By Jacob Savage, ’14
“My earliest memory was when I broke my arm when I was five.” It never healed right, and now when James Gronewold lifts his arm, it can’t lay flat. James refused to let this stop him, continuing to engage in physical activity and played sports such as cross-country and wrestling in high school. A native of Washington, James grew up with his family in the middle of Puyallup farmland. Eventually, he would graduate from Pacific Lutheran University. There was one thing that made James stand out from the crowd. He was in a wheelchair.
When James was 17, in the days before mandatory seatbelts, he and some friends were driving down a road in Edgewood when they saw a car backing out of a driveway. James swerved into a vacant field, struck a boulder with his right bumper and flew out the window. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the emergency room. The doctors told him he would never walk again. A devout Christian, James credits his faith with pulling him through the crisis, feeling that no matter what happened to him, he was still valuable in God’s eyes. James feels that the experience served to make him stronger. “When you’ve had that kind of intense pain, you gain a different perspective on pain. You know that most other pain is only temporary.”
Getting used to a wheelchair is no different than learning to walk, according to James. What made things difficult was getting out of a wheelchair and into a vehicle, pulling his 55 pound wheelchair behind him. As a quadriplegic, James’ legs and parts of his arms are paralyzed, making it even more difficult. Still, James persevered.
In 1979, James enrolled at PLU. He wanted a degree in business and PLU had a reputation as one of the top 50 colleges for business. At the time, PLU was campaigning for people with disabilities to attend. James enjoyed his time at PLU, remembering the small classes and personal interaction with the teachers. One teacher that was particularly interesting was Dr. Mordechai Rozanski, an expert on Asian affairs. He would occasionally come late to class, saying, “I’m sorry, I was taking a call from the State department.”
It was at PLU that James would start his career. Through the co-op office, he got an internship with the Department of the Army. During his 17 years there, he ended up specializing in Human Resources. For his work in establishing a new personnel organization structure, he earned the Department Commander’s Award, the third highest award available to civilians. From there he would move on to other parts of the Federal government, eventually working for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Throughout his 30 years working for the Federal government, he has learned one thing: “If you’re good, you gain respect. If you’re not so good, you don’t gain respect.” Hard work and diligence can matter more than any disability in how a person is viewed.