For Hendershot, wheelchair was the seat of greatness

May 14, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

Polio I know about.

Not like a physician or a scientist knows, but as someone who lived through the U.S. epidemic of the 1950s.

My sister had a mild case, diagnosed after she developed a slight limp. Fortunately, we lived not far from what is now called Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

We took my sister there for therapy and evaluation. She recovered, with no visible problems, after spending a lot of time exercising her muscles with leg lifts, using two socks tied together and filled with fishing sinkers.

Others we saw on our hospital visits were not so lucky, but they were no less determined to recover. They raced down the hospital hallways on their crutches, moving faster than I could run. No one scolded them, knowing that at the time, their high spirits were as helpful as any medicine.


According to Edmund Sass' 1996 book, "Polio's Legacy: An Oral History," the disease was first described in 1789.

Sass notes that in 1952, there were 58,000 cases in the U.S. Five years later, after the introduction of Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine, that number fell to 5,600. By 1979, the disease was all but eradicated in the U.S.

Linn Hendershot, the former Hagerstown council member who died on May 1, contracted polio when he was just 3. But if he harbored any resentment over the fact that he was born too soon for the Salk vaccine, he never showed it.

At his funeral, former grade-school classmates described how Hendershot coped with a two-story grade school with the help of four friends, who carried him up and down the stairs.

A lover of sports, classmates said he took off his braces to play baseball, scrambling to first base on all fours when he got a hit.

His big heart was not just an organ that pumped blood, but a spirit that led him early on to help others, in any way he could.

While in college, he worked for the University of Maryland's sports information department, but it was no mere job. His college roommate said it was tough to study because there was a steady stream of players visiting, seeking Hendershot's advice about their homesickness or problems with their girlfriends.

He was so trusted by the baseball coach that he was able to convince the man to give a youngster he knew an athletic scholarship - even though the coach had never seen the boy play!

Hendershot went on to become a public relations and marketing specialist with Bucknell University, the Atlanta Falcons football team and NASCAR.

I didn't know him them. I only met him after he came back to Washington County after his health had deteriorated. Few expected him to ever leave Western Maryland Hospital Center, but he did and eventually became the center's information director.

In 2001, he was elected to the Hagerstown City Council, which gave more visibility to the causes for which he fought. He helped MIHI - Many Individuals Helping Individuals - build an accessible playground at Marty Snook Park in Halfway.

He put together a summit meeting for those who provide services to the homeless, a meeting at which those providers found that some were duplicating services or working at cross purposes.

Hendershot proposed a garden where Western Maryland Hospital Center patients could relax near beds of beautiful flowers and a fish pond. It happened. I know because he convinced me to come out for the dedication on what had to have been that summer's hottest day.

There was a crowd there, all persuaded, I'm sure, in his gentle way. When he wanted me to write about something - a local senior citizens' center or a Christmas party for hospital patients - he would always end by saying, "do whatever you can do."

I usually did, because if Linn Hendershot could do great things sitting in a wheelchair and using a portable respirator, who was I to say his request was too much trouble.

Hendershot left a "to do" list of things he felt the community needed. I'll try to get a copy and publish it, in case some of those he touched are interested in carrying on his legacy.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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