BND Magazine

June 29, 2014

Photography, wildflowers and friends: That's how Gerry rolls

Gerry "Chief" Frierdich is back to doing what he likes most -- taking photos.

And he wants to share them with you. He has compiled his favorites in an 18-month calendar "The View From My Chair" that he's selling to pay for his new wheelchair. His old one lasted five years.

"The amount of abuse they take, they wear out," Gerry said, after rolling down a ramp into a side yard. "I found this one online. This chair goes up curbs and steps. It's a chair ATV."

Gerry, 51, was paralyzed from the chest down in a bicycle accident in August 2007. He had been working as a photographer at Crafty Eye Photography in Belleville for 20 years when the accident occurred.

He was riding a recumbent bike on the shoulder of South Greenmount Road in Belleville on his way to The Orchards Golf Club early on a Sunday morning. A truck veered off the road and slammed into Frierdich from behind.

He now lives on his own, with help from family and friends, and caretakers.

"If it wasn't for my brothers and sisters and friends, I don't know what I'd do," he said. "I've had the house since Mom and Dad died. It's paid for."

The lot adjoining his house makes passersby stop, smile and, if Gerry is outside, wave.

"Everybody knows me," he said, nodding to a young woman in overalls. "I'm the unofficial neighborhood watch."

With help from friends, a giant Calder-like mobile hangs from up high in an oak tree.

"I designed the mobile 10 years ago," Gerry said. "Last winter, it fell down. I had all winter to think of a way to put it up. You build from the bottom up. Balance the first layer and keep going up. I got the parts together and my friend Bud (Gore) assembled them."

Another friend helped put up the mobile with its colorful moon and sun flags. Plants hang from colored tubes. One has a solar-powered pump that allows it to self-water.

"When the sun shines on it, water squirts up, keeping the bottom of the plant wet," he said. "All the plants attract hummingbirds."

He wouldn't mind if more birds came around. Sixty-plus birdhouses atttached to trees are ready and waiting. Gerry painted them all.

"My first therapy using my arms and hands was trying to paint."

There's surround-sound in the backyard and patio lights come on at dusk.

"I tried to make it like a beer garden."

Not far from what the spot once was.

"It was the original corner tavern when Second Street was a dirt road."

Gerry is still learning to maneuver the new chair, but that hasn't stopped him from heading from his home on North Second Street to the bike trail that runs alongside the MetroLink track in Swansea.

"Meet you there in 10 minutes," he said, rolling down the street.

He looks for flowers to photograph. In early spring, he sows wildflower seed to increase his chances.

"I thought the trail was nice, but missing something," Gerry said. "I have been buying wildflower seeds when they go out of season. The following spring for the last three years, I go along and take handfuls of seeds, throw them up and let the air do its job along the bike trail. It's a sea of color in certain areas."

Near the Illinois 159 overpass, black-eyed susans and some kind of little pink flowers color the hillside.

"No one knew I was doing it," he said, edging his wheelchair up a steep gravel path. "At the height of the bloom, they cut them all down. This year, I'm trying to talk to people about waiting three or four weeks. All the flowers will have gone to seed. More will come up the next year."

Turning his chair around, he headed halfway down the hill and stopped.

"I took the best family portrait here last year. The family was sitting in wildflowers. It was one of my therapists and her family. It turned out really neat. We made a 24- by-30-inch print."

Three years ago, Gerry designed a bar to hold a camera. His friend Bud Gore, a machinist, built it, enabling Gerry to be a photographer again.

"I grew up with Bud," he said. "Making things is second nature. He built the contraption. He cuts my grass."

Gerry was in business.

"It was scary and frustrating at first," he said. "I couldn't pick it up and move with it. I had to sit there and point it until I got to where I remembered how things work. I've forgotten a lot of stuff.

"I went around to take photos of stuff I thought was pretty. I couldn't take pictures of people. It's too hard to hold still. After I started taking them, a guy who was my artist at Crafty Eye, Rich Schindler, organized them."

About then, Gerry realized he needed a new wheelchair. It was important to have a chair that would let him get outside and go places.

Price tag? About $48,000. Insurance covered $30,000.

"We've done fundraisers before," he said, "but I wanted to do a fundraiser more in line with my talent."

He narrowed the thousands of photos to 50. Friends helped him get to 18.


"One of just the bike trail is kind of neat. The bridge on the bike trail looks pretty nice, too. We have to sell 650 to pay for the chair. I'm at just over 100 now."

The 18-month calendars (July 2014 to December 2015) cost $35 each, or $30 if you order more than 12. Please include $5 for postage. Make your check payable to Gerard Frierdich Trust Fund and mail it to: Gerry Frierdich Benefit Calendar, c/o Bud and Sandy Gore, 2391 S. 11th Street Road, Belleville, IL 62226.

If you can't afford a calendar, sow some wildflowers along the bike path.

"It would be good if I could get more people to spread them," Gerry said. "In a few years, imagine what the trail would look like."

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