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
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
“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
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