AQ GRADUATE OVERCOMES DISABILITY TO CELEBRATE 40 YEAR REUNION, FRIENDS, AND PASSION FOR LEARNING
On a bright, unusually warm day during the second week of November, I had the pleasure of meeting three friends whose relationship began over forty years ago on the Aquinas College scenic campus. As the women laughed, smiled, and reminisced at the Heartland Health Care Center in Grand Rapids, I began to understand that their shared experience at AQ inspired a lasting friendship that would carry them through careers, marriage, children, separation, and eventually, reunion.
Mary Adams, class of 1970, earned Bachelor of Arts with a major in history, suffers from cerebral palsy, yet she refuses to allow her disability to rule her life. Now resigned to a wheelchair after struggling with adult diabetes and with the use of only one hand, Adams continues to have a passion for life that rivals those half her age. Her two close friends, Martha Peabody ‘70 and Mary Lou Gleason Harig ‘70, continue their awe and appreciation of their former classmate who continues to learn, develop relationships, and enjoy life despite her disability. These unique characteristics are what fueled Adam’s education at Aquinas and eventually led her to a long lasting career in special education.
In the fall of 1966, Adams, Peabody, and Hareg, began their freshman year at Aquinas. Adams and Peabody had already become close friends during their high school years at Marywood, and continue to tease Hareg about her alma mater, Mount Mercy. As they recall this age-old tradition of girls’ school rivalry, the three burst into friendly laughter before continuing their respective tales. Their friendship, as I quickly learned, runs deep in shared experience and a passion for life.
Initially, both Adams and Peabody set out to earn their bachelor degrees in history and Adams, despite of her speech defect, desired strongly to teach. However, in the late 60’s, the opportunities for teachers with disabilities were severely limited. Adams was disheartened but continued with her education, only to be inspired by Aquinas professors who encouraged her to pursue a career in special education. There, they told her, she could truly make a difference. Now, smiling, Adams recalls the wisdom of her former professors. She states with confidence that this guidance was the “best thing they ever told me to do.”
After graduation on Saturday, May 16, 1970 (as Adams remembers specifically, with an infallible memory), she began to teach at Lincoln School, a special education institution that works with students of all disabilities. Teaching all grades, Adams overcame her disability in order to support children who suffered from similar ailments. As Peabody, Hareg, and I listen to her memories of the school, we each are given the distinct impression that the ability to help others has been a guiding force in Adams’ life. Looking back, she is thankful for the assistance from her Aquinas professors and recalls, “They guided me right.”
Adams established her career at Lincoln School, and continued to work at the institution for the next 22 years, even after her diagnosis of adult diabetes at age 32, the death of her mother in 1990, and her father in 1993. Living alone for the next eight years, she struggled with the obstacles of her disability every day, yet achieved independence and a lasting reputation as an inspiring educator.
Now, after her retirement from the Lincoln School and a fall that caused severe damage to her spine, Adams resides at Heartland Care Facility in Grand Rapids. Though she is forced to remain in a wheelchair, she has a passion and excitement for life which is expressed through all of her daily activities. Visits with close friends, field trips to local museums, and reading are among Adams’ favorites.
“Every time I visit Mary, she’s got a book going,” Peabody comments, and continues that although she finished college over forty years ago, Adams still has a strong appetite for history. Hareg adds, “Mary loves biographies too,” as she recalls the vast variety of books to which Adams devotes herself. Despite the fact that Adams herself cannot turn each page, she continues to devour literature with tenacity. “The way Mary reads is quite remarkable,” notes Peabody, as she explains the makeshift book stand that enables the page to stay in place, yet requires another person to do the turning. The apparatus, which I see for myself after the interview, is hardly desirable. Held together with binder clips and nearly falling from a stand which is ordinarily utilized for sheets of music, Adams struggles to read at the pace of which she is capable. This inconvenience, however, does not hold her back. Adams herself made no mention of the difficulty and spoke with delight of her reading experiences. Her optimism, in spite of each obstacle, inconvenience, or heart break, is truly remarkable.
Mary Adams, college graduate and civil war scholar, overcame cerebral palsy in order to live a full and passionate life in the service of others. Though her daily life is full of obstacles, Adams continues to demonstrate strength in the face of hardship. Alongside Hareg and Peabody, she celebrates close friends and the art of learning, with a desire for prayer and a devotion to God. Adams, looking across the table at her two comrades, remarks, “I made a lot of true friends at Aquinas.”
There, in 1966, Adams began a long journey which continues to pleasantly surprise her friends and family. Armed with a thick history text and a smile, Adams lives each day with an energy and strength that propels her forward and reminds her friends that, with dedication, we each can overcome our own personal obstacles.