Laura Hershey ’83 was an acclaimed poet, essayist and artist, a passionate advocate and activist, an enthusiastic world traveler, and a loving friend, partner, and mother. Her 20-page curriculum vitae is stuffed with accomplishments. And she did it all from a wheelchair.

At 2, Hershey was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy but packed a lot of living into the 48 years before her death in November 2010.

That loss still resonates at CC, particularly among the professors who rejoiced in her quick mind, generous heart, and determined spirit.

“She was just exceptionally curious and engaged,” said Dean Susan Ashley, who taught history at the time. “She was the kind of person who could really fuel discussions because she listened to other people and she wasn’t the least bit reticent about taking on ideas. There was a kind of frankness that was really striking.”

As History Professor Peter Blasenheim grew to know Hershey, his respect blossomed.

“She had extraordinary intellect and extraordinary compassion,” Blasenheim said. “She took on human challenges and approached them in a universal way.”

After earning her bachelor of arts in history, Hershey attained a master of fine arts in creative writing from Antioch University. In 1992, she returned to CC to accept an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

During the opening convocation, she was lauded for being “among the most active and most effective advocates of civil rights for people with disabilities.”

The dedicated academic also enjoyed the lighter side of student life.

“It sounds cliched, but she lived life to the fullest. She loved to party and loved to have a good time,” Blasenheim recalled.

In the early 1980s, there were few provisions for wheelchair access on or near campus. When Hershey arrived at a party, strong classmates would tote her and her motorized wheelchair up the steps.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for Hershey’s approach to life. There was never a question of whether she’d actively participate – she’d figure out a way.

“She was, at that time, insistent about having access to academic buildings. So she managed, I think, to get people to think about that. And even though the accommodations were reasonably primitive, the college did make it easier for her to get into classroom buildings,” Ashley said.

History Professor Carol Neel reminisced about how Hershey and her classmates “adopted” Neel, who started teaching at CC when she was 25, much closer to the age of her students than of her colleagues.

Hershey was “extremely generous,” Neel said. “It was clear she had a dignity among her peers and among members of the department. For a disabled student to be participating that fully in a normal undergraduate program was absolutely anomalous. I think she broke trail at the college about that. But more importantly, in the imagination of her classmates.”

The professors often lunched with Hershey, her partner Robin Stephens, and their aides when they traveled from their Englewood home.

Hershey and Stephens were drawn together through their mutual dedication to the rights of women and the disabled, then realized their feelings went much deeper.

“It took us five years to declare our love to each other and when we did, our letters crossed in the mail . . .Valentine’s Day, 1990…” Stephens e-mailed from Englewood.

The couple fought through obstacles to adopt Shannon, the daughter of their hearts. After “much advocating and angst,” their adoption of the 14-year-old was finalized in June 2010.

Stephens is determined to continue the battles she and Hershey waged for decades.

“Our lives were always and will always be pushing for the rights of oppressed peoples,” she wrote.

Hershey’s advocacy caught the attention of the powers that be in Denver and Washington, D.C.; her extensive writing output culminates in “Spark Before Dark,” a chapbook due out in June.

“The confidence that Laura had was just exceptional,” Ashley said. “She was so sure about the fact that certain things had to be confronted and she would confront them. That’s where her disability and challenges ended up being the platform for her establishing genuine social change. She was really a person of her time in the sense that she recognized that certain things aren’t right, certain things aren’t just, certain things need to be corrected.”

We can’t know if Hershey felt her time on Earth would be short and so strived to make every day count. We can be certain, though, that her influence will be felt on campus and beyond for generations to come.