Kenneth Kunken '72 Describes His Life as a Quadriplegic District Attorney
|Mark Eisner, Robert Bland, Anna Kunken and Ken Kunken
photo: University Photography
At the age of 20, Cornell sprint football player Ken Kunken severed his spinal cord while making a tackle on a kickoff in a home game against Columbia University.
Kunken faced the prospect of spending his life in a nursing home if he survived. Instead he completed his ORIE B.S. and went on to earn two master's degrees and a law degree. He returned to Cornell this October to speak to an audience of students and faculty under the sponsorship of the Cornell Union for Disabilities Awareness.
Kunken, who has been paralyzed from the neck down for nearly 40 years, described the first class he attended after coming back to campus in a wheelchair to finish his undergraduate education after almost ten months of rehabilitation in various hospitals and centers such as NYU's Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine.
In 1971 Sage Hall, now the Johnson School at Cornell, was a graduate dormitory with no special wheelchair access. Kunken was housed there because it was close to the Engineering Quad. Two decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act, there were no ramps or curb cuts. Even crossing Campus Road to the Engineering Quad was a challenge.
On his return to Cornell, Kunken's first class was Assistant Professor Mark Eisner's introductory Operations Research course, for which Robert Bland was the teaching assistant. In his talk Kunken took his audience through the details of his early morning trip to the class, wheeled by his personal care attendant to Upson Hall and up the (pre-Duffield) steps only to discover that the class had been moved to the basement lecture room in Kimball Hall next door. Because the elevator was completely filled with desks, chairs and other furniture, Kunken's attendant and a few other students bounced him down the 28 steps to the basement. He made it to the class on time. Just to attend that first morning of classes, Kunken had to negotiate nearly one hundred steps.
Kunken completed his ORIE degree in 1973 and eventually earned a Cornell master's in counseling and another master's in psychology from Columbia. After two years as a vocational rehabilitation counselor he applied to Hofstra University law school in 1979.
At the time, people questioned whether Kunken would be able to handle the rigors and demands of law school, but Kunken told the audience of his conviction that the challenges of law school would not be nearly as difficult as the engineering curriculum he had completed. "If I could make it through Cornell Engineering, I could make it through anything," he said. He graduated from Hofstra's law school in 1982.
After his talk Kunken reunited with Bland, now Professor and Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies in ORIE, and Eisner, who retired in 2007 as Associate Director of the ORIE Master of Engineering program and is now Communications Associate for the School.
Despite his disability he became a successful prosecutor in the Nassau County (New York) District Attorney's office, trying more than 76 cases, 65 of which were felonies, and presenting more than 250 cases to the grand jury. He currently supervises 27 other assistant district attorneys in the office.
Photo: John Abbott
Kunken received national media attention in 2005 when he became the father of biological triplet boys with his Polish-born wife Anna, through a procedure carried out at Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. After earning a master's degree in marketing and management in Poland, Anna came to the U.S. to study English and graphic design and became one of Kunken's weekend aides. They were engaged two years later. The couple has been working to launch Kunken's new career as a motivational speaker, and are currently working on a book about Kunken's life.
Ken Kunken and his three boys appear in a joyous photograph on the cover (right) of the January/February 2008 Cornell Alumni Magazine, which features an extensive article about his career. "We all face challenges in our journey through life," he told his recent Cornell audience. "How we handle those challenges will determine not only how successful we'll be, but also how happy and content," he added.
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