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Man graduates USF despite crippling disease

Chris Lehman, 36, gets a hug from his father, Rick Lehman, as brother Sean Lehman fixes his cap Friday in Tampa.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Chris Lehman, 36, gets a hug from his father, Rick Lehman, as brother Sean Lehman fixes his cap Friday in Tampa.

He wheeled out of his room early Friday, down a wooden ramp and through the garage to the driveway and onto a mechanical lift attached to the family's van. He sat in his chair strapped to the floor between his mother and father up front. "Did you guys bring the camera?" he asked. They stopped at McDonald's in Tarpon Springs. His father steered the van along back roads toward Tampa. His mother held a McMuffin in front of his face. He took bites. She told him the sunrise was beautiful.

He hadn't slept much because of adrenaline and anxiety. He closed his eyes and tried to rest. The van finally pulled up to the St. Pete Times Forum.

His mother spotted the handicapped entrance. She held the back of his head and pulled him gingerly forward. She helped him put on his black cap and gown.

He went to St. Petersburg College for seven years. He went to the University of South Florida for six. Over that time, as his body betrayed him, as he lost one physical ability after another, he kept pursuing his goal.

Finally on Friday, a little before 10, his mother helped him up onto the stage and all the people in that arena heard his name read out loud.

"Christopher. Wren. Lehman."

• • •

Born on Oct. 28, 1975, at nearly 8 pounds and 19 inches long, he evidently was healthy. He soon grew cranky. His mother noticed his joints had started to swell. The diagnosis came at a year old. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that stunts growth and stiffens joints. The cause isn't known. There is no cure.

When he was growing up, members of his family were his best friends — his mother, Carol, his father, Rick, his brother, Sean, his sister-in-law, Teresa, his niece, Tanya, his nephew, Troy. They called him Critter.

When he was little, he climbed fences, swam in pools and raced through sprinklers. He rode bicycles with his mother, pedaling as fast as he could, thinking the rushing wind might blow the ache from his limbs. First he had to use crutches. Then he had to use a push wheelchair. Then he had to use an electric wheelchair. He was 10.

His niece and nephew liked to climb onto the back of his chair and he'd hold down the joystick and spin them around.

"CROP CIRCLES!" he'd holler.

They sat for Sunday dinners, and Critter, said his brother, was "the light everybody gathered around."

His grandfather always ended the evenings with the same farewell. "Carry on," he liked to say, "in the best manner possible, under all existing conditions."

• • •

He went for two years to Tarpon High School, until he could no longer read the words in the books, and then his teachers came to his house.

At SPC, he took courses in computer programming, writing and algebra, in which he sat in the front of a lecture class of 240 students and closed his eyes and paid intense attention. He made the highest grade in the class.

At USF, he took classes in history and archaeology, but he majored in psychology. In one particularly demanding class, the professor got gripes from many of the students about the amount of work, but not once, he said, from Christopher Lehman.

He weighs 55 pounds. He needs help eating. He needs help showering. He needs help going to the bathroom. He used to read with a handheld magnifying glass. Then he needed a more powerful machine to blow up the image. Now he uses a program through which his computer reads him digital files of books. It can take him 10 minutes to type in an email address. He wrote 9,000-word papers.

He signs his emails "Smiles."

He finished with a 3.9 GPA.

• • •

How?

"I'm stubborn," he said this week at his house, "and persistent, and I don't like to be idle."

The last 13 years of college gave him a purpose. He wants to use his psychology degree to help wounded veterans dealing with their new challenges. This is a good explanation for why he wanted so badly to graduate. But not the reason.

He maneuvered his chair into his room, away from the others, his rubber wheels squeaking on the wooden floor, surrounded by his talking computer, his Hobbit posters, his framed copy of the Ten Commandments. Honor thy father and mother.

Rick is 65. Carol is 67. Christopher is 36.

"My parents," he said in his room, "have dedicated their entire lives for me, and that makes me sad. Thirty-six years. That's a long time for people to take care of someone."

Maybe, he explained, with a diploma he can get a job, and with a job he can pay for a caretaker. Maybe not for 24 hours a day. But for some of the time.

"I want my parents to be independent from my hassles and challenges and struggles," he said. "One day, I'd like to say to them, 'You don't have to do this anymore.' "

• • •

USF president Judy Genshaft told the graduates at the end of the ceremony on Friday to move their tassels to the left. Carol Lehman moved her son's tassel.

Outside the arena, his family took pictures, with his mother, with his father, with his brother and his wife, with his niece and his nephew and his grandmother. They got on an elevator. His mother tried to move him into a cramped space. "Just tell me which way to go," he said to her, "and I'll do it."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

Man graduates USF despite crippling disease 12/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 9, 2011 11:25pm]
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