Strength of Steel: Christopher Reeve shares wisdom and voices support for stem-cell research

Christopher Reeve, best known as the man who made a generation believe a man can fly as Superman, appeared at First Energy Park in Lakewood as the keynote speaker for “Empower New Jersey 2004: A Night of Motivation and Inspiration” on Sept. 29. The paralyzed actor made his audience believe he will walk again.

Despite fears that the soggy evening might cause a cancellation of the Reeve speech, the former Man of Steel was wheeled out to the speaker’s circle behind the home plate area upon introduction by “Empower” sponsor Diane Turton. The crowd, spread between seats on the field and in the stands, all rose to give Reeve a thunderous standing ovation.

Reeve acknowledged his New Jersey roots. “I spent my summers sailing on Barnegat Bay, driving around Toms River, Mantoloking, Point Pleasant – it’s all a part of who I am. The Princeton native said, “For me, New Jersey has always been a small state that does big things.”

“I come from New Jersey, not from Krypton,” Reeve said. “Actually, Krypton was boring; New Jersey is interesting. There’s a lot more going on,” the actor would later quip with a smile.

The primary focus of Reeve’s speech involved the expansion of one’s worldview and the maintainence of an open mind. Reeve said he was particularly proud of the long fight in courts that resulted in New Jersey becoming the second state in the union behind California to allow all forms of stem-cell research. The research, according to Reeve, will begin at a new lab at Rutgers University, where some of the country’s most intelligent scientists will look to further their knowledge of cancer, leukemia and paralysis.

“In probably 10 years, 15 years from now – maybe even sooner – when all types of research is in use, we will look back and say, ‘What was the fuss?'” Reeve said. “It has happened time and time again.”

Reeve, who was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident in 1995, has fought tirelessly for the study of paralysis and stem cell research. He has also been an advocate of self-empowerment.

“It begins with an understanding of oneself,” he said. “Some people achieve it very early and unfortunately some never attain it and they miss out. But to begin to understand who you really are and what your capabilities are, what you want your legacy to be, you begin to get to know yourself. It becomes clearer what you want to or have to do.”

To illustrate his point, Reeve told a story about his mother, who chased her dream of becoming a writer at the age of 50. Starting out at a small Princeton newspaper writing about dull town meetings, she worked her way up to eventually becoming editor of the same paper. At the same time, she trained herself in sailing, despite doctor’s warnings against physical activities that might exacerbate her asthma. She would go on to become a highly competitive sailor at the age of 64.

“I truly feel that if you understand yourself and you set goals without regard to the limits put on you, then nothing is impossible,” Reeve said. “Why not set your ideals and goals as high as you can. One of the keys to this is refusing to accept absolutes.”

According to the actor, one the most infuriating moments of his life was when doctors told him at 42 that he would never walk again. “I don’t take kindly to words like ‘never’ or general ultimatums,” he said.

“If you asked any scientist in 1995, they would say the spinal chord can’t regenerate,” Reeve said. “If you ask any scientist now, they’d say that the spinal chord can and they are. Things change.”

Reeve’s words seemed to strike a chord with many audience members. Several people in the stands could be seen shivering or crying.

“All of us have the power to make that change happen by looking inside ourselves and saying ‘I’m going to do the best that I can to discover what potential is inside of me,'” Reeve said. “There’s more inside of us than we are aware of.”

For one College student, the night proved to be a dream come true. “I’ve been a fan of Christopher Reeve since I was a little kid,” Tim Serabian, junior elementary education major, said. “The man is Superman. He isn’t just an actor anymore. He embodies that persona.”

Serabian was able to ask him about the first thing he wanted to do after he regained his ability to walk. “I won’t be doing much standing,” Reeve said. “When I get up, I won’t fall down. And if I do, I’m going to get right up.”

“I’m still shivering,” Serabian said. “This goes beyond words.”

Writer’s Note

Having been a cameraman for the Lakewood BlueClaws baseball team for four years, I have become accustomed to filming and working with celebrities. But when I heard Christopher Reeve was coming to my home turf, I knew I needed to act fast. Reeve has been an inspiration to me for his portrayal of Superman on the screen and for his selfless actions off-screen and I wanted to preserve this speech. Nothing will ever match the moment when I began to roll camera and for an instant, I locked eyes with a childhood hero.