Beloved disability activist, professor remembered at reception
Friends, colleagues and loved ones celebrated disability activist and SF State professor Paul Longmore’s life and works at the University’s downtown campus in a series of speeches titled “Mischievous Entanglements: The Embodied Histories of Paul K. Longmore — Scholar, Teacher, Activist.”
The SF State history department and the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability hosted the event April 12 as an official part of the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting, but it quickly turned into a remembrance.
Though Longmore died two years ago, the panel of mostly historians spoke about him fondly, as if he was just outside the door.
“Our strongest bond was both having polio as kids,” said Mary Lou Breslin, a panelist and co-founder of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “Like a secret handshake, when the conversation turned to some arcane details of how our bodies worked, we would raise our eyebrows, nod to each other and say ‘It’s a polio thing, you wouldn’t understand.'”
The panel was made up of women who knew Longmore: a high school teacher who was his student, fellow historians from UC Berkeley and SF State and a theater professor from southern California. To some, he was a mentor who never let them give up. Others reflected on his keen historical insight into George Washington, the subject of a book which took him ten years to write by tapping out keys on a keyboard with a pen in his mouth because he did not have use of his arms.
Longmore had polio as a child, binding him to a wheelchair and a ventilator to aid him in breathing. He studied colonial history, and as he fought discrimination seeking a job teaching the subject he loved, eventually landed a job teaching at Stanford University.
In the ’80s he was an activist for disability rights, notably burning his own history book, “The Invention of George Washington,” on the steps of the Los Angeles Federal Building to protest his social security being cut, simply because he made royalties from his writing.
He wrote a book about that too. “Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability” looked at the history of disability rights, and argued against assisted suicide.
He joined the faculty at SF State in 1992, where he taught early American history and the history of disabilities until he passed away of natural causes in 2010. He was a loud, spirited and passionate speaker, motivating those around him to rethink the conventions of disability, according to those on the panel.
Longmore didn’t view his wheelchair as a detriment, but simply a fact of life. His radical views and fierce passion helped him become a leader in the disability rights movement from its infancy to its adulthood.
Many noted his theatrical bearing, but one woman said his performer’s spirit came from a need to constantly prove himself as a human being.
“Disabled children are actors from an early age,” said panelist Victoria Lewis, a theater professor at University of the Redlands. She should know, she said — she herself was in a wheelchair. Quoting Longmore on how he felt when he met new people, she said, “In the first three minutes I have to prove I’m not emotionally screwed up, I’m smarter than they are and finer than they are. If anyone is going to feel pity for anyone else, it’ll be me pitying them.”
His need to perform, to show everyone that he was a human beyond his wheelchair is what shaped his unique views on George Washington, prompting his dissertation which later became a book, panelist Eva Wolf said. George Washington invented himself and was a performer, and that’s how he led the colonial army, Longmore wrote.
The Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability has two major projects in the works, according to their website, including archiving Longmore’s extensive notes from his book on disability history in the J. Paul Leonard Library’s historical archive, and forming partnerships with public K-12 schools to teach disability history, in their words, “beyond Hellen Keller.”
SF State librarian Deborah Masters said the new archive was still being processed by the institute, but that the library was honored to have it.
“The University made the decision to retain the Longmore collection as part of the legacy of a distinguished faculty member held in high esteem by colleagues, and as a component of the research material available as a part of the (Longmore) Institute,” she said.
Notably, the fight for disability rights is far from over, those at the event said.
A volunteer just outside the event, Kacey Calahane, a 24-year-old graduate student at SF State, recalled a fellow student back at UCLA who was blind and half deaf, who would constantly be pushed and shoved by crowds oblivious to his existence or his plight.
“They are us — they deserve dignity, and respect,” Calahane said.
Giving dignity and respect to disabled people’s lives was Longmore’s greatest talent, Luise Custer told the audience.
Microphone in hand, she told the audience about her son Charlie, who suffers from a rare brain disorder known as a “total agenesis of the corpus callosum,” which essentially gives him the same state of being and understanding as an 8-year-old — but for life.
“In amazingly subtle ways, Paul would share his views on some quiet little thing hammering on our hearts about Charlie,” Custer said to the room. The room was still.
Over many dinners and late night conversations, she said, Longmore taught Custer and her husband that Charlie may be different to the outside world, but to himself he was a perfectly realized person — as happy as a person could be, whole and complete.
“I want to share with you all that Paul brought Charlie so deeply to us in that moment, in our lives. I want to thank him for bringing my son home to me,” she said.
There were few dry eyes in the room after she spoke. Soon after, the attendees disbanded for food and drink as laughter filled the room, the love and legacy of Longmore carrying their lives and missions forward.