Paralyzed a decade ago, Santa Rosa man to earn SSU business degree

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Pomp and Circumstance

The graduation tune will sound repeatedly this weekend as Sonoma State University awards degrees to more than 2,900 students, the largest class in the university’s 58-year history.

Santa Rosa auto dealer Henry Hansel will receive an honorary doctorate of letters from Timothy White, chancellor of the California State University system, during the ceremony for the School of Arts and Humanities.

All ceremonies are at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall and Lawn and will be live-streamed online at commencement.sonoma.edu.

Saturday

9 a.m. — School of Business and Economics

1 p.m. — School of Science and Technology

5 p.m. — School of Arts and Humanities

Sunday

9 a.m. — School of Social Sciences A

1 p.m. — School of Social Sciences B

5 p.m. — School of Education

Honza Ripa will be among the 1,900 cap- and gown-wearing students receiving their degrees this weekend as part of Sonoma State University’s largest class in history.

But his stage presence will be noticeable as the 28-year-old Santa Rosa resident gets a handshake and diploma for a master’s degree in business administration — the key, he hopes, to a career in finance.

No one in the audience will see that Ripa stands 6-foot-4 or guess he was a golf star at Healdsburg High School 10 years ago, smashing balls down the middle of the fairways at the foot of Fitch Mountain.

On June 13, it will be a decade to the day that Ripa, during a party with friends on a Russian River beach, dove into the green water and fractured two vertebrae in his neck, leaving him mostly paralyzed from the neck down.

He will roll onto the graduation stage in a motorized wheelchair that has been Ripa’s sole source of personal locomotion ever since.

He rents a room at a house in west Santa Rosa and depends on caregivers for getting him in and out of bed, washing, dressing and feeding him and driving him around in a minivan modified for wheelchair access.

Ripa has just enough use of his right hand to operate his wheelchair, computer and phone.

But on a scale of 1-10, Ripa said, he rates his satisfaction with life at 8.

“I’m good now,” he said. “Much better now that school’s over with.”

Life’s had bumps since his three-month rehabilitation from the spinal injury, with bouts of depression and recurring kidney and urinary tract problems resulting from the physical limits imposed by paralysis.

But Ripa’s wit and will have never left him. Asked if he considers himself disabled, he said it was “an interesting question.”

His blunt answer: “I always say crippled. It’s the truth.”

Nor does he think often about the events of that sunny June day that permanently altered the arc of a young man’s life.

“I’ve kind of moved on,” Ripa said. “It is what it is. Nothing can be done about it.”

Katka Kanzler said it was hard to watch her able-bodied and strong-willed son adjust to a life of total dependence on others.

“I remember that there were times I had doubts if we will ever pull through this,” she said. “I would have never thought that I will live to this day; to see him graduating from college. I still don’t know how he was able to do that.”

Academics were never a problem, as Ripa earned an associate degree in business at Santa Rosa Junior College in 2013 followed by a bachelor’s degree at SSU in 2016.

Ripa started the master’s program two years ago, taking two night classes a week. The program was “pretty simple for me,” he said, acknowledging that he had far more time to study than most of his classmates, who held full-time jobs.

In group exercises, Ripa said he was often assigned the role of chief financial officer because he is “good with numbers.”

Susan Flannery Adams, a lecturer in SSU’s School of Business and Economics, said Ripa was an asset to her class in Managing and Motivating Employees.

Pomp and Circumstance

The graduation tune will sound repeatedly this weekend as Sonoma State University awards degrees to more than 2,900 students, the largest class in the university’s 58-year history.

Santa Rosa auto dealer Henry Hansel will receive an honorary doctorate of letters from Timothy White, chancellor of the California State University system, during the ceremony for the School of Arts and Humanities.

All ceremonies are at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall and Lawn and will be live-streamed online at commencement.sonoma.edu.

Saturday

9 a.m. — School of Business and Economics

1 p.m. — School of Science and Technology

5 p.m. — School of Arts and Humanities

Sunday

9 a.m. — School of Social Sciences A

1 p.m. — School of Social Sciences B

5 p.m. — School of Education

“Everything he did was 110% and very thoughtful and polished,” she said.

Ripa combined quiet humility, positive attitude and humor that enabled him to emerge as a leader among fellow students and win his instructor’s admiration.

“One of my favorite people in the world,” Adams said.

Ripa plays online chess, competes in local tournaments and plays at tables set up during Santa Rosa’s Wednesday Night Markets. He holds a U.S. Chess Federation rating of 1,600, 400 points below the expert range.

To “get away from city life,” Ripa said he enjoys wheelchair outings on paved trails at Spring Lake Regional Park and along Santa Rosa Creek.

The next phase of his life — starting after a two-week break — will be looking for work, possibly as a financial planner, with a local company. Ultimately, Ripa said he would like one day to land in a chief financial officer’s post.

More than anything, he yearns to earn a living after years of receiving disability payments.

“I’ve always been self- reliant,” he said.

Ripa hasn’t given up hope of walking again as he follows the work of ReWalk Robotics, an international company producing exoskeletons, mechanical devices that a paralyzed person can strap on and regain movement.

Meanwhile, the job market looms as the next challenge he will face.

“Life is tough, but it could always be tougher,” he said.

Kanzler, now a Placerville resident, recalled her son saying, long before his injury, that he would provide for her and care for her in her old age.

“And maybe he will,” she said. “I almost believe he can do anything. I look up to him. He is my hero.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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