A snow-sledding accident left James A. “Jim” Rothrock paralyzed when he was still a teen, but he went on to a long career in state government helping others with disabilities, not just through policy but with his relentless good cheer.
His work, though, was merely an extension of his life.
“Jim was a constant fount of unrestrained enthusiasm and boundless optimism,” said his longtime friend Bernie Henderson. “Either he never realized he had some physical restrictions or he just didn’t care. Anytime I was discouraged, angry, frustrated or depressed, I called to get a dose of Jim Rothrock, and that never failed.
“Jim will always be the most infectiously positive person one could ever know.”
Mr. Rothrock died Wednesday after a recent cancer diagnosis. He resided in Henrico and was 72.
Mr. Rothrock retired in 2018 as commissioner of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, a position he had held since 2002 (when it was the Department of Rehabilitative Services). In all, he worked in state government for more than 30 years and for five governors, including Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-VA, who appointed him in 2002 and considered Mr. Rothrock “a good friend who always brought a positive attitude to everything he did.”
“As a longtime public servant, Jim used his platform to advocate for the rights of those living with a disability,” Warner said in a statement. “He used his personal experience with disability to successfully push the Virginia legislature to sign a historic disability civil rights bill into law. Jim’s effort here in Virginia ultimately served as the basis for the American Disability Act, a transformative piece of legislation that has provided equal access to Americans living with a disability for more than 30 years.”
Kathy Hayfield, who succeeded Mr. Rothrock as commissioner of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, said “words cannot express how deeply Jim will be missed by so many people across the commonwealth and beyond.
“Jim was a part of our DRS and DARS family from his teenage years at WWRC to 16 years as commissioner,” she said in a statement. “He was a passionate advocate and visionary.”
In July 2020 op-ed in The Times-Dispatch, on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Virginians with Disabilities Act and the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Hayfield wrote that she met Mr. Rothrock in the 1980s as he was traveling around the state advocating for the VDA.
“He has worked beside me in vocational rehabilitation for many years,” Hayfield wrote. “Mr. Rothrock was among a statewide coalition of disability rights advocates, represented by organizations such as Centers for Independent Living and Handicaps Unlimited of Virginia, who demonstrated this was not just an academic idea — this was a real-life problem. In 1981, they pressed gubernatorial candidates Marshall Coleman and Chuck Robb on their stances. Robb presented a plan, which later became the Virginians with Disabilities Act.”
In his own op-ed in July 2015, Mr. Rothrock wrote, “The biggest intersection I had with history occurred 25 years ago on a hot, sticky day — July 26, 1990. This was the day our 41st president, George H.W. Bush, signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I had the good luck to be there.”
He wrote about the barriers — “architectural and attitudinal” — he experienced after he required a wheelchair to get around after his paralysis.
“Being carried up steps in high school, not being able to join my friends in social activities, having the number of colleges to which I could apply significantly limited ... that was my reality. After school, my career options were restricted to the small number of buildings I could enter.
“The reality of limited choices and limited access was about to end that summer day in 1990, with the signing by President Bush of what would become for so many a life-altering document.”
Mr. Rothrock was 16 years old when his life changed forever on a cold January day in 1965. He was sledding down a hill in his hometown of Martinsville, two blocks from his home, when he plowed into a car he had not seen as it backed out of a driveway. His left shoulder hit first and the impact severed his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
He spent 85 days in a hospital before being carried by ambulance to the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center near Staunton, where for five months he was treated for his physical injuries and underwent an attitude adjustment, as he described in a 2011 interview with The Times-Dispatch.
One day he was lying in a hospital bed, contemplating a future that couldn’t have seemed more hopeless. Into his room burst another patient, an energetic young woman whom Mr. Rothrock recalled as probably not being more than 3 feet tall with one leg, prosthetics for arms and hooks for hands, scooting around in a wheeled contraption that resembled something a baby might have used for learning to walk.
“She pushed it around with her leg, and she flew,” Mr. Rothrock said. “She was really good at it. She came sliding around the corner and started talking to me.”
She asked if he would like a cup of coffee and then proceeded — as Mr. Rothrock watched in what he later described in “shock and awe” — as the woman poured coffee, stirred in sugar and milk and presented to him, all accompanied by her happy banter.
Mr. Rothrock described the moment as “a life-changing event.”
“I was like, ‘Wow!’ “ he said. “I thought I had it bad, and she’s happy and bopping around. I figured if she can do that and do it with a smile ... maybe I’m going to be able to get through this.”
After college and unable to find a job, Mr. Rothrock returned to the center in Fishersville — now known as the Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center as a counselor. His work there served as a springboard for him to a degree in rehabilitation counseling. While there in 1977, he met Jane Noonan, a graduate student from Connecticut visiting Fishersville for a six-week training class. Both charmed, they would be married for almost 43 years.
The center fell within his purview when Mr. Rothrock was appointed commissioner of the Department of Rehabilitative Services. Later, he oversaw the merging of the Departments for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, “one of Jim’s greatest legacies, recognizing the importance of older adults and individuals with disabilities,” said Thelma J. Watson, executive director of Senior Connections, The Capital Area Agency on Aging.
Watson called Mr. Rothrock “an honorable Virginian, a trusted friend and a fierce leader.”
Rick Sizemore, former director at the Wilson center, said Mr. Rothrock “typified integrity, honesty and authentic leadership.
“I’ll always remember him for a comment he made in one of our leadership meetings: ‘Never confuse being awake with being alert,’” said Sizemore, now a specialist with Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.
Mr. Rothrock’s mother and father were funeral directors in Martinsville, so he grew up understanding what it was to be a conspicuous part of the community. His outgoing personality seemed to put him even more at ease in public settings.
“No one was more alive in a room than Jim Rothrock,” said the Rev. Courtney Allen Crump, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church, which Mr. Rothrock attended. “Jim showered the people he loved with love … and for Jim, that was everyone he ever met. Jim Rothrock knew suffering, but he also knew and lived with the wide-open arms of joy and delight.”
Mr. Rothrock and Henderson hit it off, in part because they both served several gubernatorial administrations — Henderson was director of the Department of Health Professions under Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Senior Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth during the administrations of Warner and Tim Kaine — and in part because of their family backgrounds: Henderson’s father was a funeral director in Florida. Or, as Henderson put, they were both “funeral home kids.’” They also attended church together.
“I will keep his memory in my heart and bring it to the fore whenever I’m feeling down,” said Henderson, president emeritus and funeral celebrant for Woody Funeral Home and Nelsen Funeral Home.
Besides his wife, Mr. Rothrock is survived by a son, Sam, and Sam’s wife, Becca, and their five grandchildren. Due to the pandemic, services and burial will be private.