When the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce presented Howard W. Ganter with the Israel A. Shapiro Award in February, he gave credit to someone who inspired him to be a better community member.
Mr. Ganter, the 66th recipient of the local leadership award and executive director of the Jefferson Rehabilitation Center, said in his acceptance speech that there is a group of people we often ignore but have so much to offer us either in “direct experience or in their unique skill sets.”
He then told the crowd that gathered to honor him about David E. Liscomb.
“Imagine you are 5 years old,” Mr. Ganter said, “(are) legally blind, have a developmental disability, live in an abusive family situation and are being taken out of the home and sent to a school setting nine months out of the year.”
Imagine making the decision at the age of 7 that it is better to stay in school than come home, because of the home environment, he said.
Imagine, Mr. Ganter said, of having such “pent up frustration and reacting behaviorally and being transferred to a state institution for five years — and then other institutions, state hospitals for a number of years.”
Imagine, he said, someone overcoming such obstacles and becoming a community leader like David did. He “never gave up,” Mr. Ganter said.
It all left many people wondering: Who is this David? And how did he overcome such obstacles?
Perhaps the first thing you should know about David Liscomb is that he loves butterflies. A paper art project hangs on his living room wall at his Kelsey Creek apartment in Watertown. It features a butterfly rising up to the words and Biblical theme of “Be not afraid.”
David had a vision for the project and asked for help in putting it together.
“I wanted to indicate the type of person I am,” David, 71, told me as we prepared to sit at his kitchen table. “I evolve.”
His home life as a child was anything but a cocoon of happiness. David became estranged from his family for most of his life but reconciled with his mother, Margaret, right before she died in 2015. His father, Earl, died in 1986. When David mentioned his father, it was related to the physical and mental abuse he said he suffered on his behalf.
He’s been blind since shortly after birth.
“I was told by my mom that, at 3 months old, I had a cerebral hemorrhage,” David said, describing the time around when he became blind. “I don’t know where it came from. A lot of the family said my father created it.
“I can’t prove it was abuse,” he said. “I do know that he abused me later in life. I had a fracture on my lower back and right here.” (David pointed to his nose.) “I didn’t cause.”
At the age of 5, his parents sent him to the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia, Genesee County. He was there for 12 years.
He spent two decades at the Newark Development Center in Wayne County. He says he also spent time in mental institutions.
“Not that it matters,” he said. “But I did.”
A dark shadow that followed David around was the term “retard.”
“It was a very painful word to me, very degrading and made me feel very devalued,” he said.
He founded the North Country Self-Advocates, which lobbied for New York to remove the word “retard” from the name of the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, a state agency that serves people who are developmentally disabled.
In July of 2010, Gov. David A. Paterson signed a bill that changed the name of the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities to the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.
On David’s wall — near the butterfly — he has a photograph of him posing with Gov. Patterson. There’s also other awards and recognitions. In addition to founding North Country Self-Advocates, his accomplishments include:
n President of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, an organization run by and for people with developmental disabilities.
n Self-advocacy consultant/professional and self-advocate for JRC.
n Supervising aide at Production Unlimited.
n Volunteer teacher of special religious classes at St. Patrick’s Intermediary School, Watertown.
n Member of the OPWDD’s commissioner’s advisory council.
I asked David if he has any particular traits for success.
“The biggest one is that I made up my mind I wasn’t going to let this hold me back,” he said of his disabilities. “I was going to be stubborn and beat it. I was going to show other people that they can do it as well. And I wasn’t going to create a false image for people. I don’t believe in that.”
He officially retired in 2013. “But I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to sit back in an armchair and do nothing.”
The day before we met, David, on the previous day, had just returned from a solo train trip to New Jersey, via New York City’s Grand Central Station, to see someone he describes as his father figure.
“He is a person I can look up to and talk to,” he said.
David said he first met Daniel R. Ryan, now of Ewing, N.J., in 1977. Daniel is about two years younger than David.
“They had a program here for people who came out of institutions,” David said. “I should have been paying attention to my lessons because he was my teacher. But I was so fascinated about what it would be like to have a father like him.”
When David later decided to join the Roman Catholic Church, Daniel became his godfather and, in 1978, his confirmation sponsor.
In a phone interview from his New Jersey home, Daniel said he was director of religious education for Catholic parishes in Watertown in the 1970s. He said the religious education program he began for adults who were being discharged from institutions was one of the first in the country. He and David have kept in touch over the years as Daniel moved on to ministries in Iowa and Philadelphia, Pa. He’s now retired.
David said Daniel is his legal advocate and guardian. “He’s also my (health) proxy and power of attorney,” he said.
David has visited Daniel and family every Easter for 40 years in a row as his friend worked at ministries around the country. It’s been 21 trips to Iowa, 10 to Philadelphia, Pa., and nine to New Jersey.
Daniel, who calls David a “brother,” also comes to Watertown to visit him and they often take summer jaunts to Canada and even overseas.
“He taught me a lot of things,” Daniel said, nothing that he comes from a different background, raised upper-middle class in Buffalo, than David.
Daniel recalled he was fresh out of graduate school while in Watertown and full of new ideas. But he saw one group of people here who needed just the basics.
“They just needed to be loved,” he said. “They didn’t need to know all the theological stuff. They taught me a lot more than I ever taught them.”
After David’s visit to New Jersey, Virginia Burnham, his self-directed services aide, picked him up at the Syracuse train station for his return home.
The “self-direction” program is as part of the options offered by OPWDD. Clients like David are provided with financial resources based on their needs to hire staff for the services they desire or to pay for certain services. Program components include a broker who assists in setting up the services, a Medicaid service coordinator who advocates for the person and the fiscal intermediary that provides training to the staff, validates billing and provides the staff payroll and benefits. Several agencies, including JRC, the Disabled Persons Action Organization, Northern Regional Center for Independent Living and the Cerebral Palsy Association of the North Country provide these services.
“Through Virginia’s assistance, I can do many things that perhaps before I was not able to,” David said. “We cook together. We go grocery shopping, and I pick out what I want with her guidance because I’m a heart patient.”
Thoughts of living mainly on his own like he does now was at one time an inconceivable prospect for David.
“When I think where I was, let’s say 50 years ago, which would have made me 21, there was nothing then. I never dreamed that I would be on my own, be this happy and would be doing things.”
“That’s what this program tries to strive for,” said Virginia, who arrived at David’s apartment for a scheduled visit during the interview. “It gives more independence, more choice and to be out in the community and to enjoy life how they want to enjoy it, both inside the home and outside the home.”
It was at Daniel’s home, during David’s Easter visit there, that gave him a renewed sense for the future, although it was mixed with regret about the past.
“I told my ‘father,’ ‘there’s one thing I really want to tell you, but I don’t know how to tell you.’
“He said, ‘You know, one of the things I wish you would not do for me is to suppress your feelings. Let me know what you are really feeling. That way I can help you.’
“So I told him that I wish I was 3 years old and his biological son,” David said.
That brought tears to Daniel’s eyes.
“He had a handkerchief, wiping his eyes,” David said. “He said, ‘Come here.’ He held me for a minute.”
“Sunday Portrait” is an occasional column in the Watertown Daily Times’ Sunday Life & Livelihood section. Write to Chris Brock at email@example.com or at the Watertown Daily Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown, N.Y., 13601.