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Twyman fought disability and others' expectations

October 26, 2005|By BOB MAGINNIS

After 20 years of editing readers' letters, I've gotten so familiar with regular correspondents that I can identify them from their handwriting. Some print their letters, while others use the same Zaner-Bloser- type script I learned in grade school.

But the letters from James "Tubby" Harrison Twyman Jr. were not written, but typed, often in all caps. Usually we discourage writers from doing this, because it makes it difficult to know what should be capitalized and what shouldn't.

But in Twyman's case, we made allowances, because he became a quadriplegic after being injured in a car wreck in 1968 at age 24.

In a July interview with The Herald-Mail's Janet Heim, Twyman revealed that over the years he had struggled with depression and alcohol abuse.

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But his letters and his life did not convey the message that he felt sorry for himself. Instead, they were full of praise for people he knew, either care-givers or people in the Walnut Towers apartment complex who he felt went out of their way to make life better for their neighbors.

A 1999 letter is typical, filled with praise for people who had done things for him or for others. It read, in part:

"To John Mark and Gray Naugle, volunteers of the Reach Program, a special thanks to you two. Thank you all for making it possible for me to live in my own apartment, and not a hospital."

In another, just before Christmas of 1998, he wrote:

"During this holiday season, think of someone in particular in need of this kind of love. It may be someone that you hate. Think of something good that person has done, and walk up to that person, and say thanks."

But it would be wrong to take those kind words as a sign that he was resigned to his wheelchair. He was not.

After his accident, he was a patient at the Western Maryland Hospital Center, but became determined to live independently in his own apartment, and even to walk again.

In April of 1986, Twyman spent 31/2 hours traveling a city block on North Potomac Street between Bethel and Church streets.

Afterward he said it was one of the goals he had set for himself after his accident.

"If you're not determined, you're not going to get anywhere. Do you think I can accept the fact of being in a wheelchair?" Twyman told The Herald-Mail's Diana J. Sims.

At the time, he announced he would walk a mile, a promise he made good on in August of 1987, though it took him 20 hours over three days to travel from Prospect Avenue along The Terrace to the Long Meadow Shopping Center.

He also became a painter, clenching the brush in his teeth so he could place it properly in his hands. He wrote his autobiography and served on a variety of local committees. He even mentored a student through the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

Last week, a friend of his called and said Twyman had been diagnosed with cancer and was back at the Western Maryland Hospital Center. Would we like to do something, she asked, so that his friends could send cards and offer their prayers?

I said I'd get back to her. A few days later I left her a message and started assembling background material. But it was too late. The first item under his name in our archive was his obituary. He passed away Saturday at age 61.

The record he left describes a man who used a wheelchair, but who was determined not to be imprisoned in it or defined by it.

Told he couldn't live on his own, he moved into an apartment. Told he would never walk again, he proved his doctors wrong by struggling along slowly for a mile.

And, somewhere out of the public eye, he fought the pull of his dark moods and strong drink to become a person who rejected self-pity in favor of public service and attempts to inspire others.

I'm sorry I missed the chance to interview him one last time, but am glad I and The Herald-Mail were able to help him share his kind words with this newspaper's readers.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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