By Richard J. Anthony, Sr.
Gerald (Jerry) S. Segal, Esq. is a husband, father, and grandfather. A prominent Philadelphia attorney. An influential civic leader. A generous philanthropist. An avid golfer. And an indomitable quadriplegic.
I first met Jerry in his downtown office overlooking Philadelphia’s Parisian look-alike, Ben Franklin Parkway, a broad swatch of greenery that stretches from City Hall to the steps of the city’s cultural epicenter, the majestic Philadelphia Museum of Art. These are the same iconic steps Rocky Balboa bounded in his cinematic climb to the championship.
Photos and citations cover Jerry’s office walls. Mementoes, awards, and memorabilia marking a lifetime of achievement and distinguished service to others fill the shelves. Nothing, however, is more emblematic of Jerry’s life work than the photos of his family: his wife of 49 years, Carolyn; his daughters, Traci and Marci. And most of all his grandchildren — Zac, Ben, Jake, Allie, and Lily — which is what we talked about for most of our time together.
The story behind the crutches, braces, walker, and wheelchair that give Jerry the mobility to live a full and fast-paced life began in 1988, when he underwent surgery for chronic back pain. Something went terribly, tragically wrong. Instead of the promised relief from pain, Jerry was paralyzed from the neck down. The sudden shock of nearly total disability might have broken the spirit and will of most. Jerry resolved not to be beaten. Buoyed by the progress he made during months of painful therapy, Jerry set a goal to play golf again despite his condition. To up the ante, he vowed to establish a golf tournament to benefit the patients of the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, which he credits with helping him reclaim his life and his legal career.
True to his word, the first Jerry Segal Classic took place in October 1990. Jerry had regained partial use of his upper body and was able to stand. Defying the experts and the laws of gravity, Jerry stood unassisted on the first tee. “I lost my balance and fell the first two swings,” Jerry recalls. “But on the third try, I hit the ball over 65 yards straight down the fairway. That’s when I knew I’d be playing golf again.”
That first Jerry Segal Classic raised $56,000 for Magee. To date, the Classic has donated more than $10 million to the hospital.
When I met with Jerry, he was overseeing the myriad details of a major sports event — his beloved September Classic, planned to take place at two golf courses simultaneously. The 2012 goal was $600,000.
During our conversation, it didn’t take much to divert Jerry’s attention from one of his great loves, golf, to his greatest love, his grandchildren. One story in particular inspired this article.
Jerry enjoys swimming because it takes less energy to move his arms and legs. He especially enjoys spending time in the pool with his grandchildren. On one occasion, eight-year-old Lily was helping him out of the pool. As they approached the few steps to exit the pool, Lily said: “I’ve got you Pop Pop. Lean on me.” Jerry was hesitant. Could his granddaughter take his weight? A fall could be calamitous. But Lily prompted each slow step, reassuring her grandfather that she had a firm hold on him. He wouldn’t fall. He was safe in her care.
As they stepped onto the deck and started walking toward a chair, Jerry’s legs gave out and he began to fall toward the hard surface. In an instant, his fall was broken by his son-in-law, Steve, who had been nearby watching his daughter lovingly and confidently compensate for her grandfather’s physical weakness.
“That’s okay, Pop Pop,” Lily said. “You did great! Tomorrow we’ll take a few more steps.”
Jerry had always been able to draw strength from an internal reservoir of grit and faith. This time, his source was an eight-year-old who believed her Pop Pop could do better, on another day, with just a bit more effort.
“And she was right.” Jerry told me, pointing to his head and his chest. “If you have a positive attitude and a strong heart, there is no mountain that can’t be climbed. I hope it’s a lesson Lily will always remember.”