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Rock bottom

Ulysses Elijah’s road to redemption
began with a tragic fall.

Ulysses Elijah paused at the bedroom doorway; the man inside lay asleep in bed. It was 8 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, 1990.

He crept across the threshold and silently searched in darkness for something of value. Elsewhere — in homes where crackling logs burned in fireplaces and televisions broadcast Dick Clark’s Times Square countdown — families and friends gathered to usher in January with high hopes for a new year.

But for Ulysses, 34, there were no hopes, or friends, or fireplace light. Inside the darkened sixth story apartment on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, he stepped into the stranger’s cold, empty living room. If he could find money in the sleeping man’s wallet or something he could pawn — small enough to carry back down the six flights he’d scaled porch-by-porch to gain entry — then he could afford cocaine. He’d kiss his lips tight around a clear glass pipe and light a ball all his own to drop on the New Year.

Empty handed, he turned to leave through the same glass patio door from which he’d entered. On his way out, he glanced back at the sleeping man and the hair stood up on the back of his neck. The man was awake, sitting up in bed. Silent and unblinking, he watched Ulysses, whose heart pounded with fear. Suspended in that moment, they locked eyes just before Ulysses slunk quietly out the patio door.

Why didn’t he do nothing? Ulysses thought, as he put his right leg over the sixth-floor railing.

His mind flashed back to another evening, another break-in. He’d entered a Waynesboro trailer, rummaged the living areas and walked to the bedroom door, opening it to find a man seated on the bed, hurriedly loading his rifle. Then too, Ulysses turned and ran. The bullets hissed past his muscular frame, tiny steel missiles whispering as they sailed overhead.

The memory stood in contrast to his present moment, in the sixth floor apartment. This victim didn’t shoot. He didn’t move a muscle, not at the first sight of a prowler in his home, nor when Ulysses absentmindedly caught his left shoe on the railing, his hands flailing for something to grab hold of and finding only air.

The body reaches a speed of nearly 40 miles per hour from a height of six stories. Had the ground below been dirt, Ulysses’ body would have made an impression four inches deep at impact. But the surface was concrete. Ulysses landed with a sickening thud, fracturing his fourth thoracic vertebra. A resident on the first floor opened his patio door, peered at Ulysses’ crumpled body and then closed the door and blinds. Unable to move, Ulysses laid in a shattered heap beneath his victim’s apartment for half an hour until an ambulance arrived.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Elijah was having the best night of his life. He just didn’t know it yet.

2

Numb long before

The first time he was born, Ulysses didn’t stand much of a chance. African-Americans in Waynesboro in the years before the civil rights movement didn’t have much path to prosperity. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat the year before Ulysses’ birth. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would not “have a dream” for another eight years. The civil rights luminaries of 1960s Atlanta and the greater South may as well have been a million miles from Waynesboro.

Ulysses was, for all intents and purposes, orphaned as a child. He never knew his father and his mother was institutionalized with mental illness when he was young. Ulysses grew up with his maternal aunt and her family, working and living on a white man’s farm. It wasn’t slavery, but it was close enough. He picked cotton and soybeans and slept nights in a windowless two-room shack near the field where the family worked. There was no running water, no bathroom.

Struggling with an undiagnosed case of dyslexia, Ulysses dropped out of school in the seventh grade, a decision that met no resistance from his home or school governing bodies. They didn’t send truant officers for poor black kids in rural Georgia in the 1960s.

When he quit school, he was put to work on the farm with his aunt and her family, side by side each day in the field and each night shoulder to shoulder asleep in that farm shack.

“I stayed like that for a while until I got kicked out,” he said,

By the age most kids were in middle school, Ulysses had already developed a reputation for drinking too much. After yet another night out drinking and another no-show at the farm the following day, his aunt demanded he leave, so he went to live with a cousin.

“That’s when I really started really drinking and really acting stupid; fighting, drinking, stealing. I was doing a lot of that stupid stuff,” he reflected.

He eventually got a job working on a garbage truck, then he went to work for a Mennonite family farm. He regrets much about his time with them.

“They helped me in so many ways and invited me into their house, and I still treated them real bad. I was stealing their gas and things like that. I was breaking their hearts, but they never had me locked up.”

During that time, Ulysses and his then-girlfriend had a daughter together. He was 17 years old, she was just 13. They married when she found herself pregnant with their second child a year later.

“I was not a good man when I lived in Waynesboro. I didn’t grow up good. I didn’t act right. I was always drinking, and I beat my wife if she had something to say. I had another family at the same time, too, but I left both of them and all my kids for Atlanta one day.”

It was the late 1970s when Ulysses, 21 at the time, arrived in the city. Theft quickly became his full-time job.

He snatched purses, robbed houses, rifled through cars. Anything to get money and buy liquor. Nothing shut up the worry, fear and demons that plagued him like a fifth of vodka. Except maybe cocaine. High and drunk was all he lived to be.

Ulysses was numb long before he couldn’t feel his legs.

Physical therapists Laura Johnson (left) and Nancy Lehrer helped Ulysses regain his independence after his injury. Photo by Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

3

Born again

Broken and alone after his fall, Ulysses laid in a Grady Hospital bed staring at the ceiling and reckoning silently with the knowledge he would never walk again.

