When St. Marys schools open on Sept. 8, Nan Huckeriede will be in her third grade classroom, doing what she loves.
And her youngest child will have completed her first week at Defiance College, majoring in education like her mother did at Wright State University — but without the fanfare.
In the 1980s, everyone in Dayton was following the print and television news of Nan Davis. A paraplegic following a car accident on the night of her St. Marys High School graduation in 1978, Davis was working with Dr. Jerrold Petrofsky, an associate professor in the biomedical engineering department, in trials for many of his staff’s developments.
In June of 1983, the Miami Valley and most of America watched as Davis — out of her wheelchair — walked across the stage to receive her diploma.
A made-for-TV movie based on Davis and Petrofsky’s work, “First Steps,” which included footage of the graduation walk and even Davis in a few scenes, came out in 1985. By the ’90s, the two had more or less “dropped out of sight” for local residents.
“That was just for that event,” Davis, now Nan Huckeriede, said of her brief, but famous walk at graduation. “It was the computer-controlled electric stimulation, not me.”
Davis had met Petrofsky while she was in college. “I was attending the WSU Lake Campus, and went to a spinal cord society conference there,” she says from her St. Marys home. “Jerry (Petrofsky) was a presenter, and afterwards, I introduced myself and told him I was interested in his research.
“For about a month, I drove back and forth to Dayton to work with him, and then I transferred to the Dayton campus.”
Following her graduation walk, Davis returned to her wheelchair, stayed in Dayton a few years, married, and then returned to St. Marys.
“Jerry moved to California and stopped his research — I think he felt that he had gone as far as he could,” said Huckeriede. “But I still use the equipment he developed to get my exercise.”
Last summer she traveled to Beijing for a procedure to strengthen her back and stomach muscles. “It didn’t work, but I knew it was experimental. It was worth a try.”
Huckeriede has three children, “and when the youngest started pre-school, I subbed for a year, and have taught third grade ever since.
“Third-graders are right at my eye-level, which I like — but I notice when they grow and I have to look up at them.
“I think it’s healthy for students to have a teacher in a wheelchair; it teaches them that what things look like doesn’t matter. Some are uncomfortable at first, but soon get used to it.
“I never underestimate people who have to do things differently because of a disability; I’m a great problem solver, and I think it’s a result of this.”
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