Providence Journal: Dream shattered, he persevered, found another

By Mark Patinkin
Journal Columnist
Jim was one of those kids who always knew what he wanted to be — first a policeman and eventually an FBI agent.

He grew up middle class in Warwick with a dad who ran a hardware store and a mom who was a career counselor.

Jim was so sure he wanted to be a cop he began interning for the Warwick police at age 12. He was still doing it four years later the summer of his 16th year, clerking, answering phones and running errands. He was the kind of earnest cadet who ironed his uniform himself before each shift.

On this particular Friday, he did the same, heading to the station locker room and suiting up.

Two officers were nearby looking at a new .45-caliber semiautomatic. One officer ejected the clip and handed the gun to the other, who didn’t realize a bullet was still in the chamber. He aimed what he thought was an empty gun at a locker and pulled the trigger.

The bullet ricocheted, piercing Jim’s neck and severing his spinal cord.

The officers kept Jim breathing until a rescue arrived a minute later from the fire station across the street. By then, Jim was unconscious and his blue cadet uniform stained red as he lay on the white tile floor.

They took Jim to the Kent Country Hospital ER. Days later, by the time they eased the sedation, he was in the spinal cord unit of the University Hospital in Boston, his head pulled taut by weights drilled into his skull beneath his blond hair.

The doctors chose not to tell Jim of the severity of his injury at first. But after two weeks, Jim was able to speak, and began to ask, so they were honest. Not long after, his mother June came into his room.

“Ma,” said Jim, “they’re telling me I won’t have use of my hands or legs.”

All she could say was, “I know, Jim.” She gave his hand a squeeze and realized he was unable to squeeze back.

Jim was a sophomore at Bishop Hendricken when the accident happened. The administrators told his parents he could — and should — repeat the grade next year. But Jim’s mom and dad worried that falling behind would be one more loss for him, so they said they’d get tutors.

The administrators said it wasn’t a good idea. But the parents wouldn’t yield — Jim would finish his sophomore year. It was their way of teaching their son his paralysis did not have to limit him.

Back home, in his motorized wheelchair, Jim learned to type by wedging a pencil between his fingers and hitting the keys that way. But it was arduous so he would sometimes ask his mother to type his school papers.

She would tell him she was sorry, but with three other kids, including a baby, and dinner to cook, she didn’t have time.

“Why won’t you help me, Mom?” he’d say.

“I’m sorry, Jim.”

Then she would go into a room where Jim couldn’t see her crying, her heart broken, but she knew it was the only way to teach him perseverance.

Jim had to let go of his dream of becoming a police officer but he resolved to find a way to be a public servant.

At age 24, he was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives. At age 30, he became Secretary of State.

And last week, 36 years after his accident, at age 52, with eight terms as the only quadriplegic U.S. congressman in history, Jim Langevin announced he would run again in hopes of continuing his journey of perseverance.