​Getting a Break When You Need It

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on April 28, 2022 # Lifestyle

Tim GilmerMost of us have stories about someone who came into our life at just the right time and made a big difference. For me, that person not only gave me a break that changed my life, but her influence also kept on giving over a very long time.

Ten years following the onset of my SCI and paralysis, I decided to return to graduate studies and get a master’s degree. I had been scraping along with intermittent minimum wage jobs with a B.A., and the future looked foreboding. I had not been able to teach at college due to outright discrimination. Wheelchair users were not allowed to teach in all of Los Angeles County at that time. Judy Heumann had not yet sued New York state to expose the blatant bias. Then in 1975, I applied to the master of fine arts program in creative writing at the University of Oregon and was accepted, but I couldn’t find an accessible, affordable apartment for my wife-to-be, our dog and two cats, and me in my wheelchair. So I enrolled instead at a smaller state college a short drive from where we lived in an old rental house.

Two years of study and work-study employment went by smoothly; I got valuable experience as a T.A. in both English and Film Studies, and I sent out letters introducing myself to about 30 different community colleges in the Western United States inquiring about employment. I did not get one promising lead until I received a call from the director of a new Developmental Education program at Portland Community College. As it happens, my wife and I were planning a trip to Canada, so l made an appointment to meet with the director on our way back to our home in southern Oregon.

The director was a strong, impressive, take-charge woman. When I entered her office, she was reviewing my portfolio. She greeted me warmly and got right to the point, asking questions about my personal life, my plans, my expectations and so forth, then explained what she was looking for in an employee. When we reached the end of the brief interview, I was certain she would tell me she would consider everything and let me know. Instead, she looked me straight in the eye and said, smiling, “When would you like to start?”

I was thrilled. She gave me everything I asked for in classes and also a position as a part-time counselor. I never expected that. It was the first real break I had following my life-changing accident, and it has followed me everywhere.

Geraldine Pearson — Gerry — became my teaching mentor and a wonderful supporting presence in my life. Three years later, I moved to the country outside Portland and bought a small farm property with my wife. One mile down the road from us was a larger farm owned by — you guessed it — Gerry Pearson.

Over the years, we became friends, even though I moved on from teaching under her after only three years. We shared farm equipment when needed, and she grazed her heifers and steers on our property and paid us rent. We even shared a common farm employee, and later, both of us signed affidavits supporting that employee for entrance into a program that eventually led to his becoming a U.S. citizen.

For 42 years now, we have been neighbors. Once when she went on vacation, she asked my wife and me if we would take care of her farm, feed her animals and keep an eye on everything. It was an adventure just riding my ATV all over the steep hills in search of her mama cows, calves, heifers and steers. Every time I drove by her place, I’d expect to see her outside in her rubber boots or on a tractor. She also had horses and put on equestrian events at her farm. It was no wonder that she was eventually driven from her position as department head by men who felt threatened by her. She could do anything they could do and more.

It was my good fortune to meet her when I did. Would she have hired me, a wheelchair user seeking a teaching job in the days when few of us were allowed to teach — if she had not experienced discrimination throughout her life? She has been a shining example of strength, accomplishment and perseverance, and everyone who came into contact with her had a choice to make. She helped countless other women, lesbian or straight, by her example. And she helped others, like me, a guy who just needed a break at the right time.

No doubt discrimination is an ugly reality in our world, whether involving ethnicity, gender, age, or disability. But in the end, perseverance and the opposite of discrimination — no matter what we call it — is much more powerful.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.