Written by Wendy E. Solomon & Ann Wlazelek
Carl F. Odhner, one of the leading advocates for people with disabilities in the Lehigh Valley and state, died Saturday from congestive heart failure, his wife, Rowena T. Odhner, said. He was 69.
Odhner's health had been declining in recent months. He had a leg amputated earlier this year because of diabetic complications.
Odhner's name had become synonymous with dignity for the disabled.
''He was really an icon in the disability movement, not only in the Lehigh Valley but across Pennsylvania and elsewhere,'' said John Stoffa, director of human services for Lehigh County. ''To people with severe disabilities, if you mention Carl Odhner, it's like mentioning Babe Ruth to baseball fans,'' Stoffa said.
Odhner worked hard to change policies and entrenched attitudes about the disabled. Much of his career was spent at Good Shepherd, the Allentown rehabilitation hospital, nursing home and vocational workshop, which he entered as a patient when he was 14. In 1990, he was named the first executive director of the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living.
He lived his life by example, many said.
Odhner lost the use of his legs and arms from polio he contracted as an infant, but grew to become a tireless leader for the rights of the disabled, well before such ideologies coalesced into an empowerment movement.
In 1973, he put the Allentown mayor and City Council members in wheelchairs and had them roll themselves down Hamilton Street so they would understand the barriers disabled people faced daily in the city.
It was typically Odhner. The event, dubbed ''the roll on the mall'' was decades before the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act made curbside cuts mandatory.
''I remember it was incredible,'' Stoffa recalled. ''It was a way to increase sensitivity to how difficult it was to cross the street.
''He was an incredible man. He told me once that if it hadn't been for his disability, he never would have turned out the way he did. I always found that amazing,'' Stoffa said.
Odhner's death came less than a week before he was to be honored by several hundred people at a dinner at the Holiday Inn in Bethlehem for his numerous contributions and commitment to people with disabilities. The event was also to announce the establishment of an educational scholarship in his name and to launch a center for disability research at Muhlenberg College.
Tom Harp, administrator of the state's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in Allentown, said he last saw Odhner for lunch last Monday. The two ate sandwiches and talked, Harp writing down his part of the conversation to Odhner, who had recently gone deaf from medical complications.
''I'm just shocked,'' Harp said. ''I really thought he had turned the corner. ... I said, 'Carl, when are you going to retire and take it easy?' He said, 'I still have much to do.'''
Odhner made it clear during their last meeting about how important establishing the disabilities research center was to him, Harp said.
''He said his greatest ambition was that there be a center for disabilities research,'' with an emphasis on technology, he said.
''He said he thought his greatest accomplishment was that people with severe disabilities were getting services and working in the community.''
Dr. Conrad Raker, son of Good Shepherd's founder and administrator emeritus, considered Odhner like a son.
''Carl and I were very, very close,'' he said. ''He came to Good Shepherd when he was 14 years old. When I would introduce him, I would kid that I raised him from a pup but didn't know he would become a Great Dane.''
According to Raker, Odhner was the greatest advocate for people with disabilities living independently and getting jobs -- statewide.
''He was in the White House when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed,'' Raker said. ''He was my hero.''
Raker said he could tell at an early age that Odhner, nicknamed Fritz, would make a difference in people's lives. Odhner graduated from Allen High School without ever entering the building, by taking classes from the school's teachers, Raker said.
At the graduation ceremony at Allentown's West Park, Raker said, ''I think I was the proudest parent there.''
Raker said Odhner wrote grants that helped Good Shepherd build its rehabilitation hospital, first in a wing of the nursing home, then in a new building. He also used to fill the halls with his beautiful singing voice, Raker added.
''I can't speak too highly of my admiration for Fritz,'' Raker said. ''It's almost worship. ... I'm going to miss him.''
Rowena Odhner described her husband as ''a very caring man, a very thoughtful man who loved what he did and believed in and fought for the handicapped with all he had in him.''
He is survived by his wife; sons, Guy Alan of Bethlehem and Roy Talmadge of San Angelo, Texas; brothers, Jerry of Citrus Heights, Calif., Phillip of Scranton; sister, Olivia, wife of Alfred Tolson of Fallsdale; and several grandchildren.
Memorial services will be at the convenience of the family. There are no calling hours. Arrangements will be by the Trexler Funeral Home, Allentown.
Contributions can be made to the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living or Good Shepherd Home, both in Allentown.