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When an athletic, active Michael Cafferty Jr. graduated from high school 12 years ago, he had no intention of going to college. He wanted to be an ironworker who helped construct skyscrapers like his immigrant father. An unfortunate wreck fueled by teenage drinking changed all that. But despite the physical odds against it, 30-year-old Cafferty, who is paralyzed from the neck down, was among the 329 DePaul University College of Law graduates attending a ceremony Sunday June 11 at Navy Pier in Chicago. The accomplishment, while in some ways the end of a dream, is just the beginning of a career for Cafferty. He has already landed a job working with the Cook County, Ill.,Public Guardian’s Office. For now, though, Cafferty is just happy to be finished with his class work and preparing for the bar exam this summer. “I can say now that I’m glad I’m done,” said Cafferty, who added that if he learned one thing these past years it’s that “If you don’t intend on applying yourself, don’t go to law school.” His motivation and persistence in achieving his goals at DePaul proved to be an inspiration to his fellow students and the professors who got to know him. So has his mere presence. “This is a kid who’s got a phenomenal amount of courage,” said Professor Wayne Lewis, who had Cafferty for contracts his first year and got re-acquainted last week at a bowling alley. Cafferty, participating in an auction to help raise money for public interest law, outbid a fellow student for a night of bowling with a select group of law professors. He admittedly didn’t do so well knocking the ball down the alley with his wheelchair. But he said he enjoyed himself. So did Lewis, who said Cafferty simply has a great attitude about life. “Obviously he’s been dealt a pretty lousy deck of cards and he still wants to play,” Lewis said. HOW ONE NIGHT CAN CHANGE AN ENTIRE LIFE Cafferty, a one-time altar boy who says he gave the nuns a run for their money in grammar school, knows a lot about self-determination. It’s an ethic he credits to his Irish immigrant parents who taught him the value of hard work. Growing up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Cafferty said he was looking toward a career as an ironworker, following in the footsteps of his father, who had helped construct a number of large buildings, including the Sears Tower. “It was good money for hard work,” he said. “I think that was where I was headed.” But after he graduated from high school in 1988, Cafferty decided to have some fun. This one-time swim team captain took jobs during the summer as a lifeguard at 54th Street Beach and at Davis Square Park. His life took a completely different turn the following September. At his Lincoln Park apartment and hooked up to two headsets – one for his voice-activated computer, one for his telephone, which he answers with a stick he controls with his mouth — Cafferty is comfortable detailing the circumstances of his paralysis. He remembers the night of his accident clearly. Cafferty got into the backseat of a friend’s car after a night of group drinking. The driver, who also had been drinking, slipped the car into reverse by mistake, and, before he could depress the brake, slammed into a tree. There was no headrest in the backseat and the result for Cafferty, then 18, was instant paralysis, his body left lifeless from the neck down. DECIDING TO REMAIN A PLAYER IN THE GAME OF LIFE From the time he realized that no breakthrough would come to return to him the use of his body, Cafferty said he made up his mind to do what he had to do to keep living. “I just kept putting my faith in God and he has led me to where I am today,” he said. Unable to face going home after nine months in the hospital and three surgeries, Cafferty spent time recuperating at Winning Wheels, a facility for young adults with disabilities in Prophetstown, Ill.. While there, Cafferty developed the resolve that he would “wake up each morning and get busy living.” He started by getting to know his fellow residents – many of whom suffered from multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy or some sort of devastating injury. He also began taking advantage of classes offered at a junior college nearby. “I really learned to appreciate my life that much more,” he said. He came to realize that he had already experienced so much more than many others ever would in their lives. With the idea he would be a psychologist to help others like him, Cafferty enrolled at University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana, where he lived in a dorm in which other students were given reductions in room and board costs to help care for their roommates. At the University of Illinois, Cafferty said he lived the life of any student, going to class and going out with friends on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Until his second year at the university, Cafferty dictated his assignments to someone who would type up his work. After that, he was able to take advantage of the latest voice-activated computer technology to complete his work. Still, he needed help with the basics many take for granted. Just getting up in the morning, getting to class, or taking off a winter coat is a chore. FOLLOWING A “GRANDER” CALLING IN THE LAW Cafferty eventually adjusted to life on campus. And, once he noticed how well many of his classmates were also adjusting, he reevaluated his own plan and embarked on a career in law. “I thought maybe I could be an advocate on a grander scale,” he said. Cafferty found an opportunity at DePaul, which purchased a voice-activated computer for him and set up a system in which he would take his exams orally with a court reporter present. Cafferty, who doesn’t pretend to be a stellar student, said law school turned out to be a difficult shift. Later able to attend bar parties and student activities, Cafferty had to first learn to accept assistance from others. “He wanted to do it straight,” said Diana C. White, DePaul’s dean of students. Realizing not long after he started his first year that he couldn’t go this alone, he scouted out students willing to share their notes and, with an engaging personality and self deprecating sense of humor, made close friends. After getting rides to and from school with the often-late public buses, Cafferty would find people to assist him with books, eat lunch and take notes. “Part of what a typical law student does is take notes and you realize this guy can’t turn the pages,” said Lewis, who acknowledged he wasn’t sure at first how to treat Cafferty in his class. His initial inclination was not to call on Cafferty. But he said, “By second semester I was ready to call on him and put him through the paces.” And while Lewis said he can see how other professors may have felt the same way, he doesn’t believe Cafferty got any preferential treatment. Rather, DePaul worked to make sure he got to participate on a level playing field, he said. On Sunday, Cafferty, with his family in the audience, crossed the stage on his own, just the way he wanted it, Dean White said. “He is very stubborn, very proud and very determined,” White said. “The energy and drive he has is just amazing.”

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