Remembering A 'Giant': 'Everything We Did, We Did Together'

Jan 16, 2015
Originally published on January 16, 2015 10:49 am

Colleen Kelly Starkloff was working at a nursing home when she met her future husband, Max Starkloff.

"Here comes this guy into my office," Colleen, 65, told her daughter Meaghan Starkloff Breitenstein, 34, at StoryCorps. "Drop-dead gorgeous."

Max was in a wheelchair. He was nearly killed in a car accident in his early 20s, leaving him quadriplegic. "He couldn't use his fingers or his hands, but he could get his left arm around me to hug me, and that was fine with me," Colleen said of their first encounter. "And I was smitten."

They had dated for two years when he proposed.

They knew they wanted children through adoption, "but getting you wasn't very easy," Colleen told her daughter. "I remember a social worker coming out to the house and telling us how we wouldn't be good parents. I was devastated."

"But Dad told her how wrong she was, turned to me and said, 'Sweetie, get her coat, she's leaving,' and kicked her out of the house."

That wouldn't be the last time they saw the social worker. The next time, Meaghan was 4 years old. She was riding on the footrest of her father's wheelchair when he spotted the social worker: "He rode you right up next to her car and said, 'I'm Max Starkloff, and I want to introduce you to my daughter, Meaghan.' ... And then he wheeled away and never gave her a chance to say one word."

Colleen added, "Everything we did, we did together. Going to your games, going to your swim meets. Your father was there. I knew when I met Dad that this was a man who I could stand with and love. He was a man among men. Your dad was a giant."

In 1970, Max Starkloff founded a privately funded independent living center called Paraquad, which is still providing services today. He became a leader in the disability rights movement, and died in 2010.

Produced for Morning Edition by Liyna Anwar.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Friday, when we hear from StoryCorps. And today we have a story remembering a man named Max Starkloff. In his early 20s, Max was in a near-fatal car accident, leaving him quadriplegic and living in a nursing home. One day, he came across a young woman who worked at that nursing home. Her name was Colleen. And at StoryCorps, Colleen sat down with her daughter, Meaghan, to remember Max.

COLLEEN KELLY STARKLOFF: Here comes this guy into my office - drop-dead gorgeous. I was done, Meaghan, right then and there. Max was 6-feet-5, set very tall in his wheelchair. He couldn't use his fingers or his hands. But he could get his left arm around me to hug me, and that was fine with me. And I was smitten.

MEAGHAN STARKLOFF BREITENSTEIN: How long did you guys date before he proposed?

STARKLOFF: We dated for two years. And when I told Grandma and Grandpa that Dad had asked me to marry him, Grandmother said to me, you marry a person because you love them, not to be their nurse. And I said, Mom, I love him. And I won't be his nurse. I'll be his partner. I'll be the mother of his children. That blew their socks off. I knew adoption was how we were going to get you guys. But getting you wasn't very easy. I remember a social worker coming out to the house and telling us how we wouldn't be good parents. I was devastated.

BREITENSTEIN: Right.

STARKLOFF: But Dad told her how wrong she was, turned me and said, Sweetie, get her coat, she's leaving, and kicked her out of the house. And so when you came along, you changed our world because you were his little buddy. And when you were 4 years old, you were riding on Dad's footrest in his wheelchair.

BREITENSTEIN: I used to love doing that.

STARKLOFF: Yeah, you had your feet between his feet on the foot pedals, and you had your arms resting on his knees riding down the street. And who's at the gas station at the corner but the social worker? And he rode you right up next to her car and said, I'm Max Starkloff, and I want to introduce you to my daughter, Meaghan. She's 4 years old. And then he wheeled away and never gave her a chance to say one word.

BREITENSTEIN: I just feel very blessed that somebody gave you guys a chance.

STARKLOFF: Everything we did, we did together - going to your games, going to your swim meets. Your father was there. I knew when I met Dad that this was a man who I could stand with and love. He was a man among men. Your dad was a giant.

INSKEEP: Colleen Kelly Starkloff remembering her late husband, Max, with her daughter, Meaghan Starkloff Breitenstein, in St. Louis. Max, by the way, became a leader in the disability rights movement and died in 2010. Colleen and Meaghan's conversation will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. You can get the StoryCorps podcast on iTunes and at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.