When Pastor Peter Wenzel learned to walk with crutches as a child with spina bifida, his physical therapists taught him how to fall, he recounted recently in an interview conducted in his parsonage near Clarksville, Iowa. Falling was a likely reality for this youngster and he was prepared for it by both these therapists and by parents determined to help him succeed.
“When I tripped over a rug in a store and fell, the clerk admonished my mother,” Peter recalled. “Why didn’t you point out the rug to him?” she quizzed.
“I won’t always be there with him,” she said. “He needs to learn on his own.”
This encouragement to be independent, together with solid preparation for life, offered by not only his parents and a supportive older brother and sister, but also his teachers, gave young Peter the foundation on which he has built his life.
Born in 1957 in an era when doctors didn’t always know how to treat spina bifida, Peter recalls that the doctor attending his birth left the delivery room, told his father that his son was born with spina bifida and said “you need to see a neurosurgeon,” and then simply walked off. His dad carried him in a basket when he was one month old to see that neurosurgeon.
“My parents had to fly by the seat of their pants,” he said.
At a time when adaptations for children with disabilities were rare, Peter, like his parents, made things work with ingenuity, creatively and persistence.
“I was born adapting,” he said. “This is all I’ve ever know. This is my norm.”
Adapting meant crawling up the stairs to his bedroom. Going to an “orthopedic school” for the first eight years of his school life. Turning to his dad, a draftsman, to design an ilestomy that didn’t leak. Enduring a psychological test at five years of age, at which time he was told he would “never be college material.” Responding to a nurse who told him children with spina bifida “were dropping like flies” at a nearby facility.
“I had great parents who saw me through. I really who I am today because of my family. And my teachers saw potential in me at my orthopedic school,” he recalled. Upon recommendation of his principal, he was mainstreamed in the local high school.
That was just the beginning of his academic life. Peter attended the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee for one year and then transferred to Lake College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, studying religion and theater. Graduating with a B.A., he then enrolled in seminary at the Boston School of Theology where he eared his M.Div. He was ordained in 1990. Today he serves as pastor of First United Church of Christ-Pleasant Valley in rural Clarksville. Peter was married 23 years and has a son who recently graduated from college.
“When I told a friend that I would like to go skydiving, he said ‘let’s do it.’ When I explained that my legs might not hold up, he came up with a solution,” Peter said. His friends, now numbering six, book-ended him to ensure a soft landing.
Peter says he’s not much of an advocate. He prefers to communicate a message with his actions, not his words. He doesn’t talk about his disability in sermons at his church.
“I’m there. Isn’t that message enough?”