Allegheny Township man reaches new heights as inspiring wheelchair athlete
Jerry Baylor has spent decades inspiring others.
Sometimes, it’s when he gives them a small stone he has meticulously hand-painted.
Or when he helps someone modify a fly fishing pole to use after a spinal cord injury.
But often, it’s when the 73-year-old Allegheny Township man is using his own wheelchair to win medals.
“That’s my primary goal — getting people out doing things who don’t think they have anything to do,” he said.
It’s been that way since 1980 when Baylor — known by the nickname “Bull” — was in a motorcycle crash that left him paralyzed. Before that, he was into football and competitive weight lifting and served in the U.S. Marines for four years, including a tour of duty in Vietnam in the 1960s.
After the crash, Baylor was re-introduced to sports as a quadriplegic patient at a Harmarville rehabilitation facility. Debbi Hutchins, a former recreational therapist there, remembered that he took to shotput. At that time, not many quadriplegics participated in sports and he had to continuously modify an old-style wheelchair for competition.
“It became his therapy because he tried to see how far he could throw it,” Hutchins recalled. “What he does with his disability is just amazing.”
He went to the first National Veterans Wheelchair Games and has since won hundreds of medals in track and field events all around the country, including 11 this year at the 38th annual competition in Florida. But with that success comes dogged determination.
“I compete against younger guys all the time,” Baylor said, smiling.
Now he spends most days training in specialized wheelchairs. He works out at a local YMCA and visits the Roaring Run Trail near Apollo with his racing wheelchair. Baylor is set up with kettlebells at home and practices shotput, javelin and discus in the yard.
He pushes himself through the halls of the Veterans Administration facility in Aspinwall twice weekly before volunteering there. Physical therapist Chad Evans directs patients interested in wheelchair sports to Baylor who serves as sports director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Keystone Chapter, which covers all of Pennsylvania.
“When they find out that they can participate in all these adaptive sports, it basically changes their life,” Evans said. “It makes them more physically fit, in better shape and more healthy in the mind.”
Baylor is a good example to those veterans he reaches as a volunteer. He has been a “stabilizing force” for the Keystone Chapter thanks to his longevity with the organization, Executive Director Joe Dornbrock said.
“It frequently takes another veteran’s encouragement to do it,” he said.
Baylor plays quad rugby and pulls huge catfish out of the Allegheny River off of his boat, the “Cat Man Do.”
When he has free time, all those pebbles and stones he picks up while fishing get put to good use. Baylor spends hours painting intricate designs on them, from flowers to rabbits to houses. He wedges a paintbrush between two fingers and can finish 10 pebble-sized ladybugs in a couple hours.
But the larger rocks, like the ones with a vine full of flowers on top of a black background, take at least four hours each. He likes to hand them out to people who he comes in contact with throughout his days.
“I’ve probably given a pickup truck load away,” he said.
Some of those recipients include past students of a recreational therapy for people with disabilities class at Slippery Rock University that used to be led by Hutchins. His perspective and abilities left students awestruck, she said.
“When you talk about spinal cord injuries in class … it’s hard to envision what that means in terms of what people can do,” she said. “It really helps them to understand what the possibilities are versus what the disability is.”
“He’s my idol, I have no idea how he keeps up,” she said.
For Baylor, it’s not hard. He is dedicated to instilling hope in those who are facing a tough road, just like he was more than 30 years ago.
“It makes me feel good because I know what it was like when I started,” Baylor said. “There’s was plenty of reason to get disappointed. Over the years, I’ve taught people that they can do it.”
“This gives me more reason to get up and go to keep on going.”
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, email@example.com or via Twitter @byrenatta.