One of the most rewarding things about my job is the education I receive. Every topic I tackle, every interview I do, I learn something new. Often, I am inspired. That’s certainly been the case this past year. Thumbing through 51-weeks-worth of columns, I realized I encountered some truly remarkable people; people who, during these unsettled times, elevated my spirits and the spirits of many others.
Ricky Palermo taught me how tragedy can be turned into triumph. In 1981, the former three-sport Byron Bergen High School most valuable player was paralyzed in an automobile accident and was given the gloomy prognosis that he could count on living another 10 to 12 years, max.
Thirty-seven years after his mishap, I found him very much alive and filled with enough energy, as I wrote, to light up a village. Inspired by Rochester basketball referee Pete Pavia’s courageous battle with cancer, Palermo and his family began a golf tournament in Batavia in 1997 to raise funds for The Miami Project, a pioneering organization in spinal injury research. The Palermo family set a modest goal of $5,000 for the first year, and wound up exceeding it by $6,500. They decided to hold another tournament. And another. And another.
Three decades and $1.4-million later, the tournament and companion sports auction are still going strong and have contributed funds not only to The Miami Project, but also for local organizations, such as the Batavia YMCA bike program for people with neurological challenges.
“Rickey is just one of those positive forces of nature,’’ said Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, one of numerous sports celebrities who have befriended Palermo and contributed memorabilia to his auction. “He’s a spiritual forklift who lifts people and things up and puts them in a better place.”
And Palermo, who zips around in a motorized wheelchair, hasn’t given up hope of walking again someday.
“People ask me when did I accept the fact I was paralyzed, and I tell them I still haven’t accepted it,’’ he said. “I’m going to keep fighting … the book isn’t closed. We all believe it’s just a matter of time before […]