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Rubén Rosario: St. Paul disability rights advocate presses on despite physical setback

Saint Paul Pioneer Press - 8/9/2019

Aug. 9--It was early spring when Rick Cardenas got the bad news. A leg infection had festered and spread to the point where there was no choice but to amputate both his legs just above the knees.

It's not as if the 77-year-old longtime St. Paul resident had not received dire news before.

He was 18, a Harding High School graduate, a multi-sport top athlete with thoughts of playing hockey for the University of Minnesota when he was involved in a car accident that left him a C4-5 quadriplegic.

He no longer had an iron body. But he still had that iron will. He not only persisted, but he achieved. He got a degree from Hamline University. He became one of the city's if not the state's most visible and tireless crusader for the disabled community.

Double amputation? Bring it on. So, it was not at all surprising to see Cardenas back in the saddle again, as a friend described it, presiding Thursday over a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the south grounds of the state Capitol for two outdoor ADA-compliant access ramps.

Along with others, Cardenas had pushed for and successfully lobbied the Dayton administration more than a year ago for funding for the ramps. People around town know it's a hard sell saying no to Cardenas. That includes Dayton's successor.

"Those of you who have had the pleasure of working with Rick, you just kind of get into a mode when a project is proposed, that in the end you are going to be at a ribbon-cutting at some point because it will get done," Gov. Tim Walz said at the event, which attracted state legislators, agency heads and Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.

"That persistence is greatly appreciated."

There goes that word again -- persistence.

Cardenas, who is as omnipresent a figure downtown as the building with the "1st" on its rooftop, was instrumental in hounding local and state officials to build skyway elevator and stairwell access to the Green Line at Fifth and Cedar streets. An elevator at the site was not on the original Central Corridor blueprints.

"Rick has been great, and I think it should be called the Cardenas Connection," former City Council Member Dave Thune said the day of the groundbreaking ceremony. "If anyone forces us to be accountable, it's Rick."

His impact has also been felt across the river, according to childhood friend Jose Cervantes, who was the head of facilities at Minneapolis City Hall from 1999 to 2013.

"He would come over and say, 'Jose, this is wrong' (about lack of accessibility)," Cervantes recalled. Accessibility ramps were later installed in the City Council chambers and leading up to the dais, Cervantes said. "He's touched many places."

Cardenas' passion for Americans with Disabilities Act and social justice issues also extends to the work of Remembering with Dignity. The state-funded project labors to locate and provide markers for the estimated 13,000 patients buried since 1866 and identified only by numbers on the grounds of former and current state hospitals and treatment centers.

"A first step in restoring dignity to these people is to be known by name and acknowledged as a person," Cardenas, then co-director of Advocating Change Together, a St. Paul-based advocacy group, told me several years ago.

"But it's also a cemetery restoration project, as well as a way to raise awareness of the sometime brutal treatment some persons with various mental illnesses and disabilities received at these places," he added.

Longtime friend Bill Tilton calls Cardenas "one of my heroes."

"I've never once heard him complain about his lot in life," Tilton said. "Not once. When he had to have his legs amputated not long ago, he shrugged it off, joked about it, even laughed about getting a nickname of Stump or Stumps.

"The only times I've ever heard him complain is about stupid politicians and about discrimination against folks who are disabled," Tilton noted. "Those things get him indignant."

Miracle is another word to describe him, according to Charlotte Shotsie Forsythe.

Forsythe, who describes herself as a "devoted" friend, said she and others have been told that Cardenas is the second-longest living quadriplegic person in Minnesota.

The oldest, a resident of Rochester, "is just a year older," she said.

He's almost died three times," she added of Cardenas. "You keep asking how he comes out of these horrible things. Well, he has a big heart, lots of compassion and a strong and powerful spirit."

The Mears Park concert enthusiast and Bruce Springsteen fanatic also has a weakness for cinnamon gum. That's all he asked for when I paid him a visit several weeks ago while he was recovering from the amputations at a rehab center. I brought him several packs.

"I had them all," he told me Thursday.

So, if you see Cardenas scooting about the skyway or city streets, as many downtowners have, stop him, say hello, and offer him a stick of gum. Just make sure it's cinnamon.

___

(c)2019 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

Visit the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) at www.twincities.com

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