He stood taller and stronger in his wheelchair than most of us will ever stand on our own two feet. We have not yet found the words that can adequately describe who Jeff Vernooy was and what he meant and still means to people with disabilities, including people with developmental disabilities. Kind, persistent, advocate, intelligent, passionate – not one of these words even comes close to capturing the spirit that was Jeff.
That he touched the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of students with disabilities at Wright State University during his time as Director of the Office of Disability Services would have been testimony enough to the significance of his life – that he played such a critical role in making Wright State a place where everyone could find a home, could be valued and welcomed, is a legacy that will endure for generations of students to come.
He was a hero to so many at Wright State. He was a hero and is a hero to us. You could be sitting with Jeff in his office and mention something that you would like or that you might need his help with and he would move from you and go to this telephone. A few minutes later you would have what you needed and more. Few people, if any, ever said no when Jeff asked for something in that soft-spoken and passionate voice.
They said yes to him when we came to Wright State to find an accessible and supportive location for the annual Miami Valley Very Special Arts Festival. Jeff said yes and so it happened. It happened for years and will most likely happen for many years to come – that annual regional event that brings hundreds of children and adults with developmental disabilities to the Wright State campus for a day of interactive arts experiences that they might otherwise never have. Jeff’s hand and his heart were there behind every performance, every song sang, every dance danced, for all the smiles and all the applause.
They said yes to him when he said to them that there was this film documentary and it was about people who lived in state institutions and that Wright State should be involved – and involved they were – with and because of his leadership. Through his connections and with his charm, there would come money to help with some of the final funding needs to complete the production of Lest We Forget: Silent Voices. With his capacity to bring people together from across so many academic disciplines, there would be the premiere of the film to a standing room audience at Wright State on an evening in fall, complete with the red carpet that he had arranged to have outside for the guests as they arrived. It was something he believed in and when he believed in something, good things would happen.
He would lend his calm demeanor to service on the board of the Disability Foundation, always a voice of reason coupled with compassion, championing what he thought would be best for people with developmental disabilities and their families.
As busy as he was with his duties at Wright State, Jeff was never too busy for a friend (and you became his friend almost immediately upon meeting him.) There would be almost immediate response to phone calls and emails, all wrapped up in this wonderful sense of acceptance and encouragement he so freely shared.
His life was too short to give us enough time to let him know how much we admired and respected him, how we thought of him as more than a partner – how he was our friend – and when you lose a friend like Jeff you grieve because there will never be another like him. The world changed because of him – it became so much better! Just ask all of the students who were guided through their education at Wright State. Just ask those at arts festivals, who were moved to tears during a film premiere, or who were lifted up by encouraging words and that great smile of his. We changed because of him!