Though she couldn't lift a finger, Alaska writer Jo Anne Wold was a tower of strength

FAIRBANKS — Sixty-six years ago this week, Fairbanks officials shut down the schools because of polio, a word that created panic in those years before the inventive mind of Jonas Salk allowed families to rest easier.

Jo Anne Wold, 12, had been sent home from school. "I was almost sure she had contacted that terrible disease," Jo Anne's mother, Eleanor, wrote that day in her daughter's diary.

That night Jo Anne begged for something to ease the pain when Dr. John Weston arrived. "He took one look at Jo and called the hospital to get a room ready for her," Eleanor wrote.

The fright in Fairbanks subsided when the epidemic had run its course, but for Jo Anne Wold, life would never be the same.

Months of hospitalization and confinement in the bulky respirators known as "iron lungs" followed. She learned in time how to breathe on her own, paralyzed from the shoulders down.

A year after her diagnosis, she still dreamed of the day when she would get up off the bed and dance. "Hope dies slowly in the heart of a 13-year-old girl," she said many years later.

When the "knowledge came that I would never be one of the gang again," she still did not feel comfortable asking people to move her foot or arm or place a cookie in her mouth. "I was forever on the outside looking in," she said.

She completed grade school and high school, mostly through correspondence courses, studied writing at the college level, read widely, traveled and became a professional journalist, historian and children's author. She couldn't lift a finger, but she became a tower of strength.

Early on, she typed with a stick in her mouth on a manual typewriter, which meant she had to wait for someone else to return the carriage. The introduction of the electric typewriter allowed her to do that for herself and a phone adaptation built by Fairbanksan Ed Parsons, a mechanical wizard, allowed her to make and receive phone calls.

The other day I wrote about the effort in Fairbanks to change the name of Badger Road Elementary School owing to the criminal background of the man whose name is attached to the road and by extension, the school.

If the district makes the change, I want to put forward the name of Jo Anne Wold as a replacement, for her life testifies to the value of education.

[Fairbanks school bearing name of 'founding pedophile' sparks renaming debate]

"She made her crippled body seem irrelevant," her friend and fellow freelance writer Jane Pender wrote after her death in 1985. "We forgot her helplessness because she didn't seem to be helpless."

I knew her only as an acquaintance over the final decade of her life, but she remains one of the most impressive people I've ever met. The older I get the more I appreciate her accomplishments: Her optimism, her ability to listen and observe. And her refusal to allow a devastating physical handicap to limit her horizons or make her a bitter person.

In a world where people often exaggerate to attract attention, she was a genuine hero, though she would have protested. "My life is not as difficult nor as easy as people might think," she once told writer Norma Bowkett. "But isn't that true of everybody?"

I'm astounded at what she achieved in an era before the information technology revolution reduced the need for the hands-on tasks in writing and research.

She wanted to be known as a writer, not a handicapped writer, she said in 1979 when she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska. The writer married her husband, Lee, which she said was not a happy ending to her story, but a happy beginning.

'"I'm a journalist," she said. "Someone who types with a pencil in her mouth — that's got to be secondary."

Of her books, she said that "Gold City Girl," had given her the most pleasure, a work of fiction for young people about Fairbanks in its early years. "It is my opinion that we must learn to live with change, and that nothing stands still," she once wrote to a young fan.

The manuscript was nearly lost in the 1967 Fairbanks flood and her stepfather washed the pages in bleach and hung them out to dry.

She got the idea for that book while working full time for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in a job then known as women's editor. She had a wide assortment of friends who served as hands and feet.

It wasn't the life she had envisioned for  herself as a child, but she did produce a 12-act play in the fourth grade, so perhaps that was a sign she was destined to become a writer.

Her papers and letters are housed in the archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I spent a few hours last week reading what may have been her finest work.

Many chapters are missing from the unpublished manuscript of the autobiography she titled "Inside Out," but the 68 pages preserved in the file are both heartbreaking and hopeful.

She abandoned the notion that physical movement defines whether a life is richly lived. "Thinking and ideas, that is your real world," she wrote of herself.

"The hardest part is dependency on another person," she said. "It is hard to wait for people to come help you. It is just as hard to wait for them to leave when you want to be alone."

To live in a world in which physical appearance is deemed to be of more importance than anything else can be defeating, she said, or "you can turn your back on it and build your own world. Inside out."

The book never found a publisher because Jo Anne fell ill at age 47 and died 31 years ago.

Even with the missing chapters, her autobiography deserves publication for her insights on disabilities, the portrayal of her steadfast mother, and the details of her long inner recovery.

In 1952, Jo Anne was in New York getting medical treatment when she appeared on "Strike it Rich," a game show of the time in which people in hard-luck circumstances went on the show and answered a few questions to win money.

"Her mind is very keen and she wants to learn so much as she will only have her mind to rely on for the rest of her life," Eleanor said in a letter asking she be allowed on the show. Jo Anne won $500.

That year, while receiving treatment at the Shriner's Hospital in Portland, Oregon, Jo Anne was wheeled outside of a cubicle and left in a hall. A food service worker placed a metal tray with stewed prunes, milk and oatmeal in front of her.

When Jo Anne said she could not move her arms or hands and feed herself, the food service worker told her to be patient.

"As I waited a lump began to rise in my throat, and tears crept out of the corner of my eyes. I tried to control myself, but I wasn't very successful. It is one thing to run to your room and cry in your pillow, but to be sitting in a hospital corridor with tears running down your face, and your nose running at the same time, and no way to wipe those tears, or blow that nose, is humiliating indeed," she wrote.

She said a cheerful nurse walked by and said, "Oh, it can't be as bad as all that. I'll be back in a minute to help you."

Jo Anne spent many hours lying on a hard bench, she said, "swinging back between self-pity and anger, trying to cope with what had happened to me." She described how a doctor examined her in a cold and detached way that "made me feel like a piece of furniture."

"There were times when everything I did seemed hopeless and without meaning, but in spite of that I was compelled — almost driven from within — to keep trying, to find a way out, to work with what I had no matter how meager the resources."

In many ways that was the story of her life. It holds a lesson for us all.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.