1922: Handicapped Elmer M. Shunk

From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:


Loss of Hands Was His Goad to Ambition

In a doorway fronting on Market Street, San Francisco, a crowd pressed close about a young man busily writing cards. Displayed on the table were examples of the writer’s penmanship, exhibiting the ornate flourishes of the professional penman.

A hobo of about thirty, watching the performance with unfeigned surprise and admiration, exclaimed, “Say, young feller, if you can make a living without hands, I reckon I ain’t got no call to be a hobo.”

Elmer M. Shunk looks upon the loss of his hands as the means by which he has risen in the world. At fourteen years, he lost both hands through the premature explosion of a homemade skyrocket. Two years he lived the life of an invalid, dependent on others for every service. Then he broke away from home, hoboed, beat his way over twenty thousand miles of railway through forty-two states, joined a circus, wrote cards, became an expert penman, and after six years’ search for his niche in life, landed in the Industrial Accident Commission of California office at San Francisco, where he is now planning to be of greatest possible service to disabled men.

“Because I lost my hands,” Shunk declares, “I was forced to develop substitutes to take their place. Minus hands, I soon recognized the need of more education. And from that day, late in 1911, when education began to loom as most essential, I have been studying to overcome the handicap of a mere grammar-school education.”

The first year after the loss of his hands, Shunk lived under no great strain, all his needs being attended to in dressing, eating, and undressing. One day he started to walk to Elk Lick, Pennsylvania, three miles away from his father’s home. He had gone about two miles when he sat down to reason out why both his hands had been taken off. He decided that his hands had been removed for some purpose which he could not then understand. Then and there, he made up his mind that “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and put away the temptation to end his life.

He was then seventeen years old. He left home, paying his way as far as Toledo, Ohio, where he went broke, and thereafter beat his way to North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho, then to Lincoln, Nebraska, stopping at the Capitol Hotel.

Sitting in the writing-room, he soon had a curious audience around him. He wrote several of the onlookers’ names, and despite his objections they threw him tips. From this incident Shunk got the idea of writing cards for a living.

Next day he got a permit to work on the streets of Lincoln. This was in September, 1914. In two weeks he cleared forty dollars and expenses, not writing for the sale of the cards particularly, but more as an exhibition of penmanship under seemingly insurmountable handicaps.

It was while in Lincoln that he became independent of all help in dressing. One day he resolved to arrange his own necktie. He worked for two and a half hours before he succeeded in tying it, around his neck, and then another two and a half hours in tying it with his collar on. Now he accomplishes the task in fifty-five seconds.

Determined to get an education, Shunk beat his way back to Elk Lick, to go to school. He left again in January, 1915, for Norfolk, Virginia, where he joined a circus. As a performer he exhibited such feats as shaving himself with an old-fashioned straight-edge razor, which he strops, tying his necktie, buttoning his collar and shirt buttons, etc.

In 1916 he traveled south to New Orleans, where a noted master of penmanship saw him at work, ordered some cards, and without disclosing his identity asked that they be delivered at a certain address. When Shunk delivered the cards, he found he had written for a professional penman, who offered to give him lessons in penmanship free of charge. Shunk accepted gratefully, and his writing and his income both improved. In 1917 he wrote 75,000 cards in eight months, making from $200 to $225 per month.

One day, while working in a San Francisco doorway, Shunk came under the notice of A. J. Pillsbury, chairman of the Industrial Accident Commission of California, who became interested in the young man without hands who wrote cards. This meeting proved the turning point in Shunk’s life. On June 14th, 1918, he settled down as a clerk in the statistical department of the Industrial Accident Commission, arranging to devote half of his time to the commission and half to manual training. He attended a year at Lick-Wilmerding high school, and proved that it is possible for a man minus both hands to operate a lathe, vise, and other tools. Two years ago, he was given full charge of the rehabilitation department of the Industrial Accident Commission of California.

In his search for work, Shunk visited forty-two states in six years, beating his way twenty thousand miles. He received much harsh treatment from brakeman, some of whom showed little sympathy for the disabled man. Anyone who has ever ridden blind baggage can appreciate the difficulties under which Shunk struggled — for he carried with him a suit case constructed so that when set up he had before him a rigid table for writing purposes.

Loss of his hands has proved no bar in wrestling. While in Idaho he met a grappler who had wrestled a no-decision match with the state champion, Shunk staying with his opponent three quarters of an hour.

He handles a horse like any able-bodied man and makes two bull’s-eyes out of three with a rifle against a moving target. Although he had never before operated an automobile, he drove through Market Street, San Francisco, after only twenty minutes’ instruction.

On only one count does Shunk require assistance. He orders his steaks cut for him wherever he dines. All else to do with dining he accomplishes easily. To expedite his dressing, he uses a collar buttoner attached to a metal band which fits over his arm. Buttoning his shirt and collar is thus made comparatively easy.

At the commission’s offices, in the Underwood Building, San Francisco, he does all clerical work required of any other employee, using the filing system, telephone, typewriter, etc.

He plays cards, chess, checkers, and other games easily. He plays pool, but his favorite sport is bowling. He prefers the big balls, which he swings easily in the hollow of his arm.

For the use of disabled men he has designed an automobile steering wheel, which he turned out in a wood-working shop. The wheel is arranged with deep notches for the driver’s arm to rest in, thus making the machine as easy to steer as though with one hand. He not only drives a stock car easily, but he cranks it when necessary, and even makes tire changes on the old-style rims.

Shunk’s plan looks toward the establishment of communities for the erection of factories in five or six places throughout

the United States, to provide occupations suited to handicapped men, such as wicker furniture work, blind craft work, typewriter repair work, watch-making, jewelry, smithing, engraving, and various other occupations.

“As things are,” says Shunk, “rehabilitation does not make an injured man independent. It is difficult for him to find employment. My plan is meant to give employment after the injured man has received his training.

“Overcoming of handicaps or so-called disability is not a physical but a mental requirement,” Shunk believes. “If you think you can do a thing, you can. It takes strong will power to pull through. I he disabled man is like a champion prize-fighter. Once he has been floored by an opponent he is apt to lose confidence in

himself and to succumb more easily the second time. No matter how hard the knocks, he must keep boring in, refusing to acknowledge defeat. The fellow who says to himself, ‘I’m licked,’ is licked.”

The attitude of the public is responsible for much of the discouragement disabled men stagger under, Shunk points out. “The disabled man,” he says, “is sure to be sensitive over his misfortune. Men and women who think they are being tremendously civil and thoughtful to cripples by asking them how they came by their affliction are doing the worst possible thing, so far as the principle of character is concerned.

“What the disabled man needs is neither pity nor sympathy, but broad-gauged encouragement — and a chance to readjust himself to the new conditions of his life.”

— Louis Allen

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