An inspirational homecoming: DMS grad and his wife offer their perspective on perseverance
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org @DanaheyECN on Twitter August 22, 2013 4:48PM
Katy Sullivan, and her husband, Jay Cramer give a motivational presentation at Dundee Middle School last August. | Sun-Times Media file
Updated: September 24, 2013 6:27AM
WEST DUNDEE — Opportunity sometimes comes in the strangest of packages.
That was one of the main messages Jay Cramer, his service dog Goliath and his wife Katy Sullivan left with students Thursday morning during two assemblies at Dundee Middle School.
The journey that brought Cramer back to talk to his old school began with a terrible accident in 2005 that left him a quadriplegic.
Back then, Cramer, like many aspiring actors, was working as a waiter, occasionally performing in Los Angeles area theaters, and trying to break into television and film. He had gone to the West Coast eight years prior to his mishap, after graduating from the University of Michigan.
Cramer had been an athlete at Dundee-Crown High School (Class of ’93) and put those skills to use in California auditioning for the “Survivor” reality show. He told the students he had made it to a semifinal round of those being considered for the TV contest, when he decided to learn “bouldering,” an extreme form of vertical rock climbing, from a friend and a friend of that friend.
On Sept. 6, 2005 the three headed to Malibu Canyon to train. On his first two attempts scaling the rock formations, Cramer fell twice into water below. Weakened from the experience, on a third climb he decided he had had enough and dove back into the water.
But this time Cramer cracked his head on a rock.
Cramer says he remained conscious through the experience, but felt sensation leaving his extremities. Using what strength he had, he did what he could to head toward the shore. His friends called for help, and Cramer was airlifted to the UCLA Medical Center where doctors operated on him for more than nine hours.
Cramer asked the students to feel the backs of their necks as he pointed out to them which bone was the C5 vertebra that he broke. He explained that he couldn’t breathe on his own for a time.
But Cramer also had 14 friends by his side after the accident. They left him a SpongeBob pillow, and other SpongeBob items soon followed.
As soon as he was able to talk, Cramer said, he told his buddies, “You know, I never really liked SpongeBob. Now I hate sponges. I hate people named Bob. And I hate pants.”
That brought laughs from the students, which was another point Cramer was making — the importance of maintaining a sense of humor, or “perspectives,” as the couple entitled the talk.
In Cramer’s case, his experience led to working as a “stand-up” comic in Los Angeles and opening for the likes of Adam Sandler. It also led to helping out patients at the rehab center where he had recovered and where he now oversees a performing arts program.
And it led to meeting Sullivan, whom Cramer spotted one day at a therapy session, driving away in her car.
The next day he struck up a conversation with Sullivan that started with talk about his Chicago Bears T-shirt. She had lived in Chicago for a time, working as an actress. She asked if he was Jay Cramer, and she knew Cramer’s roommate, who also worked at the bar and grill where he did.
Mutual friends had been trying to set the two up on a date, and Sullivan joked Thursday, “It took Jay breaking his neck for him to notice me.”
The two have been together ever since and were married four years ago.
A reluctant runner
Sullivan told the students her inspirational story, too, of being born without the lower part of her legs and growing up wearing artificial limbs.
Sullivan said her family was very supportive. Still, while growing up in Alabama, she would kid people she met that she had been attacked by a shark. And she would do what she could to blend into the group.
“I never wore shorts. And I learned that the world is not flat,” she said.
Sullivan took to acting and moved to Chicago for a time to work its stages, before tiring of the city’s cruelly cold weather and heading to the West Coast eight years ago.
“I never played an amputee until I moved to Los Angeles,” she told the students.
She wound up taking up running in her new hometown, after a Paralympic coach spotted her in a race with 10-year-olds.
Fitted with carbon fiber legs that have computer sensors, Sullivan said it takes her 400 percent more energy to run a mile than it would a person with two legs.
Still, she sees running as “a beautiful metaphor for life. If you relax and let things go, things can happen in a beautiful way.”
Sullivan wound up competing in Paralympic 100 meter and 200 meter races the world over. She said she focused on doing her personal best and enjoying the moment, regardless of where she might wind up in the race.
In New Zealand in 2011, she met a German runner, Vanessa Low, who had lost her legs in a car crash. Low told Sullivan that a YouTube video she had seen of Sullivan running had inspired her to take up track — which brought tears to Sullivan’s eyes.
The two wound up competing in the Paralympics in London in 2012 before a crowd of 80,000. While neither won, Sullivan set a personal and American record in the 100 meter race.
Now retired from running, Sullivan has been working for a prosthetics company for seven years, giving presentations across the country.
More local appearances
After the talk in West Dundee, she said both she and her husband have been giving similar speeches in California for several years that are part of disability programming in that state’s schools.
Thursday’s sessions were the first the two had done together in Illinois. They are set to talk again Friday at Dundee-Crown High School and Gary D. Wright Elementary School in Hampshire. And they will be back in October for a week to address more school children.
The two also are still pursuing avenues in show business on the West Coast. At one time they were considering being part of a reality show, and now they are looking to develop a sitcom.
In a release about the presentation — which was the school’s first set of assemblies for the new school year — DMS Principal Joseph Schumacher stated, “Our theme with students this year is ‘power to succeed.’ … Jay and Katy are exemplars of what success can look like and that obstacles can be overcome.”
As Cramer told the crowd Thursday, “Don’t wallow in anguish. Do everything you can to move forward with your life.”
There was some evidence the students at least appreciated the appearance. The first crowd Thursday stomped the bleachers where they sat as the talk ended, the rumble as loud as an el train in downtown Chicago.