That guy in the wheelchair? Just call him 'Tex'

July 01, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

Donald Wiley positions his wheelchair at the crest of the hill so motorists on Charles Street can't miss him.

He nods. He raises his right arm as a wave. Motorists honk, holler and wave back. And they wonder: Who is this guy in the cowboy hat outside Manor Care Nursing Center in Ruxton?

"Oh, that's Tex," says Pearl Williams, a certified medical assistant at the center. "That's the first thing people want to know when they find out you work at Manor Care."

Thousands of drivers and passengers on this stretch of Charles Street just inside the Beltway pass Mr. Wiley, who goes by "Tex," every day he sits outside. That's every day he feels good and the weather's not frightful.

"I think people enjoy seeing me sitting out here," Tex says, the rush of cars nearly drowning out his words. "It's my way of bringing a little sunshine into the lives of the people who travel Charles Street."

The travelers and Tex have developed a relationship of sorts,even through he remains for most of them a curious, solitary figure. Occasionally they stop, as former Orioles' Brooks Robinson and Rick Dempsey have done, to get to know the person.

Tex is 33. He suffered a broken neck in a car wreck when he was 17. The car he was riding in rolled over three times after swerving to miss an oncoming car that had crossed the center line. Tex is paralyzed from the chest down.

He was a junior in high school at the time, living with his parents, brother and sisters at his grandfather's farm in Pennsylvania just across the Maryland line and Harford County. He underwent extensive therapy in hospitals and rehabilitation centers before settling at Manor Care in 1985.

He began sitting outside right away for the fresh air and a respite from the residents inside. He is by far the youngest there.

"People at first drove by and gave me all these funny looks," Tex says. "They even called the nursing home and said: 'Hey, do you know there's a guy out there trying to escape?' "

'Friendly type'

But they got used to his waving and nodding, which was, he says, his way of saying: Have a nice day.

"I've always been a friendly type of person," he says. "We were raised to help anybody who needs help along the roadside, anybody who needs directions. We were taught that if you bring a smile to somebody's face in your travels, eventually good things will come from it."

People responded to his greetings, and pretty soon Tex and the travelers had something between them.

Somebody pulled over one hot day and gave him a beach umbrella. Motorists have stopped to give him presents at Christmas, including a suede Stetson to go along with his familiar straw cowboy hat.

A distinguished-looking man pulled over one day and said: "How you doing, Tex?" And Tex, slow to recognize him, replied: "How you doing . . . Brooks Robinson!"

"He said he'd driven by here many times and seen me sitting out here," Tex says. "He said he'd thought about stopping many times but had always been too busy."

And then Rick Dempsey just pulled his car onto the shoulder.

"I didn't know who he was at first," Tex says. "But when he looked up, I said: 'Good Lord. Rick Dempsey!' "

But Tex does more than sit and wave. He earned his high-school equivalency diploma in 1987 while at Manor Care.

"When I found out I'd passed the test I was like the happiest guy around because, being from a farming community, not many kids from farms have a chance to go to college," Tex says.

He enrolled at Dundalk Community College in 1988 to study computers. It's a struggle. He gets up early to catch a bus that accommodates his wheelchair, attends classes and then returns after spending the day in the same position in his chair.

He develops lesions. The price for one semester at school is the next semester in bed at the nursing home letting the lesions heal.

"That's one of the frustrating things," Tex says. "I take one step forward and then it seems I take two steps backward because of all these medical problems. It's setback after setback after setback.

"But I've accepted the fact that I had a spinal-cord injury accident. And coming from the farm I was taught that when you get knocked down you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on truckin'. I may be truckin' along at a slower pace, but at least I'm truckin'."

Ambitious goals

His goal is to move into an apartment, earn a college degree and get a job. He would need to live with an attendant. Tex can feed himself, dial a telephone and operate his radio, but he needs help getting in and out of bed, dressing and performing daily chores.

His insurance company would pay most of his expenses, he says, just as it has most of his medical bills these past 16 years. He receives a monthly disability check from Social Security.

Tex visits his family in Pennsylvania, and his relatives visit him. But he doesn't want to move in with them, he says, because they live in the country where attending college would be difficult.

Of course, most people traveling Charles Street don't know Tex's story. They merely know that the guy in the cowboy hat is a familiar figure, a landmark, and they beep and wave and continue on their way.

But a Towson Times reporter stopped once and wrote a story years ago. Local television has featured Tex on the news. The exposure resulted in speaking engagements for Tex at high schools and colleges. His message is, basically: Stay in school and work hard for your goal; if I can do it, why can't you?

Tex delights in the attention. "I never thought I'd become so darn famous by just sitting out here waving to people," he says.

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