Rick Cardenas, ‘Minnesota’s strongest voice for the disabled community,’ dies at 79

From the ramps at the Capitol in St. Paul to those in the chambers of the Minneapolis City Council, Rick Cardenas’ wheelchair tracks and his passion for the disabled can be traced throughout the Twin Cities.

Cardenas, 79, died Wednesday, March 10, after complications following a stroke at Sholom Home Care in St. Paul.

“He demonstrated what persistence takes, no matter what obstacle,” said his niece Ruby McKusick. “If it was discriminating or unjust, he’d take it on and advocate to right the wrong. He was a force for advocating for disability rights.”

LIFE-CHANGING ACCIDENT

Cardenas was born Feb. 9, 1942, in St. Paul to Manuel and Helen Cardenas. His father was a machinist and his mother worked at Viking Drill and Tool.

He attended Harding High School where he excelled at hockey, football and baseball. He had hoped to play hockey for the University of Minnesota.

In 1960, on a trip back from Duluth one day before he was to report to the Army, 18-year-old Cardenas was in a car accident near Harris and suffered a broken back. He would live the rest of his life as a C4-C5 quadriplegic, meaning he had no use of his legs and only minimal use of his arms.

After two years at St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, Cardenas slipped into a deep depression. It was then that he started looking around at his fellow man, becoming acutely aware of what others were suffering. It energized him to act.

FINDING NEW PURPOSE

Cardenas began volunteering for various political candidates; he taught high school dropouts at the Guadalupe Area Project and assisted migrant workers, helping draft legislation to make their lives better. He was inspired by Latino/American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez.

“As a grade-schooler in the 60s during the grape boycotts, my younger sisters and I would accompany him on the picket line,” McKusick said. “Saturday mornings, my grandfather would drop us all off at a nearby grocery store where we would picket the sale of non-union grapes, signs in hand, sometimes riding on the back of his wheelchair.”

At 32, Cardenas attended Hamline University, where he studied sociology. It was while on campus, where he often had to wait in the cold for someone to open a door for him, that he began to see the disabled as another group that could use some advocacy.

“In terms of populations of people, he was free of snobbery or contempt or one-upmanship of anybody that I’d ever meet,” said longtime friend Larry Dunham. “He just didn’t think anyone should have more power than anyone else.”

PUSHING FOR CHANGE

Cardenas helped get a skyway elevator installed and stairwell access to the Green Line at Fifth and Cedar streets. He was also involved with the state-funded “Remembering with Dignity” project that labored to locate and provide markers for the estimated 13,000 patients who died while living in state institutions and were buried in anonymous graves.

Gov. Tim Walz described Cardenas as “a kind and decent man who advocated fiercely for disability rights.” Of Cardenas’ accomplishments, Walz said, “the accessibility pathway at the Capitol is just one of the projects that wouldn’t have happened without his firmness of purpose.”

His work was well known among leaders in the Twin Cities.

“Rick was Minnesota’s strongest voice for the disabled community,” said St. Paul developer John Mannillo, another longtime friend. “His whole life in St. Paul was special as well.”

END OF LIFE BLESSING

In December, Cardenas met his son, Paul Schneider, for the first time. He also learned he had four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Schneider was born three days before the 1960 automobile accident that left Cardenas paralyzed. He was delivered at the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital on Como Avenue in St. Paul, described then as a medical facility for unwed mothers. He was adopted by a couple whose loving parenting never made him feel the need to look for answers to his origins.

Cardenas had been searching for his son for years. But they didn’t connect until Schneider, through the urging of his wife, got a DNA genealogy kit from Ancestry.com which led him to his biological dad.

“I was nervous,” Schneider said. “But once we met, it was easy. His family made it easy for me. The love that they have for me is amazing.”

Schneider said he wishes he hadn’t waited so long but said he did take a few shifts sitting with Cardenas in the hospital and got to introduce him to some of his grandchildren. He said his appreciation for his father has grown in recent days as he’s learned more about Cardenas’ accomplishments and the people he touched.

“It is amazing the stuff that he’s done with his handicap,” Schneider said. “It blows me away.”

FINAL DAYS

As Cardenas aged, his health problems increased. An infection caused him to have both legs amputated. Just days after celebrating a ribbon-cutting of the wheelchair ramps at the Capitol in 2019, he had a stroke.

Dunham was with him last week, helping as an aide, when Cardenas stopped talking and stared off into space. He had another stroke, from which he would not recover.

Dunham said Cardenas insisted on being as independent as possible and wanted others with disabilities to think the same. For him, the sky was the limit.

“If you want to just say two words that would sum him up, it would be ‘not yet,’ ” Dunham said. “I haven’t done it yet; it hasn’t happened yet, but don’t rule it out.”

Cardenas was proceeded in death by his parents, his sister JoAnn Enos and his brothers Manny, Charles and Putzy Cardenas.

An outdoor service is planned for 1-5 p.m. June 13 on Harriet Island.

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