As a teen in 1950s Scarborough, hockey was a way of life for Don James.
On the ice, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bobby Baun and Mike Nykoluk — then junior teammates who went on to have storied careers with the Toronto Maple Leafs. At the rink, James’ talent even caught the attention of big-league scouts.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
At the age of 17, following a life-altering diving accident in his hometown, James was paralyzed, becoming a quadriplegic.
Suddenly robbed of his ability to play his favourite on-ice pastime, James faced new challenges navigating life in a wheelchair.
Despite adversity, he persevered.
James became a family man and achieved success in the business world — all while giving back to his community.
Now living in Cavan, James, 88, was recently recognized by a world-famous publication.
He’s been named the longest living quadriplegic by Guinness World Records.
Reflecting on his rich personal life and accomplished professional career, James says he leaned on the support of his friends, family and community to overcome the daunting challenges he faced as a young man.
After years of post-accident rehabilitation, receiving treatment at Toronto’s Lyndhurst Institute, James married his late wife June — an “amazing woman” — and the couple raised three daughters together: Dawn, Denise and Darlene.
Capitalizing on the advent of new technologies in the 1960s and 70s, James carved out a path for himself in the cable television industry, eventually becoming the president of four Scarborough-based companies: Custom Cable Systems, Cabletronics, Phasecom and Microcom Systems.
James oversaw projects throughout the Toronto area, in Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie. He once worked with Ted Rogers, the late president of Rogers Communications and a trailblazer in the industry.
As a Rotarian, James was actively involved in his community. He was later recognized for his contributions to public life, receiving the Rotary Foundation’s Paul Harris Fellow award and earning the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal. James acted as vice-chair for the Lyndhurst centre’s board of governors — becoming a pillar of the institute that supported him after his accident in 1951.
“I was surrounded by so many good people that I just wanted to do things for the community,” James told The Examiner.
“I had a lot of people on my side that helped me through business, and I was successful, so I wanted to give something back.”
James credits his friends, family members and former teammates within the close-knit local hockey community as a driving force in his personal and professional life. With their unwavering backing, James says he was able to overcome what, at times, seemed like insurmountable obstacles.
“I think the strength comes from others and their support. When I couldn’t play hockey anymore, I stayed involved with the alumni. I had excellent nurses. It was those people that kept me going,” James said.
“If you just look around, you’ll see people who are willing to help you. If you’re willing to go a yard, they’ll take you a mile. There’s no limit to the help you can get if you look for it.”
About a month ago, after correspondence with Guinness World Records, the record became official and James was sent a certificate.
It’s now framed and hanging on his wall.
“I guess it means I’m getting old,” laughed James.
Based on his talks with Guinness World Records, he expects his name to appear in the upcoming edition of the annual reference book.
Nowadays, when James isn’t spending time with his family and grandchildren, he can be found reading or watching hockey.
Having now been in a wheelchair for 70 years, James considers himself a “lucky guy,” refusing to let the accident define him.
He wants others to know that one’s physical makeup doesn’t determine their success or happiness in life.
“I’ve had a wonderful journey. I think the message is that you can do it. You can be successful from a wheelchair.”
Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner, based in Peterborough. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.
Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner