to prove themselves. My friend Michael Bjerkesett was helping lead the charge by forming the United Handicapped Federation. I was buying into the fact that I might in fact be able to contribute to society, if even in a small way. But I really had no business skills and no one was extending a hand to open the door for any exciting jobs.

My friend Smitty told me, “Greg, I know this man, a Dodge dealer, who wants to do something for the handicapped. He was skiing with his family in Colorado and his son took a fall and never got up. He was 14. He broke his neck and died. I told him that he could finance a small transportation company to transport handicapped people around at a low cost. I think you and Tom Boettcher should run it and I’ll help.”

Smitty was a nurse’s aide at the VA and Tom Boettcher was a quadriplegic I knew from the VA. We had a mutual disrespect for each other. It was an odd pairing but it worked and to this day Tom and I are friends. The Dodge dealer, Wade Harris, wanted to interview us. We met at Southside Dodge in Savage. By the end of our meeting Harris pledged two fully equipped Dodge vans and $50,000 to get us started.

None of us really knew what a fully equipped handicapped van was. If you weren’t capable of getting in and out of a car, or couldn’t pay $45 per mile for a ride to the doctor, you were what they called a shut-in. Shut-in was a very popular term in those days. You never hear that word anymore.

The timing was perfect. Metropolitan Transit Commission had been sued and forced to become more handicappedaccessible. Metro Mobility was in its infancy.

Harris gave us an office near Highway 13 and I-35W, access to company resources and two vans that were long-band radio-equipped. We would soon be one of the first demand/response transportation systems for the disabled in the country.

There was one small hurdle. We didn’t know how to outfit the vans for multiple passengers. That didn’t stop us. I got out paper and pencil. We wrote down our ideas and I designed the features. I had no engineering experience-just a want and a need and a glimmer of hope. Under Harris’ suggestion we went through all the “what ifs.” I took the designs to Dunwoody Institute and found an instructor with a golden heart who decided his students could fashion everything for us at no charge.

Handicapped and Senior Citizens Transportation Service was born. (It later became part of Metro Mobility.)

We needed to raise $20,000 to match a grant and organized a benefit. Several Minnesota Vikings promised to appear. A week from the event rain was predicted and we had only $5,000 in pledges. Harris stopped work one day and called in favors.

The benefit was a disaster. It sprinkled all day and no Vikings showed up to autograph anything. But no one noticed because no one showed up for autographs. The only ones there were the volunteers and organizers and there were lots of those. But I felt so alive at that point in my life. I saw lives changed and I was a part of it. We were supplying rides at $4.80 per ride and our nearest competitors’ cost was $20. Harris later began a van conversion company called Rollx Vans, which became very successful. He passed away Aug. 29.

I can only imagine how many lives have been changed by Wade Harris as mine was. I don’t know if you’d called me a success or not. I’ve tried to help others as Wade did. I feel successful now because I have hope. Wade and others like him instilled that hope in me. I’ll die with that hope. So how my success is measured by others is not all that important. No matter how one measures Wade Harris-he was a success story.

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