By Daniel J. Vance


  One of the nation's leading spokespersons on disabilities, Harold Russell, died less than a year ago of a heart attack at 88. From the early '40s on he did as much as any American to create awareness of disabilities and to help the disabled find employment.

  "Harold Russell's story was a very powerful one because of the way he acquired his disability and because of the world in which he was placed into after coming home from World War II," said Judy Heumann in a recent telephone conversation.

  Heumann, now an advisor on disability and development for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., served with Russell in the '70s and '80s on the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

  Doctors replaced both his hands with metal "hooks" following a WWII explosion. Soon after he appeared in an army documentary of an amputee, "Diary of a Sergeant," and then in "The Best Years of Our Lives," a 1946 movie in which he played WWII amputee-vet Homer Parrish. For this role he won two Academy Awards, including a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

  In the film, amputee Homer Parrish couldn't handle the way his family was treating him on his return from war, and he had even more trouble believing his childhood sweetheart still loved him.

  After his movie fame, he "put himself into the public limelight to get businesses to consider employing people with disabilities," said Heumann. "He was very friendly, and a good spokesperson because he personally cared and had firsthand knowledge of the issues."

   He founded Harold Russell Consulting, which specialized in disability access and employment issues, served three terms as commander of AMVETS, and was vice president of the World Veterans Fund.

  First appointed by President Johnson, he was chair in 1964-89 of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. The agency's top award for service would become the Harold Russell Medal.

  In an interview with iCan News Service, Russell's daughter Adele said at her father's death in January 2002, "He was one of those frontier people to bring [disabilities] out in the open. Anytime he went and met anybody, he stuck his hook right out [and said] 'Go ahead shake it, it won't hurt.' He made it so [his disability] wasn't anything to be afraid of."

  [Contact Mr. Vance at Box 154, Vernon Center MN 56090 or www.danieljvance.com. Copyright 2002 Daniel J. Vance.]