action", doing some on-site work
It was a dive he had made into the warm Pacific surf several times before. As an
extreme sports enthusiast, Darric McCormick had enjoyed the adrenaline rush from other
outdoor adventures much riskier than this. Normally he would have been working, a young,
successful general contractor building an expensive home near Malibu. But that summer day
the load of lumber he had ordered didnt get delivered and a dip in the ocean sounded
like a refreshingly great idea. So with his co-worker he headed for a familiar beach,
looking forward to a cool swim on a hot August day.
The waves and tide pushed the water in and out from shore and McCormick knew he had to
time his dive precisely when the water rushed in, otherwise the tide was too low and the
water much too shallow to dive from such a height. He bent his knees, leaned forward from
the edge and committed himself, but as he pushed off and plunged toward the water he knew
he had misjudged the waves, the tide, the depth of the water. No sooner had McCormick hit
the water when his chin hit a shallow ledge of sand.
"It felt like I had bitten an electrical cord," McCormick says now. "I
knew what had happened
knew I had broken my neck. I thought This is it, Im
going to die right here."
Darric McCormicks quest for life began in 1988 as he held his breath under the
surf for two harrowing minutes following a diving accident that left him a quadriplegic --
paralyzed from the shoulders down. Rescued from the waters north of Malibu by a buddy and
a local lifeguard, McCormicks present journey spans a hospital doctors
estimate that he had just 72 hours to live, to a triumphant graduation thirteen years
later from the College of
Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED) at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He
is believed to be the first quadriplegic ever to receive a Bachelor of Architecture
Degree. His tragedies, challenges overcome, and perseverance tell the story of his
indomitable human spirit.
At his highly anticipated graduation ceremonies on June 16th, McCormick was accompanied
by his wife Susan. As a team, they have rebuilt his life and career, which now includes
several academic achievement awards, such as the Mel Ferris Award from the California
Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1999. Rarely awarded twice,
McCormick received the AIA/AAF (American Architectural Foundation) National Award in 1997
and again in 2000 for his academic excellence based on design abilities and grades.
More recently, the CAED presented him with the Douglas James Martin Scholarship.
"Who more appropriate to receive this scholarship award than Darric," commented
Martin Harms, dean of the CAED. "His accomplishments in the realm of technology are
This spring Cal Poly President Warren Baker bestowed upon him a Presidential Service
"I was honored to present Darric with the award for his impactful service on
behalf of Cal Poly," said Baker. "His dedication is an inspiration to everyone
he comes in contact with."
His story is one of inspiration and triumph. Following his accident, he spent six weeks
at the Westlake Community Hospital, most of it speechless. "My neurologist told me I
would be ventilator dependent for the rest of my life," said McCormick. "I knew
I would conquer this first major hurdle."
Successfully overcoming that challenge and stabilized, McCormick was moved to Rancho
Los Amigos Hospital for rehabilitation. "One of the hardest things was knowing I
would not regain my motor functions, and being lonely," reflects McCormick.
"What pulled me through those seven months was my dads daily phone calls and
(my wife) Susan driving the 120 mile nightly roundtrip from Thousand Oaks to Downey (in
Los Angeles County) to visit me."
It was during this time that Susan shared with him that she was expecting their only
child. Darrics first time out of the hospital since his accident was to see his old
buddies at Susans baby shower. Later that same night, he was awakened at 2 a.m. to
accompany his wife in the delivery of the joy of their life, Heather.
|Working with some
sawhorses on a custom home in Malibu Lake. Says Darric now, "Where my tools were
tangible then, now my tools are 'virtual'." He jokes, "At least it keeps me from
smashing my thumb with a hammer."
With a move to Simi Valley, Darric contemplated how he would reshape his career.
"I was a general contractor and because I love to build things, I decided I could
create things mentally. I committed first to get my high school GED and then to study
courses at Moorpark College that would help me get into Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo."
Moorpark College Disabled Students Program Coordinator, Jan Andriese, inspired him by
saying, "You can do anything you want, Darric!" Four years later in 1995 he was
using AutoCAD (computer assisted drawing) design software by learning to wear a
HeadMaster, adaptive hardware that allowed him to fully utilize a computer mouse using
head turns and a tube that he could blow into. McCormick recalls, "My heart was
pounding with joy. I thank the staff at Moorpark and the State Department of
Rehabilitation for acquiring the HeadMaster and the voice recognition equipment that gave
He earned his associate of arts degree, with a focus on mathematics and physics.
Showing his sense of humor, McCormick notes, "I received straight As in three
levels of calculus. Try that without your hands!"
