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    Yvonne Abraham

    Father aided daughter with cerebral palsy during law school

    WHITMAN — What would you do to make sure your child could follow her dream? Would you, could you, do what Joseph Gillis did?

    The retired postal worker left his Maryland home to help his daughter Emily, who has cerebral palsy, make it through Suffolk University Law School. For three years, he wheeled his daughter into a van, then onto the Red Line for the trip to Park Street. He took her to every class, got her settled at her desk, opened up her laptop, put her textbook before her, then headed to the library or the Frog Pond to wait for the changeover.

    At the end of each day, he did it all in reverse, then cooked and did laundry so that Emily could hit the books.


    Since she took a pre-law course in high school, Emily, 29, has wanted to be an attorney specializing in criminal law. Born with a form of CP called spastic quadriplegia, she has used a wheelchair since she was 3. She has little patience for those who think her disability defines her.

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    “Being in a wheelchair is part of me, but it’s not all of me,” Emily said, eating pizza with her father and a friend at her Whitman apartment on Wednesday. Among those other parts of her: her family, including her younger sister Kimberly, now 25, whom she tormented with gusto when they were kids; her beloved Baltimore Orioles; and her big brain. Emily was on the honor roll in high school and on the dean’s list at the University of Maryland.

    As an undergrad, Emily found plenty of friends in her dorm who could help her with basic things like eating and getting around. Her parents and sister — who lived 90 miles away — visited often to help out, too.

    Managing law school, far from home, was more challenging, even though she has extended family in Massachusetts. She couldn’t get a personal care assistant for both home and school, so the family decided her dad would come up with her.

    Joseph’s father had worked at the Baker Chocolate factory in Lower Mills when he was a kid, so Joseph knew Boston. More important, he knows what Emily means to him.


    Neither Gillis likes the suggestion that they’re doing anything remarkable.

    “For me, it’s not remarkable,” Emily said. “I don’t want someone to sit there and say I’m inspirational because I got out of bed every day and went outside even though I’m in a wheelchair. I’d rather it be: ‘You’re inspirational, because you did something I’m scared to do, and you found a path.’ ”

    Joseph will not entertain the notion that there is anything inspiring in his decision to uproot himself to help Emily through law school.

    But it has to be hard. As Emily was starting at Suffolk, her mother, Mary, was diagnosed with cancer. Kimberly and other relatives have been her support network in Maryland during the academic year. She’s doing better now.

    Joseph says he wasn’t bored waiting to ferry Emily from one class to the next, or during the nine-hour study days she put in at home. He read a lot of newspapers, stopped by Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s statue, or the Marathon finish line. He and Emily joke that he could be one of those tour guides in bloomers and tricorner hats leading tourists around the historic sites.


    “There’s a lot on the Internet,” said Joseph, who made it through every episode of “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” in the last few years.

    The father and daughter spend a lot of time together. Do they ever get sick of each other?

    “Mmm, hmmmm!” Emily said, before the question was completed.

    “We have little disagreements,” Joseph added, chuckling, “where we don’t talk to each other for a bit.”

    It will all be over on Saturday, when Emily puts on her robe to accept her degree. Her whole family will be at the Hynes Convention Center, beaming — not because she is disabled and did it, but because she did it, period.

    “Any kid goes to college then goes to law school, you gotta be proud,” Joseph said. “Jeez!”

    Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.