Harold Russell, Where Are You When We Need You?


by Ken Smith


October is Disability Employment Awareness Month.

This year’s (2011) campaign theme announced by the Office for Disability and Employment Policy (ODEP) is titled “Profit by Investing in Workers with Disabilities,” which promotes the valuable contributions people with disabilities make to America’s workplaces and economy.

Held each October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is a national campaign that raises awareness about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities.

I have been a veteran’s advocate for better than half my life. I have met with Presidents, Senators, Congressmen and have given keynote speeches at both Republican and Democratic National conventions on the subject of Veterans with Disabilities.

In 1994 I was introduced to Harold Russell by another veterans advocate, Bill Pitman. Harold, the old war horse lived on Cape Cod and was in the twilight of his career. In his lifetime as a Veterans Advocate he had conversations with Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush one and Clinton by the time I had met him.

It was an instant friendship, him and I, and I knew immediately that this man was an American Icon. I am perplexed even to this day at the harsh treatment he received by the Presidents committee on People with Disabilities at the end of his tenure and often wonder, why, as a nation, we never honored this man with the Medal of Freedom.

Harold was way ahead of his time. He knew sixty years ago that people with disabilities had much to offer and he was one of a few that spearheaded the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. If you look carefully, you will see his DNA stamped all over that legislation.

In 1999 Harold was the Best man at my wedding. It is a day that will be celebrated every year on my anniversary when I look at the photos and videos remembering the day. I smile when I recollect what happened at the church.

Imagine a small New England chapel, one that is traditional and seats maybe only one hundred attendee’s tops. Also imagine that it is smack in the middle of the summer (July 31st) and on this particular day, imagine it is plus ninety five degrees.

Just before the ceremony, while cloistered in a small broom closet waiting for the bride, this conversation took place.

“Are you nervous?” said Harold

Yes, very nervous, I said, as I am not sure that I have made the right decision. What if she doesn’t stay the same? What if she changes in a month? What if this, what if that. All of the “What Ifs” came pouring out of my mouth at light speed.

With the grace of a true gentleman, using his hooks as fingers, he opened his suit coat, gently reaching into the upper pocket on the left side of his jacket and pulled out a set of keys.

“Here, take these” he said.

“Why? “ I said, what am I going to do with the keys?

You have time, you can go out that window (he pointed at the window) and right outside is my car.

You can take my car, drive to Cape Cod (about a two hour drive), and use this key (he showed me one of several keys on the keychain), and go into my house, walk into my bedroom and take out the top draw of my bureau. Taped to the bottom of the draw is $2500 in cash. Take that money and book a flight to Sarasota, and when there, you can hide out at my house.

“And what are you going to do? “I asked.

Just then the traditional wedding march song started to play.

“I’m going to go out there and marry the most beautiful, gorgeous, smart, ass kicking dame I have seen in over sixty years.

“You bastard” I said, as he opened the door and we both made our way to the alter.

Harold was a true friend, and I miss our walks on the beach’s of Cape Cod.

Harold died in 2002 and I was left, in his will, all of his papers, notes, manuscripts and as I remember it, it must have been 25 large boxes, jammed with papers, photos and stuff.

I met with the librarian at Boston University, his Alma Mater, and now, at the Mugar Library, there is the Harold Russell collection.

The Harold Russell collection consists of professional material, legal material, manuscripts, video recordings, correspondence, audio recordings, photographs, memorabilia, and other items.

Professional material in the collection primarily consists of files of various documents (including correspondence, speeches, press releases, meeting agendas, minutes, reports, briefings, reports, minutes, worker claim cases and programs) regarding organizations with which Russell was affiliated. These include The President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped (1983-1999); the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (1952-1995); The Harold Russell Motivational Institute; Harold Russell Associates (1980-1992); New England Villages, Inc.; The Chinese Disability Committee; the Christina Foundation; and others. Other items include material on commissioned work regarding disability; background material for presentations (1981-1998); memoranda, agendas and reports (1984-1985); and speeches and remarks by Russell (1965-1973).

Legal material in the collection includes agreements between Russell and various entities..

Manuscripts in the collection include drafts of several speeches and public talks by Russell (1966-1988); drafts of a book titled A Strange and Deadly Love, written by Russell and Ted Schwarz; a teleplay from an episode of the television series China Beach; short pieces by various authors; and other items.

