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Memories – and a Forever Smile

By Mike Piekarski

Pat FigueroaThere are few people you meet in life who make you smile just thinking of them. Pat Figueroa was one of those people.

Before I worked with him on Independence Today, I knew Pat in what seemed like another lifetime ago. Some years after I moved up to the Albany, N.Y. area from Westchester County, I was happy to learn that there was a wheelchair basketball team in these parts. Unlike the team I played on downstate, this group was friendly and open to newcomers, and no one was friendlier or more accommodating than Pat. Though, as a quadriplegic, Pat had a difficult time dealing with the pace and the rigors of the game, I was amazed at how well he played. And as his playing time decreased due to age and physical problems, he never lost his enthusiasm for the game, an his wide smile never dimmed.

I lost touch with him for a while, but when we ran into each other years later, he mentioned his plan for a disability-issueoriented newspaper that would be disseminated around the country. He asked if I would come on board, and I accepted. As the years passed, the newspaper won more and more converts, and Pat would proudly tell me how people looked forward to each edition, not only in the United States, but in many foreign countries.

Not only was Pat -- who appeared to have an unlimited number of connections -- able to enlist writers from all over the country, but he seemed to have his finger on the pulse of every timely story related to disability issues. At times, he would tell me how he had instructed a writer to "handle" a certain topic. Other times, he would help me understand what a particular writer was trying to say, or was supposed to say.

Whenever I would talk to Pat on the phone, he almost always would ask: "How are you feeling? Are you doing OK?" He had a genuine concern for people, as I'm sure anyone who knew him could attest. Those phone conversations had a familiar pattern. If I had a copyediting question for Pat, he would start to answer it before suddenly getting sidetracked. Pat was always getting sidetracked – mostly about politics and what irked him about those in power, or what should have been done and was not. Pat was a self-proclaimed political junkie; he seemed to know everything about what the politicians were tackling or avoiding; what their real motivations were; what their actions would lead to; and what effect they would have not only on those in the disability community but everyone.

Once Pat got going on a topic dear to his heart, he was like a runaway locomotive – you couldn't stop him. And so many times, my innocent question would turn into a 45-minute dissertation – occasionally interrupted by a comment from me -- about the state of the union, about injustice somewhere in the world, or about the politicians he thought had no concern for anyone except themselves. And afterward, he would apologize for having taken up so much of my time. "I'm sorry," he'd invariably say. "I get carried away sometimes." Pat was nothing if not passionate.

Like so many of his friends and family, I will miss Pat's passion. I will miss his warmth, his deep concern for people who needed assistance or support, and his abiding wish to bring justice and accessibility to all.

Though a realist, Pat never lost his optimism, his belief that things would get better. And by founding and guiding Independence Today, he made it his mission to expose injustice and unfairness in society.

Pat could get worked up when he felt the need to express his opinion, which was often. Pat needed to talk because he loved people, he loved being around them, and he loved helping them. Pat knew a lot of people, and he helped a lot of people. I was lucky enough to know him. And, like so many who knew him, the memory of that makes me smile

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