Oceanside native Ken Kunken, who suffered a spinal cord injury during a college football game in 1970, has managed to carve out a successful career as a trial attorney in Nassau County.
Now, Kunken has recently published his memoir, titled “I Dream of Things That Never Were,” a collection of his life memories that he began compiling 52 years ago. He detailed the story of his life as a quadriplegic trial attorney, his personal experiences with disability, education, law, the American healthcare system, and his struggles and triumphs following an injury that left him almost totally paralyzed.
The memoir recounted how Kunken has battled back, earning four college degrees and rising above it all to become a well-respected assistant district attorney and how he testified to the inadequacy of the healthcare insurance coverage in front of a Senate Subcommittee at Hofstra University.
“About six months after I was hurt, I had the opportunity to testify before the United States Senate Health Subcommittee, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy,” Kunken said. “Eight days after I testified, Senator Kennedy sent me a glass paperweight in the mail that had an inscription on it that he said his late brother, Robert Kennedy, liked very much.
“The inscription wrote: ‘Some men see things as they are, and say why? I dream of things that never were, and say why not?’ And I just love that quotation and thought that it made so much sense. When I decided to write a memoir, I titled it ‘I Dream of Things That Never Were,’ based on a part of that quotation.”
Kunken said the idea for his memoir came from his friend, Albert Meglin, who suggested that he jot down his feelings on paper and share his story about his rehabilitation experience. In April of 1971, Kunken began dictating his message to family members and friends, who would write down his words.
After only adding to his book every few months or years over the last five decades, Kunken said the memoir serves as testament for the adversities that people with disabilities face everyday. One of his greatest struggles early on was the lack of wheelchair accessibility almost everywhere he went.
“I had notes about a lot of what took place and as the years went on, and how my attitudes were changing about where I was in life and what I was doing,” Kunken said. “I would try and write as best I could what I was feeling at that time.
“It obviously dredged up a lot of old memories, many of which were not pleasant, but I felt it was important to say what it was like back then before the Americans with Disabilities Act (of 1990), and what it was like back then when no one would give me an opportunity to show what I could do despite how hard I was working.”
During his junior year at Cornell University, Kunken broke his neck making a tackle in “lightweight” football, which was what he said they called football back in the 1970s. As a result, he suffered a spinal cord injury, becoming paralyzed from the neck down.
With an immense amount of support from family and friends, Kunken said they kept him motivated to stay strong and continue participating in some of the same activities he enjoyed doing before his injury.
“I knew at 20 years old, when I was a kid, that it was just too soon (to) give up on life,” Kunken said. “It was clear to me that in order to have any chance of being successful, I had to make the most of my mental abilities. I knew I needed to go back to school and get the best education I could get, and then hope that I'd be employable.”
Kunken went on to earn four degrees, three of which were from Ivy League universities. He said his inspiration in seeking higher education came from his desire to help other people with disabilities and provide them with support and representation.
“One of the issues that I tried to confront and encourage is that people do not set limited expectations for others and for them to keep their expectations high,” Kunken said. “A lot of times people's performance rises or falls based on what others expect of them. And if you expect more from somebody, a lot of times that will encourage them to do more with their lives.”
Kunken also made national news headlines when he and his wife, Anna, became the parents of triplet sons, James, Timothy and Joseph, through the process of in vitro fertilization. Kunken described his experiences as a father as “a miracle” and “great fortune.”
“It was incredible,” Kunken said. “And I was actually in the delivery room when she gave birth. And while I tried my best to write about it in the book, there really are no words that could adequately describe what it's like to be next to your wife in the delivery room, while she's delivering triplets. It's incredible.”
His success in life, as an attorney, husband and father, was not without his own doubts.
“You know, with just about everything that I was doing, there was always doubt in my mind,” Kunken said. “There were doubts whether I could ever go back to school, succeed in my courses and eventually graduate. There was doubt in my mind whether I could actually get a job and perform well on it. There were even doubts that I'd ever meet a woman that I could really fall in love with and want to spend the rest of my life with, and then become a father. Sure there were doubts, but they didn't stop me from pursuing (them).”
The information on where Kunkens book can be purchased is on his website, kenkunken.