One of the four remaining members of the Gang of 19 has died. Linda Chism-Andre passed away on September 10 at age 71.
In July 1978, Chism-Andre and eighteen other people in wheelchairs surrounded Regional Transportation Department buses on Colfax Avenue and Broadway and chanted, "We will ride!" The protest, led by what would become known as the Gang of 19, sparked a movement that called on equal access to public transportation, changing the course of disability rights in Denver and around the world. Chism-Andre spent the rest of her life pushing for more access and equality for people with disabilities.
Born in Kansas on June 2, 1947, Chism-Andre grew up in Casper, Wyoming. After her father passed away when Chism-Andre was young, her mother worked full-time to make ends meet.
At age seven, Chism-Andre came down with a flu-like illness that was diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. Her legs stiffened, and she lost her ability to walk. She became bed-ridden, leaving the house only when a friend with a car could pick her up or when someone could push around her wheelchair. Chism-Andre wasn't able to attend public school in her hometown and instead had tutors visit her at home. But that didn't stop her from becoming good friends with neighbors and kids at the local schools.
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Once Chism-Andre finished high school in the mid-'60s, she and her mother moved to Denver, where she was able to receive better medical care. Several surgeries later, Chism-Andre was able to sit upright and use an electric wheelchair to get around. From then on, she started campaigning for the rights of people living in nursing homes.
In 1978, with her wheelchair and grit, Chism-Andre rolled in front of those buses on Colfax and Broadway, forever enshrining herself in Denver history.
"I can still see Linda surrounding the buses with the others. She was such a proud advocate. She was completely committed," says John Holland, the attorney who filed the lawsuit against RTD on behalf of Atlantis, an independent living center that planned the protest.
Chism-Andre eventually enrolled at a community college in the Denver area and then earned her bachelor's degree from CU Denver. While studying, Chism-Andre was tutored in math by Walt Andre. They fell in love and married in 1982.
Andre had dealt with complications from diabetes throughout his life, and his vision waned as he aged. Chism-Andre became his eyes, and Andre became her legs.
"The two of them made quite a pair. She was his wheels, and he would do the cooking and the cleaning," says Diane Hardersen, Chism-Andre's lifelong close friend.
Chism-Andre eventually graduated from the University of Denver with a master's degree in social work in 1981. She became a licensed clinical social worker, spending the rest of her professional career working in the social-work field.
Chism-Andre served as a board member and the treasurer of Atlantis. She also served as a board member for the Colorado Fund for People With Disabilities and as a member of both the RTD Access-a-Ride Appeals Panel and the Medical Services Board, the rule-making body for Medicaid in Colorado.
Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, who served on the Medical Services Board prior to Chism-Andre's tenure, says that Chism-Andre replaced her after Reiskin was forced off the board due to disagreements with other members.
"They thought they were going to get someone who was just going to go along to get along. But that’s not what they got with Linda at all. It was really great watching it. She pushed them just as hard as I did," she says.
Reiskin and others looked up to Chism-Andre. "Linda was definitely a mentor to me and my generation. It’s a great loss."
"Linda's personality was direct, but incredibly sweet. She was direct and determined without making the person on the other side of the conversation feel inferior or without making the situation more complicated," says Candie Burnham, who met Chism-Andre in 2012 and now serves as executive director of Atlantis.
Beyond her activism and professional achievements, Chism-Andre also lived a rich life, filled with various hobbies and interests. She loved traveling and spending time in nature.
"Linda would take me up in the mountains in this old van she was driving with just hand gears. We would go up Mount Evans," says Hardersen. "Back then, the upper part of the mountain did not have a paved road. It was pretty scary. She’d be saying, 'Oh, look at that view!' I’d say, 'Linda, keep your eyes on the road!'"
Chism-Andre's other true love was music. Chism-Andre had a beautiful voice, her friends say. She sang at the wedding anniversaries of loved ones and knew the lyrics to any song requested. But it was her passion for attending concerts that stood out. Since Chism-Andre was in a wheelchair, she was always sitting in the front row.
"Linda went to all of the concerts at Red Rocks and Pepsi Center. We saw Barry Manilow a few times together. He’d come out and see her sitting in front of the stage and would sing directly to her. That was always his first song. And she always made sure that he knew that she was going to be there," says Janice Thompson, another lifelong friend.
Despite not having actually attended high school in Wyoming, Chism-Andre still took the lead in planning class reunions, considering herself an alumna.
"Linda was instrumental in having our class reunion. She had the spreadsheets on everybody who died, who got remarried or whatever. She kind of ran the reunions. And she never, ever was even in our high school," says Thompson.
In 2009, Chism-Andre received an invitation to attend President Obama's inauguration. She was sensitive to cold weather, and on that day, the temperature in Washington, D.C., was below freezing — but she toughed it out.
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In recent years, Chism-Andre started to exhibit signs of dementia and began working less. Even until the end, she was still pushing for an individual's right to decide where to live and receive care.
"One of Linda's goals was that she wanted to die at home. She believed so much in that consumer direction and not being institutionalized," says Chanda Hinton, a former colleague of Chism-Andre's and the founder of the Chanda Plan Foundation.
Her friends worked hard to make sure her goal of dying at home was achieved. And she did just that, passing away at her Lakewood residence, with her favorite cat, Bella, cuddled next to her.
A memorial service will be held for Linda Chism-Andre at 2 p.m. on October 6 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Lakewood. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Atlantis Community or Chanda Plan Foundation.