Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Terry Haffner


Alex Vagelatos

Whatzup Features Writer

Published July 31, 2003

Heads Up! This article is 19 years old.

At 50, Terry Haffner is a mature man who dominates a room. He’s a

fast talker, articulate, assured, one of six siblings that include a

lawyer and a former police public information officer. He makes his

living as a painter – which fulfills his career dreams – and he has

traveled to at least 30 states as a motivational and inspirational

speaker.

He also sits in a motorized wheelchair because he was born without

arms and with only partial legs. He can get around quite well in the

600-pound chair, powered by two car batteries and rated to top out at

6-1/2 miles per hour. But, of course, he’s rooted to the chair. He

doesn’t punctuate his conversation with gestures, and he doesn’t

shift position to draw the listener in. He just talks. And people

listen, as they have since he started traveling from Fort Wayne to

other parts of the country in the 1970s to speak to dozens of

organizations about how you can overcome challenges and Do What You

Always Wanted To.

“Usually, I talk for a while and give a demonstration of how I

paint,” Haffner says of his typical appearance before a group or at a

school. “People are curious, just like I would be, so I tell them a

little about myself first.”

That little bit usually involves how Haffner has made his way since

childhood in a wheelchair, overcoming obstacles, both literal and

figurative. In addition to being a successful painter of landscapes

and seascapes – always in his favorite medium, acrylics – Haffner for

years was the local gadfly on the subject of building accessibility

for the physically disabled. Although that battle largely has been

won, a couple of generations of newspaper readers will remember his

often emotional letters to the editor and guest columns on the

subject.

“I got emotional, of course, because I believed in what I was

writing about. That’s okay; it makes people remember what you wrote,”

he says. Since he began his letter writing and organizing, the

Americans With Disabilities Act has become the law of the land, and

there is a Fort Wayne ordinance governing handicapped accessibility,

not the least important aspects of which are the now ubiquitous ramps

in curbs at intersections and handicapped parking spaces.

The activist is not quite done in Haffner’s mind, however. A

graduate of Bishop Luers High School and frequent speaker to classes

at parochial and public schools, Haffner also sees some of those

buildings at the final frontier to handicapped accessibility. Perhaps

some other time. Haffner is content now with life and prefers to

concentrate on his paintings. But just for now, come to think of it.

He has other plans brewing.

“I haven’t been speaking on the national circuit for six years

because I took some time off to spend with my family. But I’m ready

to get back to it,” Haffner says, adding he has called a group that

books disabled speakers in order to get on their list.

“Over the years I’ve concentrated on speaking to groups that work

with the disabled, like Easter Seals, ARC of Northeast Indiana or

Turnstone,” he says, mentioning two Allen County organizations that

concentrate on the mentally and physically disabled, respectively.

“Often I talk about the power of art and music to help people reach

goals that can help them in their lives.”

The power of art can look pretty impressive when an audience watches

Haffner paint while holding the brush with his prosthetic right arm

and, when tiring of that, holding it between his teeth.

“I almost always put the brush in my mouth when I want to paint

details. The kids in schools love to try it, but I tell them it takes

a little practice to get it right.”

While not venturing far recently in his specially designed van,

Haffner never gave up speaking at local schools, inspiring thousands

of students with his insights and with his perseverance. To this day

he gets letters and Christmas cards from young adults who recall his

visits to their schools. One woman wrote recently to tell him she had

become a teacher herself.

“Those kinds of things make you feel pretty good,” he says.

Haffner has spent a lifetime making other people feel pretty good,

about them and about him.

“Terry was one of our founding members,” says Karen Starn, president

of Fort Wayne ArtSource, who helped start the Fort Wayne Artists Coop

10 years ago. Haffner has about 20 paintings on display at the

gallery, 2812 Lower Huntington Rd.

“I’ve known him a long time. I always admired his work and his

persistence at being creative. He’s been very easy to work with. He

has a great sense of humor and he’s been an inspiration to me, as

well,” Starn said.

In addition to his work at ArtSource, Haffner also has a painting in

the Artlink Members Show and another 10 or so pieces at Turnstone,

3320 N. Clinton St., where he donates a percentage of each sale to

that organization.

Haffner’s work also will be on exhibit at Art Around the Square in

Columbia City Sept. 6-7. He has plans to exhibit his work this winter

in a gallery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His paintings invariably depict

scenes of harbors, old barns, houses, boats, rivers. They are simple

and direct and always full of vibrant colors. He doesn’t do

portraits, either of people or their pets. Many paintings are done

from photographs sent to him by other people, seeking to recreate on

canvas a favorite vacation scene or life’s memory.

“I prefer painting from photographs, but I like them to be in black

and white. That way, I can imagine the colors,” Haffner says.

His interest in art dates to the fourth grade, when he first

discovered he could cover a sketch pad on the floor with drawings. It

must have been a revelation to a little boy who had till then spent

much of his time learning to live so much differently than playmates.

With a pencil and, later, a brush he could communicate ideas and

emotions in a way most, less talented people couldn’t. How about

that? He could do something extremely well and you couldn’t.

He credits his first art teacher, Harriet Whonsetler at Brentwood

Elementary School, with refining his artistic vision. She assured him

he could draw, taught him about perspective and putting things in the

distance. There’s always something in the distance, isn’t there, and

whether you arrive in a special van holding your wheelchair or in

more typical fashion, you still have to make the journey.

Haffner graduated from IPFW with a degree in mental health, but he’s

never worked in the field. Armed with a portfolio of newspaper

articles and TV broadcasts about himself, he immediately set out on a

journey through a world larger than Fort Wayne. His first solo drive

was to Cincinnati, to speak at a college across the river in

Kentucky. It scared the living daylights out of him.

But he kept driving, one way or another. Now, he lives with his

family in a large room that has five floor-to-ceiling bay windows. In

the summer, he takes it easy, enjoying life at a lake house, Come

September, however, and he’s back at work, beginning each day with an

“Andy Griffith Show” rerun and then to his easel, where he paints or

draws something, daily, without fail.

Nostalgic harbors, with picturesque boats rocking gently in low

tide, or an old barn, its painted sides faded with weather and time.

Other people’s memories, sometimes. But always his vision of worlds

he can visit through his imagination and his art. Sometimes, if you

work hard enough, you can get to places other people

can’t.

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