Man in the Driver's Seat
THE PLOPLE AT NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO in Washington had heard lots of excuses for missing deadlines, but never one quite like this. It was 1980, and their hotshot stringer—a student at the University of Oregon who had recently impressed them with his deft on-scene coverage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens—was explaining that he had missed a deadline because he couldn’t gel his wheelchair into a phone booth. It seemed so unlikely, his bosses at NPR had to laugh.
But John Hockenberry wasn’t kidding; he had been a paraplegic since the age of 19, when he and a friend had hitched a ride in a car that flipped over when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. After Hockenberry told embarrassed NPR staffers it was the truth, he simply went back to making people forget that he works in a wheelchair.
From Afghanistan to Zaire and Middle East flashpoints in between, Hockenberry, now 38, has been a frontline observer of riots, wars and revolutions—from 1981 to 1992 as a correspondent for NPR, and more recently in the same role for ABC’s Monday-night newsmagazine, Day One, where in August 1992 he became the first and only wheelchair-mobile reporter in network TV.
True grit propels those wheels. In 1987, Hockenberry had to lobby hard to be named NPR’s Middle East correspondent. “There was a lot of resistance,” recalls Adam Clayton Powell III, then NPR’s vice president of news. “But John is a very determined person. He said, If need be, I’ll hire four people to carry me around.’ ”
As it turned out, one person—Hockenberry himself—was usually quite sufficient. There he was during the intifada (Arabic for uprising) in 1988, tape recorder in hand, mingling with Palestinian refugees on the Gaza Strip. As Israeli troops approached, their weapons drawn, Hockenberry suddenly found himself all alone. Fortunately, he recalled, “they didn’t shoot.” They almost did, however, when Hockenberry, trying to catch up with his rivals as they raced to a press conference on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport, rolled right through a security checkpoint. “The guards all started screaming,” he recalls, “and the headlights and sirens went on.” Hockenbeny wisely decided to brake. Says his friend and former NPR colleague Michael Sullivan: “Johnny does whatever Johnny wants to do whenever he wants to do it.”
Even so, back home in New York City, where Hockenbeny lives, he has encountered some frustrating roadblocks. The same wheelchair that wended its way through bomb-cratered Beirut was once denied access to a Broadway theater. It was 1992 and Hockenberry had paid $60 for a ticket to the musical Jelly’s Last Jam—after being assured at the box office that the house manager would seat him. Instead, on the night of the show the manager told Hockenberry, “Sir, we are not allowed to touch you.” After a heated argument in the lobby (during which he grabbed the manager’s shirt), Hockenberry found himself out on the sidewalk. He promptly sued the theater’s owners, and under the terms of a settlement, the theater installed a lift to allow wheelchair access.
Hockenberry still bristles at such indignities. “I spent three years in NPR’s Chicago bureau, and there was no place to go to the bathroom,” he says. “After a while, you think, ‘Why do I tolerate this?’ ” He no longer does. In lectures, Hockenbeny advocates strict enforcement of laws that protect the disabled. “For the struggles I’ve gone through to mean something,” he says, “I have to be an activist.”
Before he was paralyzed, Hockenbeny faced simpler challenges. He was born in Dayton, the oldest of five-children of Jack Hockenberry, an industrial designer for Kodak and IBM, and his wife, Nancy, a vocational-education teacher. A self-described “klutzy, awkward egghead who got leased mercilessly,” John enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he studied math and anthropology. Then came the car crash in 1975, his freshman year, and a six-month struggle through rehab. Afterward he convinced himself, “Nothing’s going to slop me. I can do anything.”
But the university, he says, “was the most inaccessible campus in the world” for a disabled person—and, discouraged, he left in 1977. A year later, things were looking up. While working part-time at a rehab center in Oregon, Hockenberry met his wife, Chris Todd, a supervisor at the center, and in the fall, he entered the University of Oregon as a music major. In 1980 he was working for KLCC-FM, the NPR affiliate in Eugene, Ore., when Mount St. Helens blew her top. Then, and in the years that followed, he worked frenetically at a pace that finally cost him his marriage. “My career was everything,” he says, “and there wasn’t much room for us and a family.” The couple, childless, divorced in 1984.
Hockenbeny still logs long hours. When a story of his is due to air on Monday night, “your Friday and Saturday can be all-nighters,” he says. “Essentially you have no life.” But it’s not all work, no play. His colleagues relish Hockenberry’s gift for mimicry (in a recent Day One interview with director Ron Howard, Hockenbeny contributed a dead-on John Wayne), and his talents as a writer will be revealed next spring when Hyperion Press publishes his memoir. Ultimately he hopes to mount a one-man stage show based on his life. “I live in a world,” he says, not immodestly, “where people in wheelchairs can do anything.”
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
TOBY KAHN in New York City