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She was born with a crushed skull, two broken legs and a broken arm. At the hospital, her arms and legs were “bandaged to Popsicle sticks to keep them from breaking.” As she got older, whenever she tried to crawl, she would break her thighs. By the time she reached her first birthday, everyone knew that “there was something terribly wrong.”
No one thought Mary Louise Burckhart would live to adulthood. They were wrong.
On July 22, at St. Margaret Mary Church, Westwood, Burckhart, together with her brother and caretaker, Father William Burckhart, attended a celebratory Mass to jointly honor her 85th birthday and his 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood.
"I'm thanking God for 50 years of priesthood. Mary Louise is thanking Him for 85 years of life -- the most precious gift God can give us," said Father Burckhart.
With over 200 close friends and family members at her side, Burckhart smiled. “I’ve had a wonderful life. The Lord has been good to us. We wanted to share it with our friends,” she said. “I keep forgetting that we’re talking 85! I don’t feel any bit older,” she exclaimed.
Burckhart was born in 1918 with osteo-genesis imperfecta -- a genetic disorder that causes bones to crack or break under even the slightest stress.
"Because that was such a long while ago, not much was known about it," stated Burckhart. "The public didn't know how to deal with a person who had a handicap."
However, being wheelchair-bound has never seemed to stop Burckhart.
At a time when handicapped individuals were “cared for but not thought of as normal people,” when schools were not required to teach those with “birth defects,” Burckhart graduated from Quincy Public Schools.
"My father carried me to and from school every day," she recalled.
"He also made my first wheelchair out of a dining room chair because, back then, the wheelchairs were impossible to take outside," continued Burckhart.
It was her father’s “forward thinking and determination ”that became her impetus to lead a normal life.
"Anything that I might be today, or have been able to do through the years, I have done thanks to my father's determination," she admits.
According to Burckhart, at the end of World War II, society began to change its perception of the handicapped. Due in part to the large numbers of wounded soldiers returning to the United States, “many people realized that just because someone doesn’t have an arm or a leg, it didn’t stop them from being a person.”
She took advantage of this new acceptance of wheelchair-bound individuals. In 1948, at the age of 30, she enrolled in Salve Regina College in Newport, R.I. – a newly established college run by the Sisters of Mercy, which was housed in one of the Newport mansions.
"I went to college in my 30s because it was the first time that a college was equipped to allow me to live safely and independently," explained Burckhart. Although she had to rely on help to climb the seven steps into the mansion, "once I got into the college, everything was in the same building."
Using the dumbwaiter as an elevator, Burckhart was able to navigate throughout the one-building college independently.
Four years later, she graduated with a degree in sociology. However, Burckhart was never able to work in her field. Instead, for close to 50 years she held various clerical positions, “mainly in hospitals and nursing homes” because “those places have the best accommodations” for people with wheelchairs.
"I had to work where it was possible for me to get to," she said.
She was also instrumental in passing legislation to better the lives of the handicapped.
Prior to 1986, handicapped stickers were only issued for cars owned by handicapped persons. No provision was made for those who did not own cars. As a result, specially designated parking spaces were unavailable for wheelchair-bound individuals riding in someone else’s car.
Burckhart changed all that.
"On a shopping expedition with a friend, in the middle of a downpour, I asked my friend to park in a handicapped parking spot," she explained. "I told her I would take full responsibility if we were ticketed." They were.
Burckhart and her brother, drove to the courthouse to pay for the ticket.
"I told them that I was willing to pay, but that the law was unfair," she said. "When you see a sign that says 'Handicapped,' and you're in a wheelchair, you know it should apply to you."
That caught the attention of several state lawmakers. Two years later, the law was rewritten to issue handicapped parking stickers to individuals rather than to a specific vehicle.
According to Burckhart, “Governor Dukakis made a bit of a ceremony giving me the first parking sticker given to the person instead of the car,” she said shyly.
“Being in a wheelchair has been a joyous experience,” she stated. “I’ve had nothing in my life but blessings, cooperation and help.”
"I don't feel handicapped; I never have," she continued. "I've never walked -- no miracle ever happened -- but I've lived a great life."