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Evergreen High grad Tom Babb enjoying college life with his fraternity brothers

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‘How normal it is’

By Corinne Westeman

LAWRENCE, KAN. — Leaving the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, Tom Babb waited for the automatic door to open and navigated his wheelchair onto the sidewalk toward the campus.

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But there was an obstacle: a short flight of stairs to get up to the road. No matter. He simply navigated his wheelchair up the adjacent grass instead.

“Sometimes, I joke that I’ll just get out and walk,” he said.

Babb, 21, a 2015 Evergreen High graduate, went up the steep 14th Street, driving up the road rather than the sidewalks, and headed toward his journalism class at the University of Kansas.

It’s the first week of the fall 2017 semester — Babb’s fourth at KU. In December 2015, while vacationing with his family in Hawaii, a freak accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. He took a semester off to recover, but came back to KU and Beta Theta Pi with full force last fall.

Babb’s family and fraternity brothers asked Beta’s alumni donors to fund accessibility improvements to the house while it was already undergoing renovations. Now the house has automatic sensors to the exterior doors and a room on the ground floor with a door sensor, a special bed and medical supplies, a lift to help others get Babb in and out of bed, and a larger and more accessible shower.

Babb has three nurses who check on him six days a week, but his roommate usually helps him get ready in the mornings and evenings, and his other fraternity brothers assist him with daily tasks.

“It’s surreal,” Babb said of his life since the accident, “but what’s more surreal is that I can live my life the way I do — going out, dating and doing normal things. It’s definitely surreal, but in a good way, of course.”

Day to day

After arriving at the lecture hall for his journalism class, Babb explained that he asks students with laptops in his classes to give him copies of their notes in exchange for gift cards. For tests, he goes to an accommodation center.

After the accident, he was a semester behind, even after taking summer classes in 2016. But after he completes 18 credit hours this semester, he’ll be caught up. However, in addition to his major, he has two minors, so he’ll need an extra semester to graduate, he said.

If that wasn’t enough, his summer was swamped working as an intern for the Provost’s Office. KU’s Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Neeli Bendapudi acted as a sort of mentor, he explained. He represented KU on various projects with Adidas and VML, and suggested ways to reach and connect with students without spamming their inboxes or social media.

After his integrated marketing communication class, Babb headed back to Beta for lunch, explaining that his fraternity was the main reason he wanted to return to KU.

“I pushed myself harder because I wanted to go and do my own thing,” Babb said.

He uses the dictation function on his phone to call his brother, Adam, a KU freshman and Beta pledge, and asks him to come outside and join him for lunch.

The Babb brothers recounted how 50 Beta men, including all of Tom Babb’s pledge class, chartered a bus to Evergreen in February 2016 shortly after the accident. The Betas and the Babb family surprised Tom with a celebration at El Rancho Brewing Co., where his fraternity brothers officially initiated him.

“I’ve never seen anyone look so happy,” said pledge brother Will Devries of Babb.

After seeing firsthand the fraternal support for Tom, Adam described how he turned to his parents and declared, “I’m going to KU, and I’m going to be a Beta.”

After lunch, Tom Babb went to his room to start on some coursework. Sitting in front of the computer, as he moved his head, the mouse made the same movement. He opened a webpage and used dictation software to name the website he wanted to visit.

He uses other dictation-enhanced electronics to operate different things around the room, such as light switches.

A brotherhood of care

As Babb heads back to campus for a work meeting, his roommate Mitch Simmons, one of Babb’s pledge brothers, points out the advantages of having an entire houseful to look after Babb. Probably half of them can lift him in and out of bed without issue. Otherwise, it’s a 30-minute process.

“It would be a lot more difficult for him to live alone or with a full-time caretaker,” he said. “There’s all those little dependencies that add up that you don’t think about. Here we can spread those duties around.”

Henry Killen, another pledge brother who was his roommate last spring, said while there was definitely a period of growing pains, eventually helping Babb with everyday things became second nature. The two had a lot of fun last spring, he said, and it was probably his most memorable semester yet, in part because of the situation’s uniqueness.

DeVries said it took everyone in the house time to adjust to taking care of Babb. But, eventually, everyone was comfortable with it, and now people cycle in and out of Babb’s room constantly to hang out with him and make sure he’s doing well.

“It’s cool how normal it feels at this point,” he continued. “He’s just a part of our lives now. People settled into the routine.”

Beta house mother Melanie Moss said she was impressed with Babb’s attitude after the accident because he loves to joke and banter with his brothers. She was also proud of the fraternity’s willingness to help him in any way it could, including starting the Tom Strong 5K in his honor. In its two-year history, the 5K has raised about $80,000 for KU students who, like Babb, have accessibility and accommodation needs.

Both Babb and his Beta brothers said it’s important for people to realize that not everything associated with fraternities or sororities is bad, with Babb stating that he’s proud to be part of Greek life at KU.

“I would not be where I am today without my Beta brothers or without the Greek life in general at the University of Kansas,” Babb said. “Everyone I interact with on a daily basis is extremely helpful, nice and willing to do anything for me. That is something you do not see every day.”

Only forward

Regarding his more long-term plans, Babb hopes to finish college within five years, with a major in strategic communications and minors in business and marketing. He also hopes to receive a professional selling certificate.

Post-college, he doesn’t know where he wants to live, but preferably somewhere hot “because I get cold very easily,” Babb said.

He’s not entirely sure of his future career, but he definitely wants to do some type of consulting, he said, possibly for a marketing or accounting firm.

With his creativity and passion, Babb has many opportunities career-wise, said Janet Rose, a KU journalism professor who supervised Babb during his internship.

“Tom is extremely smart, very savvy and quick to pick up on opportunities,” Rose said. “He’s perceptive and a delight to work with because he’s very positive and professional.”

Simmons said he believed Babb’s injury helped motivate him even more, and this past summer really propelled him in his future career.

“He’s the most outgoing person you’ll ever meet,” Simmons said. “He can talk to anyone, and almost everyone (at KU) knows him at this point.”

But more than anything, it is Babb’s determination that will help achieve his goals, DeVries said.

“He refuses to quit in anything that he does,” DeVries continued. “He was determined to come back to the house.”