Farewell Frank

Frank Rigo in Washington, DC during 2014 Veterans Day memorial services. File photo PVA

PVA says goodbye to long-time PVA member and friend Frank Rigo

Elder statesman Frank J. Rigo of Phoenix, a member of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) for more than 50 years passed away February 18, 2015. He was 91.

Mr. Rigo was a member of PVA for more than 50 years, and as national secretary more than 25 years, retiring in 2002. He was reelected to the position in 2008, where he served until 2011.

He was a charter member of the PVA Arizona Chapter and served as its secretary for eight years. He was also a life member of both the Arizona Chapter and the former Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (now United Spinal Association).

Mr. Rigo a native of Prescott, Ariz., served with the 37th Fighter Control Squadron in the Philippines during World War II, and is also a U.S. Air Force veteran of the Korean War. One of four brothers who all served in the military, Mr. Rigo left for San Diego after graduating from Prescott High School and worked on B-24 Liberators in Consolidated Aircraft’s San Diego factory.

Frank Rigo in Washington, DC during 2014 Veterans Day memorial services. File photo PVA

After working on all those B-24s, he was hoping to fly one, and in January 1943 he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps with the hopes of becoming a pilot.

"I was a senior in high school when the Japanese attacked," Rigo says. "We were quite aware that war was now all around us and that it was just a matter of time before the United States got into it."

He entered the Army Signal Corps (which became Army Air Corps and in September 1947 the U.S. Air Force) and spent the war in the Pacific as an air traffic controller.

When Mr. Rigo was first paralyzed in the 1950s, he quickly discovered that the world wasn’t very friendly for people who use wheelchairs—for example, there were no curb cuts to help a wheelchair user get onto a sidewalk. And that’s just one of many obstacles he faced.

PVA Highlights

In 2003, Mr. Rigo was presented with the prestigious Speedy Award in recognition of his outstanding accomplishments and significant contributions to improving the lives of America's paralyzed veterans. He was well known for his accurate record keeping and enthusiastically sharing his historical PVA expertise and personal perspective of life. 

As recently as Veterans Day, November 11, 2014, he was honored to be a invited to participate in the official wreath-laying ceremony at the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC, representing Paralyzed Veterans of America. 

Mr. Rigo remained active in PVA until this last hospitalization, including serving as ex-officio on the PVA Resolution Committee.  He also attended PVA conventions and board of director’s meetings and teleconferences, as recently as January 2015.

Accessibility and Frank Rigo:

"If you were in a wheelchair in the 1950s, you had to be a lot more athletic. Because there were no curb cuts, you had to learn to jump curbs with your wheelchair. Department stores were another problem. I learned how to go up and down escalators in my chair.

I’ve been involved with PVA for more than 50 years. They helped change the world for people in wheelchairs, starting with the VA hospitals. They are much easier to get around in these days compared to my first experience in the 1950s. Back then; the Long Beach VAMC hospital was a converted Army barracks.

Today, many patients have a private bathroom and shower, unlike the days of one large room used by several patients with a bathtub. Accessibility was not commonplace and even something as simple as opening a door turned into a daily frustration.

Patients were forced to jerk the door toward you, and then quickly jam your foot in the door, before pulling the door open. Now, doors open automatically as you approach.

The world isn’t perfect—I still avoid department stores during the holidays because the aisles are choked with displays and large tables with merchandise. But at least I don’t find myself staring up at a building with lobby doors that are too small, or faced with revolving doors wondering, how am I going to get in there?"

Listen to a radio interview Mr. Rigo recently gave to Hometown Heroes, a weekly radio show honoring the men and women of the armed forces.


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