Jeremiah McShane can thank his elite wrestling career for giving him an extra 40 years of life.
McShane was a state high school champion wrestler whose skydiving accident a few years later left him a quadriplegic. From there, he turned tragedy into opportunity, campaigning for accessibility for the disabled in every way possible. McShane died Nov. 13 from an infection. The Minneapolis resident was 63.
Friends and family will remember McShane during a gathering next week, when a movie he appears in about disability access will be shown.
McShane was a state private-school champion wrestler while competing at 160 pounds for DeLaSalle in Minneapolis. He went on to letter in the sport at the University of Minnesota, and "he also loved skydiving," said Jeannie O'Connor, his longtime partner.
On a September day in 1971, the U senior and others were at Howard Lake, west of the Twin Cities, skydiving from a small plane. McShane jumped from a few thousand feet. His main chute failed. He activated his reserve chute, but it tangled with the first one, slowing his descent to a little more than 100 miles per hour.
Yet he survived.
"Because of his wrestling, he had a very large neck, and that saved his life," said O'Connor, who met him four years after the fall.
The doctors "didn't do surgery for 48 hours because they didn't think he would live," she said. "They even called in his family to say goodbye."
McShane came out of surgery a quadriplegic but would still tell people, "'Freefall is the most amazing experience in the world,'" O'Connor recalled. "If he could have skydived again, he would have."
Surgery later brought him limited use of his hands, enough for him to drive, allowing McShane and O'Connor to take many long trips around the United States, Canada and especially to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
McShane finished his studies at the U, earning a degree while majoring in psychology and sociology.
The school "wanted another $35 for the diploma," O'Connor said, but he refused to pay, saying, "'I've paid enough,' so he didn't get the diploma. He didn't get to do the roll" down the aisle.
McShane worked at the University of Minnesota in the Program in Human Sexuality, leading small-group discussions through much of the 1970s about sexual attitudes and disabilities.
He also campaigned for greater accessibility for the disabled, whether it was through contact with government and academic policymakers or mentoring others who were newly paralyzed.
His advocacy included a role in the 1970s movie, "There Is More To Me Than What You See," which was produced by Lutheran Social Service and shown to church gatherings and others.
"There is a scene of him at the base of the State Capitol steps, like, 'How do I get in there?' " O'Connor said. "The Twin Cities was so different then than it is now."
The movie will be one of the highlights for those who attend the celebration of McShane's life on Dec. 21.
"Jeremiah will be watching from another sphere," O'Connor said. "He just had a great wit and a wonderful personality. He was extremely non-judgmental. He opened my eyes a lot."
Along with O'Connor, McShane is survived by his mother, Helen; brothers Jimmy, Tom and Daniel; and a sister, Shannon Burns.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482