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Short life was extraordinary

Doctors said Chris Radke wouldn't live long.

Born 33 years ago in January, his parents Pat and Robert Radke didn't take him home until nearly Thanksgiving. His condition puzzled River Falls medical staff, so the Radkes took their firstborn to a specialist.

Chris had a rare disease - osteogenesis imperfecta congenita, also called brittle bone disease. It meant he'd be in constant danger of fracturing bones and wouldn't grow normally.

"He was just so fragile," says Pat, "We even had to learn a special way to change his diaper."

Chris beat the odds and lived well beyond what doctors had projected. He began having corrective surgeries at age five. Doctors inserted metal pins to reinforce his bones.

Chris just wanted to be normal. And a combination of spirit and determination enabled him to do just that before he died July 29 from complications related to pneumonia.

Family, friends and teachers describe him as bright, enthusiastic, positive and happy.

Pat said of her son: "He did more in his short lifetime than most people do in four."

Chris went to Westside Elementary School, making lifelong friends. One was longtime River Falls resident Jon Davis who now lives in Ellsworth.

"I sat next to Chris in third grade and we've been friends ever since," said Davis. "Sometimes we stayed inside during recess on cold days and played checkers or chess or board games. He had a heck of a sense of humor."

Although he never wanted to draw attention to himself, Chris shed light on accessibility issues. The first major ray came during middle school in 1984.

Ten years after federal lawmakers passed anti-discrimination laws for the disabled, the middle school still lacked an elevator. Chris and two other disabled kids really needed the elevator, but there was resistance because of the high cost that benefited "a few" - a common argument back then.

The Radkes and two other sets of parents campaigned. A custodian pointed out that the elevator would help many other people including him. Then the librarian and arts teacher agreed. Eventually the school got an elevator.

Chris' challenges continued even after getting his first powered wheelchair. The world then wasn't as accessible as it is now. There weren't street-corner ramps called curb cuts, elevators, extra-wide doors or low-height counters.

"Chris' chair just barely fit through the doors of this old house," Robert said pointing to the doorway, "You can still see the marks on the door jamb where it rubbed when he came in."

Chris' first time away from home was a struggle. He had been nominated to go for a coveted weeklong stay in Drama Camp at Lakeland College in Sheboygan. Once he saw the accessibility issues there, he was scared to stay.

Robert told him, "You're the one who wants to go to UW-Madison, and if you think this place is bad, you ain't seen nothin' yet."

So Chris stayed.

His close friend and therapist, Jan Sternat, founder of Have-A-Heart Farm in rural River Falls, met Chris when he was in kindergarten and using a wheelchair and walker.

"Chris set the bar for me on what to expect from other kids," she said. "He was so intelligent and good about knowing what he needed. The most fun was his self actualization."

Sternat says she remembers when Chris strengthened his upper body enough to get on the science table at school and look through the microscope. Not only was he excited but also it was the start of him being able to transfer his body from place to place.

A motorized wheelchair brought his first real independence and later a driver's license meant unlimited possibilities. The community pooled resources to get him a modified van, which his friends say was very "well used."

Chris ended up liking University of Minnesota at Duluth better than UW-Madison. Robert says it's one of two colleges in the state with an underground tunnel system in the dorm area. The tunnels gave Chris good access and a place to later compete in unauthorized wheelchair races.

He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in education and became a substitute teacher in a Twin Cities school system. He got diverse experience and soon landed a job with Minneapolis public schools.

Chris proudly bought himself a condo, too.

For about five years, he taught 6th- and 7th-grade science at both City View and Anwatan. He also coached 6th-grade basketball for a while.

His friends say he loved teaching and the kids seemed to love him. He connected with students and earned their respect. His challenges inspired them.

Both parts of town where Chris taught were pretty rough. Pat says she was scared the first time she drove through the inner-city neighborhoods where he worked. Robert says they probably had to knock down some crack houses to build both of the schools.

Chris once broke up a fight between knife-wielding gang members by inserting himself right between the two boys and demanding that they not fight.

"I'm sure he saved at least one boy's life that day," said Pat.

Chris was eventually laid off from the Minneapolis school system and got an interim job at Qwest Communications in e-commerce until he could get back to teaching.

Chris loved the arts. Pat remembers when he broke one of his legs during a time he played Tiny Tim in a school production of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." She didn't find out about the break until after the play had ended.

"He didn't say anything for fear that he'd have to quit the play," she said. "He just claimed it hurt and asked me to wrap it."

Chris had a fierce passion for music.

Davis said, "He had a CD collection that would rival any radio station."

The Beatles were his all-time favorite band. Chris wrote two published articles about the Beatles.

He once met Ringo Starr at the Mall of America and got a drumstick salute from him at a concert. He had a guitar string from The Who's John Entwistle and a guitar pick from blues great B. B. King.

Chris always got preferred seating at concerts and liked getting to the stage where the music was loudest. His parents bought him a starter stereo for his high-school graduation, but Robert says he had upgraded that by his second year of college.

"The guy at the stereo place knew him well and always looked forward to him coming because he spent so much money in there," said Robert.

Chris was close to his brother Brandon and sister Nicole, had good relationships with a few special ladies and made many friends. He became a scotch connoisseur; once broke his leg dancing with wild women; arranged a close friend's bachelor party and was best man at his wedding; loved listening to music in Minneapolis with friends; and never missed the annual block party at his parents' neighborhood.

Robert said, "We actually have two categories of stories: Those we can tell in front of his mom and those we can't."

During Chris' eulogy, his close friend Matt Donaghue said, "He was just one of the guys."

Larry Westrum, Westside Elementary School's principal, was a counselor when Chris went there.

Westrum said, "He had a passion for being involved and was eager to be doing what all the other kids were. He was small, fragile and always in a wheelchair, but he'd get right in there as quick as the rest.

"I remember he had a high-pitched voice and you could always hear him laughing. He never needed any help with academics, either."

"I was amazed at how positive he was and remember being impressed with his attitude," said Mayor Don Richards, retired teacher who had Chris in English class at River Falls High School.

Tom Carroll, a former assistant principal at River Falls High School, remembers Chris well and had him physical education class.

"He didn't want to be treated differently. He wanted to be a normal kid. He was full of humor and life and always had a smile and upbeat attitude. You could tell that he didn't accept can't," said Carroll. "I remember he was very intelligent, soaking things up like a sponge and always wanting to know more."

His close friend since high school, Neil Danielson, now lives in Spring Valley but kept in touch with Chris. They often went to find good music in Minneapolis, with Blues Alley as a stand by.

"Chris was always a crack up and never negative," said Danielson. "You knew you were in for a good time and his handicap was never, ever a focus."

Danielson says his unique sense of humor came to light during dinner at Chris' house a few months ago. He asked Chris who he dressed up as when he went to the new "Star Wars" movie. Chris quickly corrected his friend laughing, "We call that going in character!"

Sternat said, "Most people don't achieve as much as he did. I think Chris' family had to adjust to him because he would stride forward and just do things even when others were uncertain."

He had serious fractures and other challenges throughout his life, but friends and family say Chris' sense of humor and smile are what they remember. He's just a normal, ordinary guy whose life happens to make an extraordinary story.