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Harold H. Wilke, 88; Armless Minister and Advocate for Disabled

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Harold H. Wilke, an armless United Church of Christ minister whose early advocacy for people with disabilities helped set the stage for a movement that ultimately won basic protections for them in areas ranging from employment to transportation, has died. He was 88.

A resident of Claremont, Wilke died of heart failure Tuesday at Pomona Valley Hospital after a period of declining health.

Wilke was an author, a social activist arrested in civil rights marches in the 1960s, and one of the first Americans with a severe disability to serve as a parish minister, according to the 1997 book “Disability Rights Movement” by Fred Pelka.

His work in disabled rights focused in recent years on making churches, temples and mosques accessible to the handicapped.

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“He was recognized by disabled people across the country as a leader and innovator -- one of the first of the people to believe in disability rights as a movement,” said Hugh Gallagher, a Capitol Hill staff member in the 1960s who drafted the first legislation on architectural access for the handicapped.

“We’d all been disabled for years, but in a medical context: We were sick people who never got well. The disability rights model,” Gallagher said, “is that we are oppressed people who were denied our civil rights. Harold was instrumental in developing this concept, which is the key to the whole disability rights movement.”

Wilke’s role was recognized with his participation in the White House ceremony for the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibited discrimination against the disabled in employment, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications.

He delivered the invocation, believed to be the first for a bill signing, in which he spoke of “the breaking of the chains which have held back millions of Americans with disabilities.”

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Later, as President George H.W. Bush handed out the ceremonial pens, Wilke deftly removed a loafer and stuck out his foot to receive one, which he slipped into his shoe. Later, while seated next to First Lady Barbara Bush, he deposited it in his pocket with his toes. He was greeted with a roar of approval from the assembled guests.

Wilke, who was born without arms on a farm in Washington, Mo., found ways to deal with discrimination from an early age. He was barred from his local elementary school and walked several miles each day to another school.

In college, he encountered similar treatment from administrators who thought that a man who ate with a fork between his toes did not belong where others could see him. Wilke ate in the kitchen of the campus dining room until so many of his friends insisted on joining him there that the administrators finally relented and let him sit in the main room.

A student of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, he was educated at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis and Union Theological Seminary in New York. He earned a master’s degree in sacred theology from Harvard University and a doctorate at the University of Chicago.

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Although the hierarchy of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (predecessor of United Church of Christ) discouraged him from seeking ordination, he was ordained in 1939, but only after demonstrating that he could conduct the rites of the church as well as a person without disabilities.

He worked as a college and hospital chaplain before receiving an assignment to a parish in Crystal Lake, Ill., where he served for several years. He later was head of chaplain services for the United Church of Christ.

During the early years of his ministry, Wilke ordained the first woman in his denomination, according to Pelka’s book. Decades later, for the first Vatican conference on disability in 1991, Wilke dispensed with his prepared remarks to urge Pope John Paul II and the cardinals that it was time to admit women to the priesthood.

“There was great applause from all the women in the audience,” said Alan A. Reich, president of the Washington-based National Organization on Disability, who knew Wilke for 30 years.

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During World War II, Wilke was civilian chief of Protestant chaplain services, a role he would repeat in an advisory capacity during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

After World War II, he began to counsel disabled veterans and their families, and eventually wrote four books on coping with disabilities in daily life.

“He often asked [the veterans] to find their ‘third eye,’ to find a new way to look at something -- how to get their socks on or get around day to day,” said his son John.

He also counseled by example, undaunted by the challenges posed by his own physical limitations.

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In the late 1950s, for example, he taught himself to drive with his left foot on the steering wheel. “He drove the whole family across the country in 1968 that way,” John Wilke said.

“He obviously couldn’t shake hands with people,” Reich said, “but he would put his head against another person’s head -- embrace without hugging.”

In 1975, Wilke founded the Healing Community Project to help places of worship alter their attitudes and architecture to better include the disabled. He also was a founding director of the National Organization on Disability and was instrumental in establishing its Religion and Disability Program.

Program director Ginny Thornburgh said that, as a keynote speaker at conferences across the country, Wilke stressed that “all congregations, all seminaries, have an obligation to welcome people with disabilities and see them as bringing gifts.”

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Wilke often gave theological seminars in which he cited Scripture in arguing for the full inclusion of the disabled in religious life. But, Thornburgh said, he also was full of quite practical advice.

Congregations often balk at the expense of making the architectural changes necessary to ensure access. If the problem was the church restroom, for example, Wilke would recommend removing the main barriers -- the door and the lavatory stalls -- and replacing them with inexpensive hospital curtains.

“Then,” Thornburgh recalled, “he would get a twinkle in his eyes and say, ‘Then the people of the congregation will be ashamed and they will raise the money to outfit a proper restroom’ ” -- one that complied with federal and local regulations on providing access to the disabled. “He was a smart, smart man,” she said.

Wilke retired in 1989. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Margaret, five sons and eight grandchildren.

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A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. April 26 at Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 Harrison Ave., Claremont. The family requests that any donations be sent to the Harold Wilke Fund, c/o United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Ave. East, Cleveland, OH 44115.


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