Tevlin: St. John's prof moves beyond paralysis to live, write book

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2014 - 12:13 AM

Bob Bell was lying in a St. Cloud hospital, unable to move his arms or his legs. It was 1989. He was 19 years old, just a couple of months into his freshman year at St. John’s University, and he couldn’t move.

Bell didn’t know what else to say, so he looked up at the doctors and nurses and said the words that seemed scripted from a melodrama: “Will I ever walk again?”

The answer was merciless: “Son, you are a quadriplegic.”

It took a while to sink in. Bell asked whether he’d still be able to go home to Florida for Thanksgiving, and was told he’d be lucky to get out of the hospital for the holidays. Though he was devastated, the safest response seemed to be sarcasm.

“Merry Christmas, everyone,” Bell said.

As Bell wrote about those days, “It appears the script writers for the ABC After-School Special were on strike.”

Humor was one of the ways Bell would deal with his life-changing injury, but he also mixed in sadness, anger, self-pity, doubt and finally, ­triumph.

Bell was paralyzed when an acquaintance at school was roughhousing and put him in a full-Nelson wrestling hold. Bell heard three “pops,” and knew something was wrong. “Call 911,” he said.

At the time, Bell was admittedly a less-than-stellar student, a bit of a wise guy who was known to smoke and drink alcohol and sneak into his girlfriend’s room. In fact, he was close to getting expelled when the accident happened.

Eric Schubert was the resident adviser for the floor at St. John’s when the accident happened. “He was the wild child from hell,” said Schubert, who remains a close friend. “He’s been through fires I can only imagine. I’ve just been amazed and inspired by him at every point.”

During his rehabilitation, Bell sat alone in an Atlanta garden for many hours, “contemplating if I wanted to live life like this. I thought about killing myself, and the ways I might do that. But you can’t ask that question in isolation; you also have to ask, ‘how am I going to live my life?’ ”

Full throttle, it turns out.

Bell began by setting goals. The first was to go back and finish college. Then came decades of remarkable successes that included law school, working on Wall Street and carousing across the globe, all on two wheels and a heart full of attitude.

Bell now teaches finance and accounting at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University in Collegeville. Those are the official course names, anyway, but he also manages to sneak in a little philosophy gleaned from his life.

“As a professor, I like to help young people to think about their lives and what kind of legacy they want to leave behind,” said Bell. “You don’t have to break your neck to do that. I love my job, and I love having an impact on the students.”

Now Bell has written a book to teach the rest of us. “Un Moving Four Ward, Tales and Tips for Keeping Perspective Despite Life’s Challenges” (North Star Press), is an honest, funny, self-deprecating look at being disabled.

The accident, which took just seconds, caused Bell to grow up quickly. In fact, while he lay in the dorm waiting for the ambulance, he recognized how serious it was and made a quick assessment of what was needed: “I forgive you,” he said to the student who injured him.

He would repeat that phrase the next day in the hospital, then he asked the acquaintance for a favor. “Never apologize to me again.”

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