A year later, the president of Moorpark College invited McCormick back to be the first
ever recent graduate to deliver the commencement speech. The speech theme was "To
Overcome Challenges." President Dr. James Walker told McCormick, "That was the
first time in 25 years that Ive seen a commencement speaker receive a standing
McCormick gained confidence from the experience and with his high GPA was soon accepted
to Cal Polys architecture program. McCormick recalls a gathering of staff and
professors asking him, "What do you want to do?" He answered, "Anything I
In September of 96 he launched his Cal Poly "learn-by-doing" studies,
progressing from computer design classes with Professor Will Benedict, to second year work
with Professor John Cotton in RAML, the Rendering, Animation Modeling Lab. "I felt
limited by printers that didnt do justice to my work. RAMLs three dimensional
output changed all that and I became obsessed with going inside models," says
McCormick. " I began to feel I could do anything."
In 1999, virtual reality and two professors provided the design vehicle McCormick was
looking for to elevate his skills to the cutting edge of technology. Computer Science
Professor Lewis Hitchner and Architecture Professor Thomas Fowler invited Darric to
participate in the development stages of an innovative project that was to become known as
|Photography by Ken Chen.
Compositing by Shirley Howell
McCormick recalls, "I was apprehensive at first, not knowing what to expect,
but it quickly became fascinating. I could just let go and not think about anything around
me but what was in front of me. This gave me a wonderful sense of freedom and of being on
my own. This was the first time I was able to have the feeling that I was immersed inside
of a project that I designed. The head mounted virtual reality goggles had such a
wonderful impact on me that I started to cry as I moved."
A grant from Pacific Bell added the ImmersaDesk to the project
at Cal Poly. McCormick sees how the future of the profession will be enhanced with the use
of this technology and is assisting at Cal Poly with the further development of a
voice-activated interface that will allow for a hands-free navigation through
virtual environments. "From 72 hours to live, to standing in a model of my work at
Cal Poly, I was performing my dream!" exclaims McCormick. "It was the future of
architecture, phenomenal, unbelievable -- believable!"
Professor Fowler is astounded at McCormicks abilities. "I am always amazed
by Darrics ability to draw his ideas at a much more rapid pace than other students
working outside of the computer." Fowler adds, "My interests in technology and
student learning have grown stronger due to my working relationship with Darric over the
last three years. This relationship evolved into a perfect synergy between teacher and
student, which is why I became a teacher! Darric and his family became my teachers."
McCormicks present quest began with a tragic diving accident on his fathers
birthday. His last assignment before graduation was on his own birthday. He presented his
senior project, which was a design of a hypothetical virtual reality research center for
the CAED. McCormick is very thankful for the enthusiasm of his instructors and fellow
students, noting, "Theyve inspired me to do anything anyone else can.
Theyve impacted my life and Im excited about graduating!"
The Central Coast has become home for McCormick and his family. If he moves to a new
place of employment, McCormick proudly says, "A few hundred dollars for voice
recognition and HeadMaster equipment and Im on my way to performing equal to, or
better than, most able-bodied employees."
Gil Cooke, director of Cal Polys Architecture Department says, "Im
inspired by Darrics work ethic; he is a role model with no par. Coupled with his
superb talent, no doubt that is why he has a myriad of (job) offers on the table." He
continues, "Darric has told me that he has a fantastic future in architecture. He
wants to go to work for a respected design firm. One with an enthusiastic team thats
creating at the cutting edge of architecture."
|Dean Martin Harms (left) and
Director of Architecture Gil Cooke present Susan McCormick with the first-ever Certificate
of Achievement from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's CAED on June 16, 2001 for her years of
dedication and teamwork with Darric while he earned his Bachelor of Architecture degree
Ever present at his side through all of his classes, Susan McCormick observes,
"I hope Darrics accomplishments inspire other people and families to improve
their lives, and that we did something good to motivate those with challenges to put forth
the effort to make it a positive."
She dreams of a day when people with disabilities will be seen and appreciated for all
the things they can do, rather than for the things they cant.
|(L to R) Susan, Heather, and
Their daughter, Heather, now twelve years old, echoes her mom, saying that
because of her dad, she has great respect for people with disabilities and that society
needs to acknowledge that people with disabilities have many important talents. Her
father, Darric, is certainly an incredible example of that..
And through this thirteen year accomplishment, what was their major challenge? Susan
notes, "During this time I lost my mother, and we both lost our fathers. We wanted
them to be there at graduation." Darric adds, "They always kept up our spirits
with love, advice and consolation." Reflecting on his spirited life, Darric says,
"I looked up to my father. I will be wearing his boots at my graduation. Even though
I cant walk, it will be a metaphor for me to walk a mile in my fathers shoes.
At that moment, I will let him know he was my lifes inspiration."
Editors Note: To request e-mailed photos of Darric McCormick, and as a
general contact in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design, call Ray Ladd at
Ray Ladd is the Associate Director of Advancement in the College of Architecture
and Environmental Design at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. You can email him at: email@example.com
You can email Darric McCormick at: firstname.lastname@example.org