Gardner Delk, inspired others from wheelchair

November 30, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Gardner Lamont Delk was an inspiration, friends say -- a young man who was determined not to let a wheelchair define his life.

A former United Fund poster boy and honor student at a city school for the disabled, Mr. Delk, 24, held a part-time clerical job with a mortgage company and was looking forward to college when he died Thursday at his Northwest Baltimore home of as-yet undetermined causes.

"He was a living example of being all that you could be," said Barbara Seth, a social worker at the Athelas Institute in Columbia, a nonprofit day habilitation and prevocational training center that Mr. Delk had attended the last three years.

"When you were around Gardner, you forgot he was in a wheelchair," she said.

Mr. Delk was born with spina bifida, a defect in the spinal cord, and underwent 15 major operations.

"When he was born, they told me that he wouldn't live very long, that he wouldn't make it," said his mother, Dena Ward-Vane.

"I was determined that I was going to treat him like he was going to live rather than die. I had to fight to keep him out of institutions. People kept saying, 'You'll never be able to take care of him,' but I did. I wanted to take care of him and I was determined to make him independent."

"When we moved to a one-level home, I told Gardner that he'd have to help out with the chores, and from his wheelchair he mopped the floor, washed dishes and clothes and even cooked," his mother said.

"I didn't want him to be so dependent that if anything ever happened to me he couldn't take care of himself."

Mrs. Ward-Vane recalled a time when her son was receiving physical therapy at James Lawrence Kernan Hospital, and advised a patient, "If you won't walk for yourself then walk for your therapist, and if you won't walk for her, then walk for me."

She added: "He was 4 years old at the time."

The 1976 poster child for the United Fund Commerce and Industry Combined Health Appeal, Mr. Delk was a 1990 honors graduate of the William S. Baer School, where he had been president of the student government, served as a delegate to the Youth Legislature in Annapolis, and received letters of commendation from then-President George Bush, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

He was invited to sit on the stage when Mr. Schmoke was inaugurated in 1987, and several days later the new mayor spotted him in a crowd and asked, "Gardner, are you after my job?" He quickly replied, "Yes, if you don't do it right."

Known as "Munch," he was an avid sports fan who competed in wheelchair track and softball, and he was a member of the Bombers wheelchair basketball team that played Thursday nights at the Herring Run Recreation Center.

He counted among his friends such sports personalities as Wes Unseld, Johnny Unitas, Reggie Jackson and Earl Weaver, who came to visit and corresponded with him.

Mr. Delk was a part-time clerical assistant at Consumer First Mortgage Inc. in Columbia at the time of his death and had planned to attend college in January.

Lauren Krometis, general manager of the firm, said, "He was wonderful and what was so amazing was that, despite all of his physical problems, he never complained -- he was a very positive person and a role model. The staff was devastated when they learned of his death Monday. He was a real gift."

Services were set for noon today at the March Funeral Home, 4300 Wabash Ave., Baltimore.

Other survivors include two sisters, Torri Ward and Chandra Jones; and his grandmother, Verndine Choyce, all of Baltimore; and several aunts, uncles and cousins.

Memorial donations may be made to the Gardner L. Delk Scholarship Fund, 4003 Glen Ave., Baltimore 21215.

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