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KEVIN CULLEN

Leading a purposeful life, chosen by challenges

Travis Roy counts being on this deck overlooking Malletts Bay as one of his joys.
Travis Roy counts being on this deck overlooking Malletts Bay as one of his joys.Kevin Cullen/Globe Staff

COLCHESTER, Vt. — Travis Roy’s great-grandfather, Elisha Goodsell, ran ferries on Lake Champlain, and, like a lot of boat captains of that era, sometimes he had money and sometimes he was broke.

Just as the Depression was ending, Elisha Goodsell stood on a small peninsula here, overlooking Malletts Bay, cursing his bad luck. For $2,000, he could buy all that waterfront land, but he was broke.

It was then that Florence Goodsell, a quiet, frugal woman, revealed she had spent years squirreling away $2,000 in loose change. They bought the land, and now three generations of their descendants, some 40 in all, summer together in nine separate homes on what is known as Goodsell Point.

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Travis Roy has good genes, the passion and idealism of his great-grandfather, the unassuming wisdom of his great-grandmother.

If you are of a certain age, you know who Travis Roy is. He’s that hockey player, the kid from Maine who was paralyzed 11 seconds into his first shift, in his first game, for Boston University.

He looked like one of the Beach Boys, the shock of white-blonde hair, the pearly smile. All that promise, gone in one crunching moment, into the boards at the old Walter Brown Arena.

Travis Roy was 20 years old when he became a quadriplegic. He is now 40.

He still lives in Boston, on Commonwealth Ave., not far from where he was injured, but every summer he comes back to Goodsell Point, to the place he swam as a boy. He still tans like a Beach Boy. His hair is still blond. He still flashes that smile. And, sitting on the deck, overlooking Malletts Bay, he reflected on a purposeful life spent in two equal parts in two different worlds.

He went back to BU the year after he was paralyzed.

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“I remember rolling into my dorm room at BU thinking, ‘They’ll come up with something in a couple of years. I’ll take a medical red shirt and come back and play.’ That was my mind-set. I was convinced medical science would advance quickly, that I’d be walking, that I’d be skating.

“But once I accepted that wasn’t going to happen, I never thought my life could be as good as it is. The quality of my life is very high. Every day I roll out onto this deck, into the sunlight, I think how fortunate I am.”

Roy’s number was retired by the BU hockey team.
Roy’s number was retired by the BU hockey team.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Everybody in this part of Vermont knows Travis. It’s the same back in Boston.

“I always assumed my story would fade away, and in some ways it has. But it still surprises me when I go down the street and people say, ‘Hey, I know you.’ Early on, I didn’t appreciate when people stopped me and said kind things. But the older I get, the more I realize what those people are trying to convey.

“It was a really sad story. It didn’t seem like it would have a happy ending. But with the early financial support, the emotional support from my family and friends and strangers, I just feel like Boston is rooting for me. Beyond that, all of New England. People are wishing good things for me. I’ve felt that. It’s real. So I resolved to pay that back.

“Five or six years after my injury, I was thinking I hadn’t done much with my life. But I graduated from BU. And that prepared me for taking my foundation seriously. At first, it was on a small scale. Now, it’s raising $1 million a year.”

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He threw himself into the foundation that bears his name and it has handed out $3.5 million worth of equipment — wheelchairs, lifts — to more than 1,000 people with spinal cord injuries. It has given more than $2.5 million to research. It’s gotten bigger with time.

Almost every day, he reads letters from people pleading for help.

“It’s never just the wheelchair,” he said. “It’s a little piece of independence, a little piece of dignity.”

There was a logger in New Hampshire, Wayne Snow. He was paralyzed in a logging accident. Travis read his letter and bought him a wheelchair with tank tracks. Wayne Snow is back at work, logging in his wheelchair.

“Any time I turn on the TV, any time I go into a rink, there is one or two minutes when I get queasy in my stomach from missing it,” Roy said.
“Any time I turn on the TV, any time I go into a rink, there is one or two minutes when I get queasy in my stomach from missing it,” Roy said.Globe Staff/File 2005/Boston Globe

Travis Roy still loves hockey.

“I miss the sounds, the smells, the speed. It was my first love, and you never get over your first love. It’s hard for me to go into a locker room. I see the sticks and I want to grab one and feel how it feels in my hands.

“Any time I turn on the TV, any time I go into a rink, there is one or two minutes when I get queasy in my stomach from missing it. The sadness of that. And then I go on.

“I’m happy. But there’s no adrenaline rush. That’s what I miss. I’ll be watching a game and someone scores a game-winning goal, in any team sport, and I’ll find tears running down my cheeks because I’ll never feel that again.”

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Then he reads a letter from someone paralyzed and isolated and he isn’t thinking about himself. He’s trying to figure out how to help them.

He gives about 40 speeches a year, to corporate groups, to kids, to athletes.

“I want them to stop and reflect. This world spins so fast. I have a lot of real moments on this deck,” he says, his eyes drifting over the sun-splashed water. “I live near the Charles, and I go down to the river a lot. I sit and think.

“I spent the first 20 years of my life choosing challenges. Then the challenges chose me. When I thought of being cured, nothing short of walking would cut it. The cure now is being independent. I don’t want 24-hour home care. I want to go to the bathroom on my own. Shower. Get dressed. Drive. Cook. I want to be home, alone.”

I asked Travis Roy if he thinks he would have helped as many people in this life if he hadn’t been paralyzed.

“I think the depth of impact is probably deeper because of my injury. People feel sadness at first. But when they see I’m doing well, when they know I’m living a productive life, a purposeful life, I think that makes them feel better. My values were the same before the injury. A sensitivity to people who are less fortunate. I don’t feel like I’m that different of a person from what I was before my injury.”

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He paused, looked toward the lake again, then said, “Just wiser.”

Like his great-grandmother.

Roy greeted supporters in 2013 at the Travis Roy Foundation Whiffle Ball Tournament in Essex, Vt.
Roy greeted supporters in 2013 at the Travis Roy Foundation Whiffle Ball Tournament in Essex, Vt.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/File

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.