A life passionately lived

The first quadriplegic to graduate from Yale

By Michael Cook

"Edder" Bennett (seated) at a wedding in 1990 with Yale classmates

“Edder” Bennett (seated) at a wedding in 1990 with Yale classmates

Your undergrad years at Yale are a time for wild dreams, for exploring, for travel, for adventure. Not a time for diving into shallow water and breaking your neck and spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair, as Edward B. Bennett III did in 1979.

He was angry, of course. A year before he had been in sun-drenched Australia shearing sheep. How could he not be angry now, sitting in a wheelchair, immobile apart from a weakened left arm? But then a doctor asked him, “Can you still love?” and that set him thinking. And moving.

After an 18-months break for rehabilitation, Bennett returned to Yale in 1981 in a motorised wheelchair for his sophomore (second) year. In his absence, The New Journal, a student magazine in which he was involved when he had the accident, had collapsed. He decided to revive it, much as he had revived his own life. He pulled together staff; he sought donations from Yale alumni; he cruised the streets of New Haven selling advertisements.

“I remember thinking it was someone who had difficulty, wouldn’t be able to cut his own food, but there was no question in my mind from talking and meeting with him that he was going to start this magazine with or without me, and it was going to be successful,” said Andy Court, a fellow student who is a producer at CBS’s “60 Minutes” nowadays.

“Edder” – to his friends – had a mind of his own. Another friend named Hampton Sides, later to become a best-selling author, submitted an article about a new sport in New Haven bars – bikini-clad women wrestling in huge vats of Jell-o. Nope, said Edder, this is a serious magazine.

This year The New Journal is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Over the years it became a training ground for many noted American journalists and writers.

After finishing his degree in American studies – the first quadriplegic to graduate from Yale — Bennett went on to work at the First National Bank of Santa Fe in New Mexico. In fact, he ran it from 2004 to 2006.

What people remembered about Edder was his capacity for friendship, the dinners he hosted for hosts of guests, the countless times he was best man at weddings, his countless god-children.

A guy with his energy would never accept low standards for the disabled. In 1994 he served as president of the Archimedes Group, a non-profit disability-information organization. There was no time to feel sorry for himself.

“The common perception that people with disabilities are pathetic, suffering creatures lingers and poisons our efforts to speak candidly about disability,” he wrote in a stirring op-ed about his experiences. “Many able-bodied people still believe that those with disabilities lead a life that is not worth living. Many people have said to me ‘I would rather be dead than paralyzed.’ We need to talk about why people believe this … We are better off alive.”

Still, living with quadriplegia wasn’t easy. In recent years he suffered from severe health problems and on March 3 he passed away in Santa Fe after a heart attack. A friend summed up his 59 years: not misery and bare survival and hoping for the comfort of a lethal injection but “a life passionately lived”.

Editor’s note. This tribute appeared at Mercatornet and is reposted with permission. Mr. Cook is the editor.