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Rogers Severson dies at 72; creator of spinal cord injury fund

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Paralyzed by a spinal cord injury in 1986, real estate developer Rogers Severson sought out a leading rehabilitation facility after doctors told the former college athlete he'd never walk again.

Six months later, he walked out of Casa Colina Center for Rehabilitation in Pomona with the aid of a cane and the realization that he possessed what most patients there did not: excellent insurance and the personal means to pay for top-flight care. He vowed to help change that.

Almost a year to the day after he was thrown from a mule, breaking two vertebrae, Severson stood before those gathered at a fundraising luncheon to benefit the charity he'd founded, the Spinal Cord Injury Special Fund. More than $200,000 was initially raised, including $50,000 from Severson's own pocket.

Over the next 25 years, the organization helped more than a thousand people with spinal cord injuries extend their therapy or pay for equipment aimed at helping them gain greater independence, according to the fund.

Severson died Monday at his Newport Beach home of complications related to cancer, said his daughter, Laura Russell. He was 72.

Before the accident, his life "couldn't have been going better," Severson told The Times in 1987.

Born Nov. 1, 1939, in Pensacola, Fla., to a career Marine Corps aviator and his wife, Severson led the University of Redlands tennis team to championships and majored in business and finance, according to the 2007 book "You've Gotta Fight Back!" He earned his bachelor's degree in 1962.

By 1969, he was developing industrial business parks for Dunn Properties and was named chairman of its board in 1974. Four years later, he co-founded Saddleback Associates in Orange County and continued building business parks in the west.

With his business and family flourishing, Severson later said, "I remember thinking that things were so good I needed some additional challenges in my life somewhere."

Everything changed in November 1986 during the annual Portola Ride, an exclusive horseback-riding event for businessmen in Orange County. He often rode a mule, partly because he enjoyed its plodding gait. When the mule threw him, Severson landed on his head and neck.

He was paralyzed from the midchest down and "devastated" when hospital doctors told him he would spend his life in a wheelchair. Hope returned 30 days later when he transferred to the rehab center and was soon able to wiggle his big toe. His new doctor proclaimed, "You have a chance to walk."

Required to share a room with four others, Severson later joked about it: "My first roommates were a black man, a dwarf, a 300-pound man and an 80-year-old man. Talk about variety.... Each guy sort of takes care of each other."

In therapy, Severson was paired with a young man with a similar spinal cord injury, and they engaged in friendly competition. When the man's insurance ran out, he was sent to a care facility that the state paid for, a move that spelled the end of meaningful therapy, Severson once recalled.

With his therapy partner in mind, Severson started the Spinal Cord Injury Special Fund and eventually amassed a $1-million endowment. The fund will continue, managed in part by his younger son, Mark.

As a member of the board of directors of Goodwill of Orange County, Severson helped raise funds to establish its Assistive Technology Exchange Center, which uses technology such as voice-activated computers to help the disabled, and the Goodwill Fitness Center, which provides exercise opportunities for those with disabilities.

"He just was a great man, very giving," said Nancy A. Quarles, coordinator of the fund he founded. "He was one of the kindest people, a true humanitarian."

Severson is survived by his wife of 42 years, Barbara; daughters Laura Russell and Cathleen Parker; sons Mike and Mark; a sister, Jane Severson; and seven grandchildren.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 600 Saint Andrews Road, Newport Beach.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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