He didn’t know it at the time, but his saving grace was just outside his hospital room door, taking notes on a clipboard and preparing her newest patient for rehabilitation. Her name was Laura Johnson.

Kind, chatty and approachable, Laura meets everyone with a cheery smile and a disarming demeanor. By the time Ulysses came into her life, Laura was an experienced physical therapist at Grady’s spinal unit. She knew that the people in her care needed to break the riptide of momentum pulling them under. They needed someone to inspire them. Someone to give them more than physical strength.

There is a playbook to follow in the weeks and months that follow a serious spinal-cord injury. For most, the physical work of recovery and the psychological impact of paralysis hit all at once. Everything has to be learned all over again. How to get dressed. How to get into and out of bed, or a slippery bathtub, or the wheelchair. How to manage urination and defecation without any sensation below the waist. It is hard, humbling work.

“I don’t know how many people have really believed in Ulysses along the way,” said Laura. “We were building more than his muscles.”

It worked.

Under Laura’s care in the early weeks of 1991, Ulysses accomplished in three weeks the entire eight-week rehabilitation program. He was hungry to succeed and he had the ideal person to push him. He’d broken himself in the commission of a crime, but Laura did not judge him. People of all backgrounds can break their backs, and Laura’s job was to prepare them for life in a wheelchair.

“He realized, I think, that this was a new take on life and that maybe he was ready for a new identity,” Laura said. “He completely ate up any kind of positive encouragement.”

For all his shortcomings, Ulysses is easy to like. He has an almost childlike, happy-go-lucky optimism. He smiles wide and repeats the last couple words sometimes. Last couple words. It’s endearing. He has an obvious desire to please people.

After Ulysses got out of the hospital, he spent several months in jail awaiting trial for the crime that resulted in his fall, but charges were ultimately dropped.

When he got out, Laura continued to work with him for about a year. Then she introduced him to her colleague, Nancy Lehrer, who took Laura’s place when she left Grady to work in Europe for a while.

Miss Nancy, Ulysses called her, was the second person to help change his life.

Nancy’s demeanor is more guarded than Laura’s, her physical presence more slight, her cards held a little closer to the chest. But Nancy is no slouch, and the women shared a similar approach to their work.

Nancy recognized that Ulysses needed a new path, not just recovery from the bumps along his old one. She was there the day a racing wheelchair was brought to Grady to demonstrate what spinal injury patients could aspire to.

“Ulysses was pretty into that racing chair,” she recalled. “I don’t know if he’d ever really considered that he could still be athletic. When he saw it and understood what it was for, it was like a light bulb turned on in his head.”

So one autumn day, nine months after his fall, Ulysses, Nancy and Laura (in the waning days before she left Grady) went to the track at Avondale High School. The physical therapists watched as he took his first laps around the track. Ulysses was a natural. Speed and power were again at his disposal for the first time since he’d scaled that apartment building on New Year’s Eve.

“I was feeling pretty good that day,” Ulysses recalled with a smile.

Nancy would eventually introduce Ulysses to John Rupert, the third person to contribute to the rebirth of Ulysses. Now deceased, John was a medical supply salesman at Advanced Rehabilitation, but he was different from his industry peers. Where other vendors would run up against resistance from insurance agencies not wanting to pay for certain things and simply give up, John would find creative solutions. He got things done. Things like getting Ulysses a racing chair and establishing a training routine. Things like making the drive from Roswell to Ulysses’ Glenco neighborhood in DeKalb County, gathering Ulysses and his shiny new racing chair — or bike, as he calls it— and returning to Roswell to train before taking Ulysses back home.

John sometimes took an unorthodox approach to training. One day when they were en route to the track to train for Ulysses’ first competition in the Peachtree Road Race, John drove past the exit, continuing along Georgia 400 north to Forsyth County. John eventually stopped and unloaded Ulysses and the racing chair.

Forty-five minutes, he told Ulysses. That is how long you have to finish the Peachtree Road Race before they’ll pull you off the course. You want to run the Peachtree? Gotta do it in 45 minutes. See you at my office.

John drove off, leaving Ulysses on the side of the road. Forsyth County in 1992 was safer for a black man wheeling down a highway than it would have been in, say, September 1912. But the message was not lost on Ulysses: Run for your life.

Running – that’s what he calls his speed chair rides.

And so Ulysses did run; making it to John’s Roswell office in 41 minutes flat.

And he ran a few weeks later in his first Peachtree Road Race. 36 minutes.

He remembers the finish line clearly.

“It was my first really big thing since I’d been in the wheelchair. It’s a big thing for a lot of folks. You got people and racing chair racers coming from all over the country. I had trained every day. Every race is a good opportunity to cross that finish line. But the first finish line? I remember that.”

A new Ulysses — wheelchair racing Ulysses — was born.

