R.J. “Wheels” Henderson (1959)

R.J. “Wheels” Henderson (1959)

In 1956 at age two, Ronald Joe Henderson (R.J.) was diagnosed with polio. His parents had difficulty caring for him, in addition to his four sisters and two brothers (he would later have 8 sisters and 7 brothers), and they eventually sought assistance from Capper Foundation. He lived at Capper from 1959 to 1964, where he attended school and received physical and occupational therapy services.

Among other useful skills, R.J. was taught to walk with crutches and braces, to fall without hurting himself, to get up when he fell and care for himself independently. When he first began therapy, R.J. says he was so small his back brace and crutches weighed about as much as he did.

“That was a struggle,” R.J. explained. “They had this rack on the side wall where you pull yourself up, and they used that to help me build my strength back up. As the years went by, I got stronger to where I could pull my own weight around and get around.”

Though therapy was extremely valuable and necessary, not all of R.J.’s memories at Capper were constructive, unfortunately. R.J. remembers getting into fights with another child served at Capper. The boy would hide around the corners and hit him in the face with his crutch. In this way, the boy broke R.J.’s nose on several occasions. R.J. has had trouble breathing through his nose ever since.

Of course, apart from such altercations, R.J. recalls getting into a fair amount of trouble all on his own.

“Unfortunately, I was rather hard to handle,” R.J. admitted. “I didn’t ever have trouble with the school or the people. Everybody was great. I just was ornery and wanted to be home with my family. So I guess that’s why I was hard to get along with. I would tear up my books, break my glasses, blow fuses with a paper clip — things like that. But they always treated me good there… I remember they had a switchboard I liked to play with back then. That was one of the old antique switchboards were yet called operators made into your call. And you could you could add telephones around the school and you can call different rooms stuff. I liked playing with that.”

R.J. said therapy at Capper had a life changing impact on his mobility. So much, in fact, he felt confident enough to attempt riding a standard two-wheel motorcycle.

“I once burned down an apple tree with a motorcycle I built,” R.J. confessed. “I rode it around the yard, but then when it came time to stop I couldn’t put my feet down, so I thought I’d just jump off and it would fall over and I could turn it off. But when I jumped off, it made a turn. It went across the yard on its own and hit an apple tree and fell over and the tank broke. Gas poured out and caught on fire and burned that tree down.”

After the accident, R.J. concluded that two-wheel motorcycles wouldn’t be the best option for him moving forward. He began riding three-wheel motorcycles and even went on to build them for himself and others with disabilities. In addition to his impressive work with motorcycles, R.J. continues to pursue his passion as a musician, singer and songwriter under the name R.J. Wheels.

Though much of his time at Capper was challenging, R.J. shared how thankful he is for the foundation: “Capper showed compassion and care. They help people be independent.”