Waights G. Henry Jr. award winner Amy Elizabeth Peek made reference to the unpredictable during her address to fellow LaGrange College graduates on Saturday, recalling the countless times she and her classmates were herded into residence hall hallways as storms passed over the campus.
Appropriately enough, thunderstorms early Saturday forced commencement ceremonies inside for the first time since many can remember.
But the graduates and their parents packed in to Callaway Auditorium for two ceremonies – the first for undergraduate degrees, the other for graduate students – and the show went on.
If the graduates could learn anything from their commencement speaker, James H. Shepherd Jr., it’s that a little rain on a big day is probably inconsequential. Shepherd and his parents founded the Shepherd Center in Atlanta after he was paralyzed at the age of 22 in a body surfing accident in Brazil.
“I went headfirst into the sand (three feet underwater),” he said.
Knowing immediately something was wrong, he tried to kick off the bottom to get back above water. His legs wouldn’t kick. Then, he was drowning.
Eventually, he woke up in a shack on the beach and was taken to a local hospital. His parents came to Brazil and got him home, after then U.S. Sen. Herman Talmage intervened and sent a plane.
“If not for my parents, I wouldn’t be here,” Shepherd said.
While in a hospital in Atlanta, Shepherd met a mentor, Clark Harrison, who was a World War II veteran paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet.
“He basically said you’re not the only one this has ever happened to and you need to get over it,” Shepherd said.
Harrison recommended a hospital in Denver, Colo., that specialized in rehabilitation of people with spinal injuries. Shepherd went there on Feb. 5, 1974. On June 14, he walked out with the aid of a crutch and a large brace on his leg.
The University of Georgia graduate had his life back, but his road map for what to do after college was gone.
“You will make a hard turn in your life,” he said. “It may be something great, or you may really be challenged. It’s what you do when the map changes. I think you’ll do a wonderful job.”
Once Shepherd got back to Atlanta, he and his parents realized that, although a major metropolitan city, Atlanta didn’t have the type of facility that had helped him in Colorado.
“We said ‘someone should do this in Atlanta,’” he said. “Soon, that thought became a dream.’”
Not only did the family raise money for the facility but, owning a construction business, hit up every vendor they had for help.
Two years after his accident, the Shepherd Center opened. It has served 20,000 people.
“It had always been a goal of mine to touch someone else’s life,” he said. “This is the job I was looking for when I left college.”
Shepherd, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from LaGrange College, told graduates to find something they were passionate about.
“There’s no greater reward than what you’ll give to others,” he said.
College President Dan McAlexander said Shepherd has become an advocate and beacon of hope for the disabled.
“He has given help and hope to those who despaired of finding either,” McAlexander said.
Shepherd’s words were especially touching since one of Saturday’s graduates, psychology major and Student Government Association President Hill Daniel is in a wheelchair himself. The Monroe County native was paralyzed after a jeep accident his senior year of high school, Nov. 12, 2008. He was treated at the Shepherd Center.
Shepherd mentioned Daniel in his remarks.
“We have watched (Daniel) grow and excel,” Shepherd said. “There will be a day he is not defined by his wheelchair. This is one of those days.”
The college also presented DeeDee Williams, a 1974 graduate, with its distinguished alumni award for her involvement in the community and at the college throughout the years.
“So much of what qualified me for this award I owe to this institution,” she said.
Peek told graduates: “We were all transformed by LaGrange College. There is something out there for each one of us. We’re all going forward into something new.”