Video cassette recordings in the collection consist of clips from television programs where Russell made an appearance; copies of films and television programs in which Russell appeared, including The Best Years of Our Lives, Inside Moves, China Beach. Correspondence in the collection includes numerous personal and professional letters, dating from 1940 to 2002. Notable correspondents include Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Thomas P. O’Neill, Edward W. Brooke, and John McCormack.

Audio recordings consist of long-playing records and tape cassettes. The content includes recordings of appearances by Russell on various radio programs, including a 1947 appearance on The Bob Hope Pepsodent Show.

Photographs in the collection are extensive, consisting of negatives and prints in color and black and white. There are many images of Russell acting in films, giving speeches, receiving awards, and at various ceremonies.

Memorabilia in the collection primarily consists of awards given to Russell for his work advocating for the disabled. Present are awards from the American Legion, the Committee on Handicapped Employees, the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, the AFL-CIO, and various other organizations and municipalities. Also present is a certificate making Russell the Chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, dated 1977, signed by Jimmy Carter.

Today, we are missing someone to fill the role of Harold Russell.

Author Details
For more than twenty-five years Ken Smith has been a leading advocate for veterans. A combat Vietnam veteran, Ken served during 1971-72 as a paramedic and an infantry squad leader with Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division. After his discharge, Ken continued his work as a paramedic in New England. On the streets of Boston he encountered growing numbers of homeless Vietnam veterans, and he became determined to both assist them and draw attention to their plight. In 1989, Ken founded the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, located in a former VA hospital at 17 Court Street in downtown Boston. One of the first facilities designed for homeless veterans and now a national model, the shelter has served over 35,000 of America’s veterans who, for whatever reason, find themselves living on the streets. In 1992 Ken was awarded Point of Light #142 by President George H. W. Bush, and later that same year received the AMVETS Silver Helmet Award, considered the “Oscar” for American veterans. As one of America’s foremost veterans service organizations, AMVETS (or American Veterans) has a proud history of assisting veterans and sponsoring numerous programs that serve our country and its citizens. Ken was awarded this honor along with Peter Coors, with whom he still maintains a personal friendship. Over the years Ken has appeared on many national media programs including Good Morning America, Prime Time Live, ABC News, CBS News, Larry King Live, CNN, 60 Minutes, and The Geraldo Show. He has been quoted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, and numerous international newspapers, magazines, and websites. In 1992, Ken had the distinction of addressing both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as a keynote speaker on the subject of veterans. Ken recently left his last assignment with the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation, where he was the chief technology architect of the Veteran’s Vocational Technical Institute, Purple Heart Car Donation program, Purple Heart Call Center, Purple Heart Radio, Purple Heart Tech Support, Purple Heart Services, and over thirty new Purple Heart websites. Ken Smith provided the vision and has overseen the implementation of innovative, virtual, work-at-home training programs for veterans with combat disabilities. Ken has designed, upgraded, and supervised the integration and installation of Purple Heart Service Foundations computer and telephony systems, upgrading features from legacy POTS phones to SIP-trunked communications systems including establishing new VPN networks for teams of remote virtual employees. An adventure sports enthusiast, Ken enjoys extreme skiing, competitive sailing, flying, and travel. He has traveled extensively worldwide, delivering his positive message to the veterans of other countries that a paraplegic veteran of the United States suffers the same as a paraplegic veteran of India; that an amputee veteran of Nepal suffers as much as an amputee veteran of France. Ken’s mentor was Harold Russell, the two-time Academy Award winner who starred in the 1946 film Best Years of Our Lives. A World War II veteran, on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, Harold lost both of his hands. This ghastly misfortune did not stop him, and he went on to become the chairman of the President’s Committee for People with Disabilities. For over fifty years he served US presidents from Truman to Clinton. Ken was humbled and grateful when Harold agreed to serve as the best man at Ken’s wedding. Ken has been instrumental in the planning stages for the Veterans Workshop, a new nationwide veterans’ advocacy group building a new “Veterans Hotline, and the development of special programs for those who have lost their sight or their hearing, or who have suffered spinal cord injury, as a result of their military experience. The Veterans Workshop provides a forum where new technology and advancements in the fields of prosthetic and orthotic solutions, many designed by Ken, are shared along with virtual training and employment programs. A 1970 graduate of De La Salle Academy in Newport, Rhode Island, for the past twenty-five years Ken has continued his education with extensive college courses in computer technology and related social service fields. He resides in his native state of Rhode Island with his wife and children.
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