South Florida Sun-Sentinel, December 12, 2008
As an able-bodied but unmotivated teenager, Ryan Gebauer didn't
think he was cut out for college.
When an accident in 1995 left him paralyzed from the neck down,
he doubted he would even finish high school.
But Gebauer, 30, has proven himself wrong time and time again.
On Thursday, he accepted his master's degree in business
administration from Florida Atlantic University. He was one of
about 2,200 students receiving degrees this week during FAU's
The audience gave Gebauer a standing ovation.
"Although I put in a lot of work, and it was very difficult at
times, not only does it feel good to achieve something, but it
has shown me that maybe I'm an inspiration to others," Gebauer
said after the ceremony.
Gebauer, of Coral Springs, was goofing off with friends during
the summer of 1995, just after his sophomore year in high
school. He jumped 36 feet from a tree branch into a canal,
landing head first in the water, injured his spinal cord and was
hospitalized for six months.
The accident didn't affect his intellect or ability to learn,
but Gebauer wasn't eager to go back to high school. He had
struggled to make C's and assumed he would never finish. But he
said his mother, Mary O'Reilly, encouraged him. He started
taking classes in a homebound program one semester before
returning to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in the fall
"Everyone knew me as a tall, 6-foot-2 prankster and
troublemaker," he said. "Now I was a tall, 6-foot-2 paralyzed
person. It was a huge difference. I learned who my true friends
were. Those who were the same as me, troublemakers, they tended
to give me the cold shoulder."
He took a peer counseling class with other high school students
who faced struggles, including students who had been victims of
sexual assault and suffered severe mental illness. Gebauer said
he realized that there are people who have worse problems that
he does and refused to feel sorry for himself. He has also
become an active member of the community, speaking at schools
and serving on a citizens committee for the city of Coral
"He's persistent, smart, has a great personality," Coral Springs
Mayor Scott Brook said. "He's definitely an asset to our
At his mother's continued encouragement, Gebauer started
attending college in 1998, first earning an associate's degree
from Broward Community College. In 2004, he received a
bachelor's degree at FAU, where he double-majored in criminal
justice and political science. He first hoped to become a lawyer
but later became interested in investing and pursued his MBA at
FAU. He is waiting on final exam scores but expects to earn a
3.7 grade point average. He hopes to find a job and also plans
to continue fighting for the rights of the disabled.
"It took a wake-up call like a devastating incident to give him
a new insight on life and what his path should be," said Nicole
Rokos, director of FAU's student disabilities office.
In May 2007, Gebauer suffered another setback — his mother and
primary caregiver died of a heart attack.
"Four years ago, my mom was there in the van with me and my
grandmother going to and from graduation," he said. "Today there
is a feeling of missing somebody."
Other family and friends and health aides have helped him with
his day-to-day activities. Many were on hand Thursday to watch
him receive his diploma and applaud how he has overcome
"When somebody faces a situation like Ryan did, they can go in
two directions. They can excel or they can give up," said his
father, Rainer Gebauer. "He's chosen to have a strong work ethic
and to live life to the fullest."
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