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The Man Who Won’t be Defeated

In a very touching story written by Brad Lemley for Parade Magazine, November 26, 1989, the history of W. Mitchell and his life is recounted.

Mitchell’s face is a patchwork of multicolored skin grafts, the fingers of both hands are either missing or mere stubs, and his paralyzed legs lie thin and useless in his slacks as he sits in his wheelchair. Mitchell, then 46, was horrifically burned and nearly killed in a freak motorcycling accident in 1971; then, four years later, he was paralyzed from the waist down in an airplane crash.

Yet Mitchell is a millionaire, a respected environmentalist, a sought-after speaker, a former mayor and Congressional candidate, a happy husband, even a river-rafter and sky-diver.

The story of his life is an interesting one, proving that Mitchell has always enjoyed forging his own destiny. His life, he says, proves that “all limitations are self-imposed.” He adds, “It’s not what happens to you in life, it’s what you do about it.”

Over a four month period following his motorcycle accident, he had 13 transfusions, 16 skin-graft operations and other surgeries. Mitchell says his secret to recovery was two-fold. The first was the love and encouragement of friends and family, and the second was a personal philosophy he had gleaned from various sources. He realized he did not have to buy society’s notion that one must be handsome and healthy to be happy. “I am in charge of my own spaceship,” he says. “It is my up, and my down. I could choose to see this situation as a setback or a starting point.”

His airplane crashed in 1975 when it developed ice on the wings on takeoff. His spinal cord was bruised beyond repair and his 12th thoracic vertebra was crushed. That left him a paraplegic. That situation challenged his relentless optimism. He found he had to focus on the “can” rather than the “can’t”. He decided to follow the advice of the German philosopher Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Mitchell recalls another patient, a man about 19 whom he had met in the hospital’s gymnasium. This man had also been paralyzed and was convinced his life was over. He says, finally, I went over to this gy and said, “You know something? Before all of this happened to me, there were 10,000 things I could do. Now there are 9000. I could spend the rest of my life dwelling on the 1000 I lost, but I choose to focus on the 9000 that are left.”

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