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Elmer Bartels, 76, of Bedford; longtime advocate for disabled

“We charged into life without planning it, but with a lot of faith that somehow or other it would work — and it did,” Elmer Bartels said of his life with his wife, Mary.Globe file/2005/Boston Globe

On Dec. 5, 1960, Elmer Bartels was a student at Colby College in Maine, playing a pickup hockey game with fraternity guys who, he later recalled, brought more enthusiasm than skill to the ice.

He tripped and flew into the boards head first, severing his spinal cord and leaving him a quadriplegic. An equally defining moment occurred during the rehabilitation that followed when he met Mary Foster upon arriving at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain.

"She was the nurse on the floor that day and helped me get from my wheelchair into bed," he told the Globe in 2007, adding that "for Mary, no problem was too big. We charged into life without planning it, but with a lot of faith that somehow or other it would work — and it did."

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They married the day after he left the hospital and became an inspiring team among advocates for the disabled across the country as he rose to become commissioner of the state's Rehabilitation Commission, serving for more than 30 years under seven governors.

Mr. Bartels, who with unflagging enthusiasm pushed for changes in laws that improved the lives of generations of the disabled in Massachusetts, died of pneumonia July 5 in his Bedford home. He was 76.

Through lobbying and in columns he wrote for the Globe and other publications, Mr. Bartels had a hand in laws that made buildings and sidewalks more accessible to those who, like him, used wheelchairs. He also tirelessly pushed the business community to improve job opportunities for the disabled.

Most of all, though, Mr. Bartels wanted what he and his wife strove to create in Bedford. "I have chosen to live as normal a life as I can despite the fact that I have a disability," he told the Globe in 2005 as he led a reporter through a tour of his home, which his wife noted was largely free of "all kinds of gizmos."

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In a tribute to her father, Joanne Stanway of Chelmsford wrote "being paralyzed from the upper chest down for so long did not make him a hero and he did not identify himself through his disability. He was a man who was faced with a challenge, and with the highest level of focus and exuberance, he figured out how to live life to the fullest while simultaneously helping others in the same boat. That's what made him a hero."

The third of four children, and the only son, Elmer C. Bartels grew up in Newton. His mother, the former Dorothy Burnett, had been a dressmaker before marrying Dr. Elmer Bartels, who became a renowned thyroid specialist at Lahey Clinic and whose patients included John F. Kennedy.

At 12, Mr. Bartels began spending summers at Camp Agawam, in Raymond, Maine, on whose board he served for much of his adult life. He graduated from Newton High School and spent a year at Hebron Academy, a prep school in Maine, before going to Colby College.

While Mr. Bartels was recuperating from his injury, a psychiatrist said he shouldn't return to college because he couldn't cut his own meat, Mr. Bartels recalled in a 2001 interview with the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project. Undeterred, Mr. Bartels and his wife went to Colby after they married in 1962. She was his spouse, his nurse, and co-student.

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"She went to his classes with him," their daughter said in an interview. "He did his homework by telling her his answers, and she would write them down for him."

Together they finished his senior year at Colby, from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics. He then went to Tufts University for a master's in physics, and they found ways to give him access to the classroom and his first job, as a computer programmer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's nuclear science laboratory.

They placed wood blocks under table legs to lift furniture high enough to accommodate his wheelchair. His wrist splints had holes into which they placed pencils, eraser-end out, so he could tap on a keyboard. At home, his family taped straws together so he could sip tea. His fork had an extra piece of metal, attached to the end with rivets, and fit into a slot on his wrist splints.

"My whole life, my dad used the same fork for every single meal," his daughter said. "I still have it. I still have the fork."

During the 1960s, in the absence of laws addressing accessibility barriers in housing and transportation, Mr. Bartels and his wife helped found the Massachusetts Association of Paraplegics to lobby the State House, and they helped organize the first Bay State Wheelchair Games.

Over the years, he advocated for legislation to address architectural designs for buildings and sidewalks that prevented wheelchair access and to set aside a portion of public housing for the disabled. At work, he moved from MIT to Honeywell, where he was a programmer, a senior systems analyst, and a department head.

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Mr. Bartels initially took a two-year leave of absence from Honeywell in February 1977 when Governor Michael S. Dukakis appointed him to lead the state Rehabilitation Commission. In May 2007, he was thought to be the state's longest-serving commissioner when Governor Deval Patrick, while replacing several agency heads, ended his tenure. "I've had a great run, 30 plus years," Mr. Bartels told the Globe. "It's been a wonderful opportunity to work for people with disabilities. I enjoyed every minute. There was never a dull day."

Mary Bartels had died a month earlier.

"After my mom died, my dad looked at me and said, 'Until this moment, I didn't realize that I had a disability.' This was just a unique partnership," their daughter said. "Everyone used to call my mother a saint, and she hated it. She was just someone who fell in love with a man and they figured out how to live their life together."

Mr. Bartels remained close to his family. His son, Jim, lived with him in Bedford, and he took joy in spending time with his only grandchild, Jaye Mary Younkim of Chelmsford, and with his daughter and her husband, Phil. A memorial service will be announced for Mr. Bartels, who also leaves three sisters, Jane Lee Young of West Yarmouth, Patricia Hastings of Stevensville, Mont., and Dorothy Denault of Jamestown, R.I.

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In recent years, Mr. Bartels wrote a memoir called "The Road Taken."

"I'll have to write the final chapter before it is published," his daughter wrote in her tribute to Mr. Bartels. "It will talk about his strength of character, his perseverance, and his daily interest in helping others. I'll write about this final trip to the hospital, and how he rallied enough to talk to my brother about his truck, to tell me that actor Tom Hanks should play him in the movie version of his book, and to hear one last camp song. He remained independent and in control of his destiny, as always, until his last breath."


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.