The phone rang around midnight that Wednesday, surprising Mary Ellen Colangelo as she read a book under the covers in her Great Kills room.
The sophomore high school student heard her father sobbing when he took the call.
“I knew something was wrong. I was so scared that my teeth were chattering, ”she said.
Her older brother was shot dead in a robbery from a Washington, DC apartment. It was September 25, 1974, and he was a 21-year-old law student at Georgetown University.
Severely injured from a gunshot to the neck, David Anthony Colangelo would survive the life-threatening injury but would live the rest of his life crippled from neck to toe.
His death on September 12 at the age of 68 at his home in Fairfax, Virginia, demonstrated his courage, resilience and determination as a lawyer, husband, father and advocate for people with disabilities. His friends and family say he refused to let his disability – or his bitterness and anger about the unsolved crime – interfere with his life plan.
‘THE PARTY IS HERE’
The front door to her friend’s brick row house had been left open that night to help guests find the party for the other law students. Handwritten signs were placed around the area announcing the exact address on 12th Street SE, as invitations had been sent out with the wrong information.
It turned out to be an open invitation to two thugs, one carrying a small-caliber, long-barreled handgun, who walked in directly around 11:30 a.m. and ordered David and about 15 friends to empty their pockets and throw their wallets on the floor. .
“We were just talking and drinking beer” when the thieves broke in and ordered them against the wall, a guest said in a report.
“All of a sudden, they were in the middle of the room, pointing a gun at us,” another recalls.
As David moved behind a chair, a single shot was fired, hitting him in the neck. He collapsed to the ground as the thieves escaped with less than $ 15 in cash.
“My brother always said they looked drug addicted,” Mary Ellen Colangelo later recalled, assuming the motive was drug related.
The bullet severed David’s spinal cord. At DC General Hospital, it was touch and go, Mary Ellen said, as her family prayed for him to make it through.
“He wanted to live and he was determined to finish his law studies,” she added.
AN ARMY OF FRIENDS
David’s medics chose not to remove the bullet as it could cause more damage. After nearly a year of rehab at the Rusk Institute in Manhattan, he returned to Washington in the fall of 1975 to resume his studies – with the help of a small army of loyal friends and dedicated volunteers.
“The doctors told me that even though I was paralyzed, there was no reason I couldn’t continue my law school, and I decided right away that I would continue,” David said. during an interview.
A stable team of assistants worked on shifts to drive him to and from the legal center, share their lecture notes, and help with his personal tasks at home. They often stayed with him overnight or on weekends.
And they’ve provided support with many hospitalizations for pneumonia and other respiratory infections that are common challenges for quadriplegics.
“It’s hard to say how much they went out of their way because I was disabled,” he would later say.
Among the volunteers was Dorothy Saunders, a law schoolmate who became David’s girlfriend – and later, his wife.
“She was the most helpful of all,” David said at the time. “One of the happiest things about the past two years has been my relationship with her.”
“I was impressed by his friendliness and I admired his intelligence and drive,” she said recently.
David and Dorothy married on April 25, 1981 and raised two sons, Andrew and Stephen.
PIANIST AND ATHLETE
Born October 14, 1952 at the original Staten Island Hospital on Castleton Avenue, David Colangelo was the oldest of four children – three boys and a girl.
Her mother, former Lorraine Paoli, taught math and Italian at New Dorp High School. His father, Anthony, trained as a mechanical engineer and helped run the family business, Bacci’s Charcoal Haven, a popular restaurant in New Dorp in the 1970s.
He graduated from St. Clare School in Great Kills and Regis High School in Manhattan, where he sang with the glee club and was a member of the cross country team. He was also active in the Boy Scouts of America, becoming an Eagle Scout.
David was a gifted pianist who replaced organist at St. Clare’s Church and accompanied the parish theater group, his sister said.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, graduating a year earlier to enroll at Georgetown University Law Center.
The shooting cost him a year in school, but he excelled in law school and graduated as a Juris Doctor in May 1977.
“What amazes me about him and his family is the incredible lack of bitterness,” said Reverend James B. Malley, when he was chaplain at law school. “He has his problem, but he’s determined to be a self-directed professional.
“I had a lot of really low moments and a lot of doubts,” David admitted to a reporter at the time. “But I have a lot of things that a lot of normal people don’t have – supportive friends and a girl I’m in love with.”
“Physical disability does not always color my way of seeing life,” he added. “It would be nice not to have the disability, but I guess the ideal is to think about things that I can do. It doesn’t make life perfect, but it still makes life perfect.
Admitted to the Washington, DC bar shortly after graduation, he was appointed legal assistant to the National Labor Relations Board and served 37 years as the council’s attorney general before retiring in 2014.
ADVOCACY FOR THE DISABLED
David and his wife lobbied federal and state officials on a variety of issues advancing the quality of life for people with disabilities.
“We were also keen to advocate for change at the local level,” said Dorothy, especially when she was raising their two sons in Alexandria, Virginia. Their efforts have resulted in improved wheelchair access to sports fields, playgrounds and local parks.
They visited their sons’ schools to show their classmates how David drove his breathing-controlled wheelchair and let them get on and off on the wheelchair lift of his van.
They were trained to become peer counselors through a local spinal cord injury support group and visited newly injured people and their families. David also advised other federal employees with disabilities who found it difficult to obtain reasonable accommodations in their workplaces.
“It’s good that able-bodied people see that people in wheelchairs aren’t just things to complain about,” David once told an Advance reporter.
Dorothy Saunders reflected on the impact her late husband had on her life and the lives of others.
“I will mostly remember David’s strength of character – his determination to share his sharp intellect despite his still body, his acceptance of his disability without bitterness or even complaint, his gentle temper and his thoughtful outlook.”
“He’s never been one to feel sorry for himself,” recalls his mother, Lorraine. “At least he didn’t show it. He didn’t focus on what he lost; he focused on what he still had and what he could still do with his life.
Besides his wife, mother and sister, David Colangelo is survived by two brothers, John (Margie) and Peter (Mary Anne); two sons, Andrew (Lauren) and Stephen, and three grandchildren, Jack David, Charlie Ryan and Grace Rose. Her father Anthony died in 2003.
A funeral mass was held on October 9 in St. Clare’s Church and a celebration of the life of David was held on November 7 at River Farm, overlooking the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia.
The arrangements, which included private cremation, were handled by Direct Cremation Services of Virginia. Memorial donations can be made to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the Well Spouse Association, or United Against Gun Violence.