Dwain Pruitt

Freddie Dwain Pruitt was born September 10, 1940, in Bruno, Arkansas, the son of Omer and Audrey Louise Brightwell Pruitt. He grew up with his mother and step-father, Vern Tilley, in Burley where he was known as Dwain. His early life was much the same as that of any other young person growing up in Burley in the 1940s and 1950s. After graduating from high school in 1958, he joined the army where he served for two years. His last assignment was as a medical corpsman in West Germany.

On December 3, 1960, just a few days after his military benefits and insurance had expired, his life totally changed.. He was in an automobile accident in which his neck was broken, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. He was in the Elks Rehabilitation Center in Boise from January through April of 1961 and then returned to his home in Burley where his mother cared for him.

Then, a couple of years later, his life changed again. Bill “Bowen” Thomas, a distant cousin of Dwain’s stepfather, arrived for a visit in Burley, where he had grown up. When Bill heard that his cousin’s son had been in an accident, he decided to visit him to see how he was getting along.

“Dwain was lying in bed in little room in their small home,” Bill later said. “But he had a remarkable spirit. He said, ‘All I ask is to be able to turn the pages of a book and dial a telephone and I’ll take care of myself.’”

As Bill listened to him, he knew he had to help him. “I had a fairly good business going and I was quite healthy,” he later wrote. “Before I left that room I was committed.”

Fortunately Bill knew where to go for help. Bill’s father had grown up with Dr. Russel Lee, known in California as the “maverick physician”. Bill turned to him for advice. Dr. Lee told Bill that the place for Dwain was the Rusk Institute in New York City, and made arrangements for Bill to speak with the director there. The Rusk Institute was the premier rehabilitation center in the world at that time. After reviewing Dwain’s medical records, the staff sent word that they thought the Institute could help him. There was only one problem. 

The cost for treatment would be about $10,000. The Institute would furnish $4,000, but Dwain would need $6,000 in order to be treated. In those days the average home cost $18,000, a new car about $2,000 and gas was 31 cents a gallon. Raising $6,000 was a huge task. But Bill was determined. A local fundraising effort was started under the direction of Cassia County Commissioner J. Weldon Beck. The Naomi group of the Presbyterian Church and the Women’s Farm and Home Club made quilts for an auction and raffle, donations were solicited, benefit dances and other fund-raising activities were held. Bill donated stock in his company to pay the final amount.

On January 19,1964, Dwain Pruitt flew to New York in a National Guard plane to begin therapy at the Rusk Institute. It was, as he later wrote, an experience that changed his entire life. “I met handicaps from other parts of the U.S. and all over the world,” he wrote. “Doctors, nurses, therapists, aids from all over the globe were there for training. It was truly a small United Nations. We were united in the fact that everyone had a physical handicap they were trying to overcome or work around, a princess from Saudi Arabia, an army captain from Columbia, a race driver from Mexico…

“I was put on a rigorous physical, occupational, and psychological program, on a 9 to 5 basis, five days a week…. These programs had me doing things I never knew handicaps could do–manipulating myself, items, or my mind, no matter how clumsily. There was a full time recreational director for our evening entertainment. He had us going from Grenich Village and beatniks to art galleries… I was invited by the Governor of Idaho to be a special guest at the World’s Fair on Idaho Day.”

But in spite of all the special training and Dwain’s hard work, he did not make the progress that he and the Rusk Institute staff had hoped for. When Dwain was told that there was nothing more they could do for him, “it seemed as if they had pulled the magic carpet from underneath me and my world collapsed,” he said. But a couple of days later they offered Dwain “an opportunity I couldn’t refuse”. He would to help them test and further develop equipment that they hoped would give quadraplegics an opportunity to do more things for themselves.

Dwain Pruitt's wheel chair with electric control box.

Dwain Pruitt’s wheel chair with electric control box.

Dwain returned to Burley for a few months, then was flown back to New York where he worked with the newly devised electronic equipment, including mechanical arms that were powered by an electric control box in the back of his electric wheelchair. He was able to use the mechanical arm to pick up and manipulate objects. He wrote a short note in pencil to his mother that she framed and hung on the wall. He moved and controlled the wheelchair by using pressing buttons with his arm. He used his mouth to write, type, paint, and dial a telephone.

Dwain Pruitt works with his mechanical arm.

Dwain Pruitt works with his mechanical arm.

“For the next year and a half my self image was rebuilt,” he wrote, “only this time it was a new image. I was no longer handicapped. I may have a physical impairment that keeps me from doing a few things, but as of yet my ultimate limits are unknown.” During his time at the Institute he attended and spoke at parties, dinners, and other special events that were held to raise funds for the Institute.

When he returned to Burley, he studied graphoanalysis, real estate, and worked at a radio station. He had many speaking engagements where he talked about the special equipment he was using. He helped other handicapped people become aware of what was available.

“Also I was prodding the Vocational Rehabilitation to finance a college education,” he wrote. In the fall of ‘69 they agreed that I should be allowed one semester on a trial basis. They stated they’d never sponsored anyone as physically handicapped as I was.” In the spring of 1970 Dwain began attending the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. He had a van that would accommodate his wheelchair. A young woman helped him with his transportation and other daily activities.

“I surprised not only them but myself,” he wrote. “That encouraged me to push for much more. At one time I carried 17 credits and wrote a political column for the College of Southern Idaho paper.” Dwain completed the junior college course in two years. He attended Boise State for a short time. Then, with a full tuition scholarship and help from his friend Bill Thomas, he attended Baylor University in Texas where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

He returned to Twin Falls where he worked as an administrator at the South Central Community Action Agency. His duties were aimed at helping disadvantaged homeowners insulate their homes. He directed purchasing, supervised crews of up to 36 people in four separate shops, and managed all grant applications and reports. “He won both our personal admiration and our respect for his ability to get the job done,” said Community Action Director Kay Viste. “We didn’t need to make any special concessions to him because he was handicapped. He made the best use of what he had and what he had was a good head on his shoulders.” In 1976 he was named the Idaho Handicapped Employee of the year.

“I feel that I have been living two lives,” Dwain stated in the last letter he sent to his friend Bill “Bowen” Thomas, “the first as a normal type life for 20 years, then a dramatic change–a second life that offered unknown monumental challenges…. It has been an exciting adventure the second time around with an appreciation of life that is almost unexplainable.”

“I feel very humble about the past years of my life,” he wrote in an earlier letter. “And every day I thank God for the great blessings he has bestowed upon me and also for creating beautiful loving people like Bowen and Wave Thomas, who started it all.”

Freddie Dwain Pruitt died of cancer December 22, 1979.

(Note: This Legacy Page was sponsored by William B. Thomas.)