After Michael Skarich became a quadriplegic in a swimming accident 20 years ago, he learned how to live with his disability, and became an accountant and lawyer for the Travelers Insurance Co. in St. Paul.

Skarich, 41, died Nov. 15 at his home in Apple Valley.

In 1987, he and friends had been celebrating the Fourth of July and were swimming around midnight in Eau Claire, Wis., where he had grown up.

He had gone in for one last dip in a lake, diving into waist-deep water and breaking his neck.

He was immediately paralyzed and was floating face down, near to drowning, when his friends rescued him.

After many months of hospitalization, he moved to Courage Center in Golden Valley, for rehabilitation.

After high school in Eau Claire, he had worked as a night motel clerk and bookkeeper and had taken some college courses. So he thought he would try college again at Normandale Community College in Bloomington. Next, he completed a bachelor's degree in accounting at the University of Minnesota, and became a certified public accountant.

He joined the old St. Paul Cos. insurance firm 15 years ago. While working fulltime, he earned a law degree from the William Mitchell College of Law and moved to a legal post at the insurance company.

"He got a ton out of the life that he lived," said Peter Schilling of St. Louis Park, who once worked as Skarich's secretary.

"The life that he led was busier and more involved than many people's," said Schilling, a writer who sometimes freelances for the Star Tribune.

Patience and grace

Schilling marveled at the patience and grace Skarich showed, dealing with obstacles when traveling or just trying to negotiate sidewalks when they attended Gophers games or went out for dinner.

Skarich employed his dry wit to endure corporate life, said Schilling.

"He had fascinating ways of looking at life around him" and was an intelligent, engaging conversationalist, said his friend.

Another friend, Doug Twait of St. Paul, said Skarich learned to live as a quadriplegic with great efficiency.

"He was not defined by his quadriplegia," said Twait.

His father, Fred Skarich of Mendota Heights, recalled that his son, who was a cross-country runner in high school, said he would miss running the most after learning that he would never walk again.

He made up for the loss by racing others in wheelchairs.

He regularly traveled the country, even taking a trip to Europe.

Fred Skarich said traveling took much effort, time and equipment.

"He was one never to complain," said his father. "He had the tolerance and patience to see things through."

In addition to his father, he is survived by his mother, Diane Skarich of Eau Claire, Wis., his stepmother, Myrtis of Mendota Heights; brothers, Kyle of Eau Claire, and Jeremy of Apple Valley, and sister, Jennifer Hiebert of Minneapolis.

Services will be at 4 p.m. today in the House of Hope Presbyterian Church, 797 Summit Av., St. Paul.