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Volume V Issue XXXVII

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Seattle Washington USA

 

FROM TRAGEDY TO TRIUMPH:
The Thirteen Year Quest of Darric McCormick

by RAY LADD, College of Architecture and Environmental Design, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California
and MARK REIMAN,
IP editor-in-chief

 

 

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McCormick "in 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 didn’t 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, I’m going to die right here."

Darric McCormick’s 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, McCormick’s present journey spans a hospital doctor’s 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 outstanding."

This spring Cal Poly President Warren Baker bestowed upon him a Presidential Service Award.

"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 dad’s 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. Darric’s first time out of the hospital since his accident was to see his old buddies at Susan’s 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.

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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 me independence."

He earned his associate of arts degree, with a focus on mathematics and physics. Showing his sense of humor, McCormick notes, "I received straight A’s 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 I’ve seen a commencement speaker receive a standing ovation!"

McCormick gained confidence from the experience and with his high GPA was soon accepted to Cal Poly’s architecture program. McCormick recalls a gathering of staff and professors asking him, "What do you want to do?" He answered, "Anything I can!"

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 didn’t do justice to my work. RAML’s 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 Immersive Visualization.

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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 McCormick’s abilities. "I am always amazed by Darric’s 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."

McCormick’s present quest began with a tragic diving accident on his father’s 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, "They’ve inspired me to do anything anyone else can. They’ve impacted my life and I’m 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 I’m on my way to performing equal to, or better than, most able-bodied employees."

Gil Cooke, director of Cal Poly’s Architecture Department says, "I’m inspired by Darric’s 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 that’s creating at the cutting edge of architecture."

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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 Darric’s 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 can’t.

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(L to R) Susan, Heather, and Darric McCormick

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 can’t walk, it will be a metaphor for me to walk a mile in my father’s shoes. At that moment, I will let him know he was my life’s inspiration."

 

Editor’s 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 (805) 756-7432.

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: rladd@calpoly.edu

You can email Darric McCormick at: spire@thegrid.net

  

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