Highland Mayor Joe Michaelis has come a long way in his recovery after breaking his neck during a fall nine months ago.
Michaelis fell down his basement steps on Jan. 25, breaking his neck and suffering two transverse process fractures in the thoracic part of his back. Initially, he had little feeling in his legs. Even after surgery, doctors were not sure if he would ever walk again.
“But I had no intention of ever spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair,” he said.
The community rallied the man who has served as their mayor since 2005.
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“The Highland community has been the inspiration, and the role model. I would not be here where I am at today without them,” Michaelis said.
In addition to many prayers and words of encouragement, they also raised $12,500 to help Michaelis purchase a wheelchair-accessible van.
But the van, thankfully, was a gift he would never really need.
“I kept the van for about a month,” Michaelis said. “But it remained parked, and I have really no need for it.”
Michaelis, 64, has approached his rehabilitative therapy with dogged determination. With the aid of a cane, occasionally a walker, he is walking again, meaning the need for the van has come to an end.
“The van was designated for a specific purpose, and that purpose has exhausted itself,” Michaelis said.
So, he sold it. But since the van was purchased, in large part, with donations, Michaelis said he could not keep that money.
After discussing the situation with those who had played major roles in fundraising for the van, Michaelis contacted Highland Area Community Foundation (HACF) to put the money toward causes near and dear to him — education and helping people in medical situations like the one he has faced.
Last week, the Joe Michaelis Rehabilitative Therapy Scholarship was established as a pass-through fund with HACF.
“I felt this was the best way to go,” he said.
Starting next spring, HACF will provide a $1,000 scholarship to a graduating Highland High School student who will pursue an education in physical therapy, occupational, speech therapy or sports medicine. The scholarship will be awarded for at least the next 12 years.
“This is our 28th scholarship, and we are absolutely happy to work with Joe in setting this up,” said Terry Riffel, HACF executive director.
Michaelis hopes the scholarship will inspire students, and at the same time, help them to realize the importance of therapy.
“I hope it also encourages them to make a life career of helping people, not just for the income,” he said.
Michaelis still goes to physical therapy three times a week. The other four days, he swims at Korte Recreation Center in Highland, where he does one hour of “self-taught aerobics.”
Michaelis, who was a police officer for almost three decades and also coached high school football and wrestling, believes his leg strength has grown “tremendously” in recent months.
“I’ve tried to improve myself to the point that someday I won’t need a walker or cane,” he said.
Michaelis said he has been inspired in his recovery through cards, telephone calls and emails he received from the community.
“They kept me going… With the help of the good Lord, and through hard work, I’ve been able to come this far,” he said.
But he’s by no means done. He continues to push himself hard.
“My former athletes would expect that out of me,” he said. “I know I expected that out of them when I coached them.”
About the Joe Michaelis Rehabilitative Therapy Scholarship
How much is it? $1,000
Who is eligible? High High School graduates pursuing a career in physical therapy, occupational, speech therapy or sports medicine.
When will it be awarded? At least 12 scholarships will be given, one per year, with the first being awarded in the spring of 2016.
How is it being funded? $12,500 that was raised to purchase a handicap van for Michaelis, which he no longer needs, was used to establish a fund with the Highland Area Community Foundation.