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His honor, the former patient
Chuck Matheny, who helped the world grasp cerebral palsy, is still inspiring researchers and volunteers in his midst
Sunday, November 25, 2007
BY JUDY PEET, Star-Ledger Staff
He may be an icon to generations of the handicapped, but what Chuck Matheny really wants is a date.
Preferably with Katie Couric, although he wouldn’t say no to Barbara Walters.
“Tell them I’m not married,” he says, his merry green eyes belying his tortured speech. “Tell them I’ll be a gentleman.”
A gentle, funny man, Matheny has been the public face of cerebral palsy since childhood. He is the reason his parents started what is now the Matheny Medical and Educational Center in Peapack, a nonprofit teaching hospital and one of the country’s leading facilities for people with severe developmental disabilities.
For most of his childhood, Matheny was a poster child for the center, a sunny little boy with leg braces, crutches and a big, rigid grin. Now 66, he still lives in a small house on the hospital grounds, where he is known as the Mayor of the Hill.
“We love Chuck because he refuses to be his handicap,” says hospital director of volunteers Gail Cunningham. “He won’t let you feel sorry for him, because it isn’t necessary: He has one of the richest lives I know.”
Reliant on a wheelchair for most of his adult life, Matheny worked for 40 years as groundsman and caretaker at the center, driving a tractor and snowplow. He has traveled the country, trained Seeing Eye puppies and raised thousands of dollars for charity. He is a doting uncle, a loyal friend and an unrepentant flirt.
He was a Kiwanis Club man of the year — although he says he left when “they became grumpy old men” — and is still active in his church. He donates blood, logged hundreds of miles on his wheelchair demonstrating against hunger, and sponsors an Indonesian child.
He has voted in every election for decades, can drive a car and spends every Christmas in Las Vegas. He loves music, old movies, “I Love Lucy” and his cat, Cody.
He has beautiful hands. He looks older than he is until he breaks into his trademark rictus smile.
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