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Charlie Claggett on Max Starkloff

January 12, 2015

During assembly on Monday, January 12, former advertising executive and JBS past parent Charlie Claggett shared the story of Max Starkloff, who was disabled at the age of 21 and went on to be one of the nation's leading disability rights activists. Last fall, Claggett published a biography, "Max Starkloff and the Fight for Disability Rights," which Starkloff asked Claggett to write.

Starkloff was a tall, good looking former Marine who wanted to be a race car driver. One evening in 1959, he missed a curve and his Austin Healy flew off the road. Starkloff was pinned under the car and rendered a quadriplegic. "His brain was exactly the same but his body would no longer do what he wanted." The accident occurred when very little physical support existed for the disabled, and apparently most people suffering from similar injuries died.

Starkloff spent 200 days in the hospital after which his mother took care of him. After three years, she realized she could not manage and placed Starkloff in a nursing home — "basically a place where old men went to die." He was a prisoner of his institutionalization, eating and sleeping on the nurses' schedule, limited to virtually no activity. However, with the assistance of a Franciscan monk, Father Max, Starkloff began to see a way out. He learned to paint (brush in mouth) and hoped if he was good he would be able to leave the nursing home.

He also began to visualize a movement for the rights of the disabled. As the civil rights movement was unfolding on the national scene, Starkloff began to dream about building an apartment center where disabled people could live and work — where they could re-enter the community and live independently.

In 1973, Starkloff met a physical therapist at the nursing home, whom he married in 1975. They collaborated with architect Laurent Torno to build Paraquad / The Boulevard Apartments, an independent living center — a remarkable feat given Starkloff's lack of higher education or relevant experience. The new facility, which opened in 1979, had ramps, accessible doors and special kitchens.

Starkloff extended his campaign for accessibility throughout the city, lobbying for ramps on sidewalks, lifts on buses, disabled parking, etc. In 2003, he and his wife, Colleen, established the Starkloff Disability Institute to change "societal attitudes about people with disabilities, by crafting and disseminating a positive message about living with disability." One of the Institute's primary projects is The Next Big Step, working with major corporations to find employment for the disabled, 70 percent of whom can't get jobs. The barrier, Claggett said, is low expectations for the disabled.

Starkloff died from pneumonia in December 2010. He was a husband, father and grandfather. He had earned many honors for his work to advance the rights of the disabled, including the President’s Distinguished Service Award (President George H. W. Bush), the St. Louis Award, the Missourian Award (Missouri Hall of Fame), and the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

When asked what factors shaped Starkloff's perseverance and determination, Claggett said he was "an extraordinary human being ... who had an amazing mother who would not tolerate self pity and who treated her son as if he had a future ... who found meaning when he realized he could help others ... who had a great sense of humor ... and who was a reasonable and rational person who was often the last to speak after listening to everyone else."