Aging Well: ‘Never quit on a bad day’
February 18, 2008
In 1988, Robert Fry was carried in his wheelchair into a Routt County courtroom.
He was paralyzed from the neck down in a motorcycle accident the previous year and had just returned home from nine months in the hospital when he was called for jury duty.
He could have excused himself with a written medical note, but that wasn’t an option for Robert.
“He insisted he be provided the right to be a juror,” said his wife, Connie Fry.
That instance of resoluteness marked the beginning of Robert’s many years of advocacy, in which he facilitated change helping others living with disabilities in Northwest Colorado.
Robert, who lived with his family outside Steamboat Springs, passed away Jan. 22 due to complications from his injuries. He was 55.
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From helping improve public access for those with disabilities to his proud role as father and teacher to his two daughters, Robert’s many accomplishments spoke as much about his intelligence, drive and zest for life as his determination to live as normally as possible.
“He never stopped dreaming,” Connie said. “He never gave up. He was a fighter.”
Life at home and the family
Robert was 35 when the motorcycle accident abruptly changed his life. Adjusting to his physical limitations was extremely difficult, but he had a lot to live for, including two daughters, Cynthia, who was 1, and Crystal, who was just a few months old when he came home from the hospital.
Robert was an integral part of their lives from the beginning. When Connie had to return to work, he watched the girls during the day, keeping them busy by pulling them in their wagon with his wheelchair or challenging them with various games.
Robert went from babysitter to educator, home schooling his daughters for eight years – a time that included many life lessons, such as, “Never quit on a bad day,” in addition to school lessons.
Robert’s voice served as his hands as he talked the girls through building and programming computers, cooking recipes stored in his head and constructing projects outside.
In fact, most people who knew Robert have a story about him coaching them through a minor crisis, such as backing out of a snow-clogged driveway or repairing a vehicle on the side of the road.
“He always said that if someone would be his hands, he could walk them through anything,” Crystal Fry said.
Being at home with his family was extremely important to Robert, but he worried his care needs might eventually land him in a nursing home.
So he pushed for – and was among the first people in the region to benefit from – the Colorado Consumer Directed Attendant Support program, which allows people with disabilities to hire and train their own caregivers.
Program enrollees use Medicaid dollars that might otherwise be used for nursing homes or home health programs which, in Robert’s case, were unable to meet his needs.
There was plenty of resistance to the CDAS program, but Robert and Connie refused to give in, said Evelyn Tileston, executive director of the Independent Life Center in Craig and Robert’s good friend.
“It takes people like Robert with the fortitude to convince the system that things don’t have to continue in the same way,” she said.
‘Where everyone else has gone before’
With the flexibility and independence to stay at home, Robert tackled hurdles outside the home.
In 1993, he helped facilitate the Access Awareness Group aimed at educating the public about the Americans with Disabilities Act. Effective in 1992, the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and defines their rights, including appropriate access to public places.
With the mantra, “To boldly go where everyone else has gone before,” Robert worked with local entities including police departments and planning commissions to encourage compliance and enforcement of ADA standards in buildings and parking lots.
Groups also sought Robert’s advice on projects including the expansions of Steamboat Springs High School and Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
Robert’s advocacy work earned him a spot on a statewide independent living council, where he learned about independent life centers, which help disabled individuals pursue opportunities such as owning homes, working and education.
He also got to know Tileston who, with other volunteers, hoped to start an independent life center in Craig. Inspired by his own personal struggles to remain active, Robert jumped on board, volunteering many hours to help get the program started.
“He used his mind, and he was a cheerleader type of person,” Tileston said. “He would not only say, ‘Of course you can do it,’ he had ideas to show you how things would work.”
In 1998, the Craig program became one of 10 certified Centers for Independent Living in Colorado. Staff and volunteers have worked with thousands of disabled clients in Moffat, Routt and nearby counties.
Robert continued to support the Independent Life Center, serving on the board of directors for six years and helping with tasks including rewriting the organization’s bylaws – a Herculean effort considering the time it took him to type using a mouth stick.
“Whatever Robert was involved with he gave 110 percent of his ability to,” Tileston said.
Even with all his volunteer work, Robert found time to enjoy hobbies such as videography. He also had a passion for politics and was active in the local and state Republican parties, assisting voter registration campaigns and writing blogs during elections.
Given more time, his friends and family only half-joke that he might have run for president.
“I think he could have run the whole world – I honestly believe that,” Tileston said.
Tamera Manzanares can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.