I’ve had four interviews in 42 years as a full-time journalist or retired freelancer that have stood out as especially impactful. After each one, I contemplated what it must have been like for that person to experience what they had told me about, and just how good I have it.
As a young reporter at the Atlantic News-Telegraph in the early 1980s, I spoke with a former Atlantic athlete, Chris Nissen, who had become paralyzed after a mishap with friends in the Atlantic High School wrestling room. His father, Dick Nissen, was an accomplished coach in several sports for the Trojans back then and the pain on his face while recounting what happened to his strong, athletic son really touched me.
One thing that really stood about Chris was his positive outlook on life, and how to cope with his new circumstances. As a young adult who was still active in several recreational sports at the time, I couldn’t imagine myself being that upbeat in the wake of such tragedy. Chris taught me something about perspective during our conversation.
Between 2009 and last week, I interviewed Amanda Standley of rural Prescott, Sophia Groumoutis of Creston and Toby Bower of Fontanelle about surviving severe highway-speed car crashes. Two of them were head-on collisions, and the most recent one involving Bower was a one-car mishap. The cruise control was left on at 60 mph as he fell asleep and the car struck a utility pole guy wire before rolling onto its side.
In each case, they were fortunate to survive. In speaking with each one about the trials of their recovery periods, I gained an appreciation for the strength of the human spirit when it’s applied in a positive manner.
Bower, 19 years old and only one year removed from his days as a star athlete at Nodaway Valley High School, was thought to be paralyzed from the waist down when his L1 vertebrae was shattered in his wreck last October. His recovery that has led to walking with canes and riding a bicycle, even driving again, was related in a two-part series in this newspaper earlier this week.
As I drove south toward Fontanelle after leaving his family’s home, I kept the radio off and sat in silence, trying to digest what I’d just heard during the previous 90 minutes. Hearing a story like that makes you contemplate a lot of things, including the close calls you’ve experienced. In my case, I was a reckless teenager who endangered friends in an accident at the end of a drag race on a county road that connected with Highway 413, just south of Harlan and Hazel Rogers Park, site of the state softball tournament each year.
In Bower’s case it wasn’t carelessness. Just fatigue from working long hours, and accidentally dozing off while driving to work early one morning. He could have been crushed had the car landed more directly on its left side, as he was found partially hanging out of the driver’s side window.
Bower has a strong mental approach to making the most of this second chance he was given at life, and continues to make progress toward his goals. He wants to pursue his intended career in construction management and be able to walk someday in a manner that doesn’t convey what happened to him. He knows he’s not quite there yet, but he works every day to get there.
Anyone who has run cross country and played basketball for Hall of Fame coach Darrell Burmeister knows the value of hard work, so I’m a big believer in Bower’s ability to get there.
I was touched by Bower’s response when asked if the experience has changed his outlook on life.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I appreciate everything more. You just look at things different. You want to care for people more. You want to look out for them. I feel closer to people now.”
He accepts what’s happened, and is trying to be even a better person than he was before.
We can all learn something from that outlook. I know I came away from each of those interviews with deep respect for their personal resolve, and the values they felt they had learned from their experience. There’s not a lot of energy wasted on hate and petty grievances.
Just deep appreciation for every new day we’re allowed to spend with each other.
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