Whenever someone went out of their way to tell Sam Dardick he couldn't do something, that just became a challenge he was quick to overcome.
A paraplegic at 13 after contracting polio, he learned to ride a wheelchair well enough to become an All-American wheelchair basketball star. After being told that no one in Nevada County cared about disability rights, he founded FREED, the first independent living center in Northern California. And as a Nevada County Supervisor, he helped preserve the rural aspect of the area he loved with his work on the 1995 General Plan.
Dardick, who died Tuesday at the age of 77, was called enormously influential by the disability rights advocates he helped train at FREED.
"He was able to really bridge party lines, to do what needed to get done," said Tony Sauer, who succeeded Dardick as executive director at FREED and who now serves as the director for the California Department of Rehabilitation.
At the time that Dardick founded FREED, there wasn't much disability awareness in Nevada County, Sauer said.
"We did not have an accessible library," he said, adding that Dardick helped push a ramp for the Grass Valley library as well as curb cuts in Nevada City.
"That was the start of it," Sauer said.
Dardick had started playing with Sauer on a basketball team of disabled locals called the Golden Spokes in a Nevada City church gym. He later met Ed Roberts, one of the people who started the independent living movement for the disabled.
In 1985, Dardick founded FREED, which stands for Foundation of Resources for the Equality and Employment of the Disabled.
Dardick hired Ann Guerra to work at FREED in 1988, setting a standard for her and the other employees that still carries on, she said. Guerra became the third director, taking over from Sauer.
"He really grounded these independent living principles in us," Guerra said. "The person with the disability is the expert - trust them. That's a powerful lesson to learn; it was very important to him that people who came to FREED could define what they needed."
Ana Acton, who succeeded Guerra at FREED and who now works for the state under Sauer, had known Dardick her whole life. But he became a vital role model after a car accident put her in a wheelchair at age 14.
"He was one of the only people in my life that had an obvious disability, so he was the one I could look to on how you live your life after a life-altering event - how you live in a wheelchair," Acton said. "He built his own house, he's out gardening ... He was a good (role) model.
"He could visualize and realize possibilities that other people wouldn't dream of," Acton said. He was larger than life. He really impacted people on so many different levels and across so many different areas."
Acton pointed to Dardick's role in mentoring her, Sauer and Guerra and helping them go on to influence disability rights on the local and state level.
"He really helped foster this community of leaders," she said. "I really looked up to him. He was the kind of person you can't forget. His reaches were so far and wide."
Nationally, Dardick was instrumental in helping to craft the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark legislation passed in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against disabled people, and attended the signing of the act, Sauer said.
Dardick had an enormous influence statewide as well, serving as president of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers in the 1980s, at a time when the centers were facing statewide budget cuts.
"Sam orchestrated a protest that lasted several days," Sauer said. "He got arrested ... He got (then-Gov.) Deukmejian to back off, and they never have had their funding threatened since that time."
Dardick's community involvement stretched well beyond disability rights, however. As a member of the San Juan Ridge community, he served on the library board and the fire department board.
He also served two terms as the District 5 representative on the Nevada County Board of Supervisors.
"One of his passions was smart growth and good land use," said former colleague Peter Van Zant. "He wanted to limit rural sprawl and (he) understood a good business climate was also important to make a worthwhile community."
Van Zant said that Dardick's intelligence and kindness always stood out.
"He was respectful of everybody who came before us," Van Zant said, "I don't know anyone who didn't like him or respect him."
Over and over, Dardick's kindness is cited by those who knew him well.
"He was a wonderful neighbor and friend," said Barbara Getz. "We have known him since the '70s, since both of us moved up to the Ridge. He was a very, very, active, community-minded person. He was just a sweet man, and super-smart. We just appreciated him for the caring, wonderful person he was ... He had so much energy to give to other people."
"He was pretty amazing," Sauer said. "Sam was not judgmental at all. He was very caring, very thoughtful ... Next to my parents, he was the most influential person in my life."
Born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1933, Dardick graduated from Washington University with a degree in architecture. In 1960, he got a master's degree in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley. In the 1960s, Sam married Geeta, had three kids, and practiced architecture and city planning.
They moved to the San Juan Ridge in the 1970s after three years traveling through Europe to India. Dardick built the family's spaceship-shaped cabin, raised animals, and gardened organically.
Dardick's polio made him into a "really strong person," Geeta Dardick said.
When he got out of the hospital at 15, he started playing basketball with World War II veterans, she said. One day, someone challenged him, doubting he could make a basket from his wheelchair. He promptly did just that.
"That was his way," Geeta Dardick said. "He was really a go-getter. Nothing stopped him. But he was so nice, everyone loved him; he was so charismatic.
"He was full of light and love," she continued. "He was happy with who he was."
Dardick was a loving father, said son Caleb.
"He was one of the most loving and sweet people," he said. "He just always supported us kids, and encouraged us to be whatever we wanted. He just always loved us and we knew it."
At the time of his death, Sam and Geeta had been married for 47 years.
"I just adored him," Geeta Dardick said.
The feeling was mutual, said son Caleb.
"He loved my mother," Caleb Dardick said. "His last words were her name."
There will be a memorial service for Dardick (see obituary, A5) at noon on Friday, at the Home of Peace Cemetery (6200 Stockton Blvd. at El Paraiso Avenue, Sacramento). Donations in his memory are welcome at FREED Center for Independent Living, 117 New Mohawk Road, Suite A, Nevada City, CA 95959.
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.