Ulysses credits the late John Rupert, who was a medical supply salesman for Advanced Rehabilitation, for training him to race. Photo by Emily Jenkins

Photo: Ulysses wheels down busy streets to the Avondale High School track to train. Photo by Emily Jenkins


4

Run for your life

Ulysses was finally outrunning his demons. He joined the racing team at Shepherd Center and was winning races and gaining praise. He had hit the proverbial rock bottom and was on the path back to the top. Or at least he was, until, like many addicts, his journey took a circuitous route.

Throughout the 1990s, Ulysses started falling in and out of trouble, fueled in part by John’s death.

“When John died, it was a big loss for me. I had looked up to him for years because I think he was in my life for a moment and he was there for a reason. He didn’t have to come all the way out from Roswell three or four times each week to get me ready for the Peachtree. It’s 2016 today, and I can still remember him saying, ‘Don’t never quit on a race. If you quit you lose.’ So now I never quit.”

There was also a romantic relationship that turned sour.

“When you love someone, your mind thinks all sorts of stupid stuff,” said Ulysses. “So what I did, I took about a handful of Motrin pills and I waited to see what was going to happen.”

He’d wanted to end his own life, but then he had second thoughts.

“When I got to feeling dizzy, I got someone to call an ambulance. They kept me in some kind of hospital for four or five days.”

Whether it was a cry for help or an authentic desire to end it all, it doesn’t really matter. Ulysses was again as lost as a man can be in this world.

Which is precisely the kind of man the Rev. Victor J. Belton hoped to find when he visited the hospital where Ulysses was recovering.

Belton came to the Glenco community more than 20 years ago to lead Peace Lutheran Church, a small congregation in a poverty-stricken community south of Avondale Estates and west of East Lake where the average per capita income is lower than 95.4 percent of all American neighborhoods. It’s the kind of neighborhood where 25 percent of the homes are abandoned and unkempt. Entire shopping centers sit vacant, worn by weather and neglected in upkeep.

“I met Ulysses when he was feeling low about life,” said Belton. “It was clear he was ready for a change. Sick and tired of the mess and the noise.”

Belton quickly homed in on a gift Ulysses had never put to good use: His amazing capacity to remember. Ulysses could spout Bible verses from memory.

What Belton didn’t know was that Ulysses, who had yet to overcome his dyslexia and learn to read, had been practicing with recordings.

“I had a hunger to know the Bible,” said Ulysses. “I could not read the Bible. I would put a Bible CD in the player and follow along in the book. I still have the CDs and cassettes at home, but I now know to be starting at Genesis, or turn to the right chapter on my own.”

The church embraced Ulysses, first giving him a role as an usher and later elevating him to church elder. He began to lead others in Bible study. He started ministering to those spiritually lost or injured. All the while he still raced.

“I think I saw that God can still use me, even though I am in this wheelchair,” Ulysses said. “Not for me, for racing or anything like that. But for others.” At church I saw that God could use me for the first time when I saw people ushering at the church and I figured I could do that. They trained me how to help others.”

Belton sees it differently.

“We trained him only to show what he is. To bring naturally a spirit of hope to others through his resilient strength. He tells people that ‘I am in this chair. This chair has me. But this chair, it is not in me.’”

It would be easy to end the story of Ulysses Elijah at the finish line of the 2014 Peachtree Road Race when he won his division. But easy is not the life Ulysses has had, and there is no such thing as happily ever after. Becoming a good man cost him two legs, some jail time and his relationship with his daughter.

Ulysses, now 59, survives on a monthly disability check of less than $1,000 a month, a single shift at a CVS store and rent subsidy through the Section 8 voucher program. He says he’d like to work more but fears he’d lose his subsidies and incur IRS penalties. It all adds up to barely enough to survive.

Asked if he felt remorse for some of the things he’s done, Ulysses grew quiet.

“I do wish a few things,” he said, eyes welling. “I wish I could read better and earn a little more.”

“I wish,” he continued, “that I could save up some money — not much, maybe $300 — just to buy my baby daughter a headstone.

“And I wish I could call my other daughter and work things out. She won’t speak to me anymore, and I do wish I could make that right.”

As for the life of crimes he left behind?

“I regret that I did a lot of that. I made mistakes.” he said. “But, all that brought me to where I am, and I am glad for where I am. I don’t make the same mistakes no more. We all make mistakes, but the ones I made years ago, I know God has forgave me for that and so I don’t need to concern myself no more. This chair is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Ulysses has won may competitive wheelchair races, as evidenced by the many trophies and medals displayed here in his DeKalb County home. Photo by Hyosub Shin, hshin@ajc.com

Behind the story

Ulysses at the CVS Pharmacy where he works one shift a week. Photo by Emily Jenkins


ABOUT THE STORY

Readers often suggest people they would like to see us profile in Personal Journeys. Sometimes the story isn’t a good fit for various reasons, and sometimes we’ve already done a similar story. But sometimes their suggestions are perfect. That’s the case with this week’s story about Ulysses Elijah, which was suggested to us by Barbara Jung. It is a classic story of redemption and second chances.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER
Adam Kincaid is a freelance writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Bitter Southerner and others. He wants a good literary agent and a verified twitter badge @adamjkincaid. He has two well-behaved dogs and one moderately behaved wife.