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Smiling through obstacles

Chad Gordon, who must use a wheelchair because of illness, doesn't allow bumps in the road to darken his outlook.

Published March 20, 2005

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Tampa resident Chad Gordon, left, a senior at Stetson, chats with Nguyen Vu Vinh in his room in Stetson Hall. Vinh helps Gordon shower and dress each day.

DeLAND - A tired and dented Quickee motorized wheelchair bounces down the sidewalk at full throttle. At the controls is a young man whose depth perception is so poor that curbs look like canyons. But he has been down this way before and knows where the big cracks are and where tree roots and time have made the pavement uneven.

"And I've put a lot of miles on this thing," Chad Gordon says.

His destination this morning is a music lesson in Flagler Hall on the campus of Stetson University. Once inside the building, he needs to use the restroom. He approaches the door and gently nudges it open. There's a hard turn to the right, and his wheelchair immediately becomes stuck.

He's wedged half in and half out of the men's room.

Before he puts his wheelchair in reverse to try to free himself, he turns slightly and does something he'll do again a thousand times this day.

He smiles.

Even his mother admits she doesn't get it. He is visually impaired, he can't write legibly, and his legs are nearly useless. Even in his wheelchair, he's been stranded in the dirt, caught in sudden thunderstorms and knocked over by someone backing out of a parking spot.

Not to mention being avoided, misunderstood and, worst of all, pitied.

How can he remain so positive?

But ask the students at Stetson who help dress him and type his notes, the faculty members who have found new insights into teaching because of him, even the men who drive the maintenance carts and share the sidewalks with him, and eventually, they all come to the same conclusion.

There's something about Chad.

* * *

Chad Gordon, a 22-year-old senior at Stetson who grew up in Carrollwood and has had cerebral palsy since infancy, will graduate with honors May 7. He'll either continue studying music and English in graduate school, or become a teacher. Later this month, he'll face a classroom full of fourth-graders and see how he does.

It's not so much what he accomplished, say school administrators. He's far from the first disabled student to graduate from the 122-year-old university.

It's how he did it.

His career at Stetson began with a Federal Express package. Chad had applied for a 2001 St. Petersburg Times Scholarship, and although he wasn't among the students who received a $60,000 scholarship over four years, he did get $1,000.

An anonymous donor read about him, and mailed him six checks, each for $10,000.

Chad wrote to that person every spring, and the letters were forwarded to a financial adviser's office in Cincinnati. Neither Chad nor his parents have ever received a response.

The letters were always full of hope. And they always ended the same. Love, Chad Gordon.

But, he says, it wasn't just the money. There was support from his parents, his three sisters, his instructors, and maybe most of all, his vast network of friends at Stetson.

Including Nguyen Vu Dinh, a junior from St. Petersburg who lives across the hall in Chad's dorm. Before Nguyen leaves for class in the morning, he helps Chad bathe, brush his teeth and get dressed. In the evening, he helps Chad undress and get ready for bed.

Chad pays him a few dollars for his trouble, but that's not the motivation. Nguyen also makes sure Chad gets his hair cut regularly, and takes him to movies and sporting events.

"You know how you can just click with somebody?" Nguyen asks. "We just clicked. His disability isn't a factor at all. It's our friendship."

There are countless others who help in smaller ways. At least once or twice a day, someone at the cafeteria helps him select his food, carries it through the check-out line, and then cuts it into bite-sized pieces.

"This okay, Chad?" freshman Gina Morelli asks as she steps back from the plate of roast turkey she just sliced. Without looking down, Chad nods and thanks her several times.

Morelli works part time in the cafeteria and looks forward to 12:30, the time Chad comes in, almost as much as the end of her shift. "I don't mind doing this at all," she said.

It takes Chad twice as long as everyone else to eat, and sometimes his friends can't wait. So in the middle of a sea of college students laughing and talking and hurrying to get somewhere, he sits alone at his little island.

Trying as best he can to bring a chunk of pineapple to his mouth.

"What I'll remember the most," Chad says later, "is all the wonderful relationships. Everyone is so caring and willing to help me."

There have been rough moments. He gets caught in the rain sometimes. And once, when he was on his way to watch a Stetson baseball game, his wheelchair got stuck and he had to wait nearly an hour before someone came by to help.

But there's also something about Stetson. The school's enrollment is about 2,200, and most of the students know each other, at least by sight.

"These are kids who get it, if you know what I mean," said JoAnne Gordon, Chad's mom. "Kids who think life is more than getting into a fraternity or wearing designer jeans."

When the Stetson women's basketball team won the Atlantic Sun Conference championship last week to qualify, for the first time in school history, for the NCAA Division I tournament, co-captain Kristy Brown got a call on her cell phone.

"It was Chad telling me how proud he was of us," Brown said. "It meant so much to me that he called. All the kids on campus love him."

The faculty is fond of him, too.

"Because he can't write, he has to plan everything in his head first," said Dr. John Pearson, chairman of the English department at Stetson and one of Chad's professors. "He has to think about other ways of doing things.

"But Chad has found a way to produce excellent work. It may not have been his first choice. But he made something wonderful out of it, and it's helped me, too.

"The thing about Chad," Pearson added, "is not that he has become some super human being.

"It's really about his spirit."

* * *

He has dozens of friends who are girls. But no girlfriend.

"I think," he says softly, "I stay too busy with my schoolwork.

"But I would like to have a family some day."

And he keeps his "driver's license" in his desk drawer. It's not a valid license; it's a state-required photo ID that looks like a license.

But to Chad, it's a symbolic connection to his friends.

He insists he can't play the piano very well. And then, as music professor Edit Palmer watches, he breezes through Bach's Invention No. 4 in D Minor, from memory, with only a few tiny mistakes.

He doesn't mention it, but he's undergone 12 operations, beginning at age 1. He never cried, never complained.

"I sit in the drive-through line at the bank sometimes and yell when a car cuts in line," said mom JoAnne Gordon. "His whole life is a bump.

"I don't get it. Why does he have such peace and joy?"

Crystal Smith, a senior from Orlando, also has cerebral palsy and is one of Chad's best friends. She thinks she might know the answer.

It has do with wheelchairs.

"I didn't come to Stetson with a wheelchair," she said. "Chad made me get one.

"I used to get really tired and would fall at least twice a week and hurt myself. But I saw him getting around a lot easier than me, and it was the best thing I ever did."

And there was the time two years ago, when they were in class and the motor in Chad's wheelchair died. He had to wait in the classroom until a manual wheelchair and someone to push it were found.

"The first thing he asked me to do," Smith said, "was write the professor in his next class an e-mail explaining why he couldn't come. He was already past the problem.

"That's Chad. He only sees the good things in life. And when you see that in him, you can't help but feel the same way."

[Last modified March 20, 2005, 01:06:08]

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