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Princeton Remembers a Local Hero

Matthew Hersh

When news of Christopher Reeve's death spread across the televisions and newspapers early in the week, he was remembered for his role as a champion for a cause just beyond the realm of scientific ability.

Interestingly enough, that role applied to two of his biggest public accomplishments: one as an on-screen superhero, and another as a tireless advocate for people who suffer from spinal cord injuries.

Of course, at home, he will be remembered as one of our own.

Mr. Reeve died on Sunday at his home in Pound Ridge, NY at the age of 52.

He had undergone treatment for a pressure wound commonly suffered by those who spend long periods of time in wheelchairs, according to Wesley Combs, Mr. Reeve's publicist. The wound had become severely infected and caused the actor and activist to fall into a coma after going into cardiac arrest. He was admitted to Northern Westchester Hospital on Saturday, but he never regained consciousness. His family was by his side at the time of his death.

Dana Reeve, his wife, thanked the actor's doctors and nurses, as well as "the millions of fans around the world who have supported and loved my husband over the years."

A horseback riding accident in 1995 left the actor paralyzed from the neck down. He has since been a leading advocate for persons with spinal cord injuries and has played a significant role in encouraging the federal government to explore possible benefits of embryonic stem cell research.

A 1970 graduate of Princeton Day School, Mr. Reeve's determination to play the frontman started early on in his life. At age nine, the young actor was picked to play a lead role in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Yeoman of the Guard at McCarter Theater. Subsequent roles in McCarter productions included Finian's Rainbow and South Pacific.

At PDS, he was president of the drama club and the student director of the glee club. A statement issued by the school offered its "most heartfelt condolences to Chris's family and friends."

He was encouraged to pursue his acting career at McCarter by Arthur Lithgow, then its executive director, according to Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter. "He graced this stage throughout his high school days."

But Ms. Mann, like many others who knew the actor, said his determination transcended acting. "Faced with the results of a tragic accident, he spent his last ten years fighting courageously and inspiring others. He will be sadly missed."

"His great love was the stage," said Louise Stephens, friend of Mr. Reeve for 20 years and president of Theater Management, Inc., the firm that operates the Garden Theater. "The best thing I ever saw him do was the Aspern Papers at the Royal Market Theatre in London," she said. "He did that with Vanessa Redgrave and held his own the whole time. He was so comfortable on stage, I wish more people could have seen him."

Of course, most people have seen him in his role in Superman, starring side by side with Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder, and while he is widely known for his performances in the Superman series, he was known for his affinity for smaller roles, roles that gave him more lateral movement as an actor. On the heels of the Superman success, he took a role as the leading man in Somewhere in Time.

At the time of the release, he said the role resonated with him personally because the leading character had everything going for him, "except a real commitment, a real love."

After the accident, "he was still very much Chris," said Ms. Stephens, and, she added, in addition to his love and devotion to his family and career, he had found a new commitment.

Politically active in the years since his accident, Mr. Reeve lobbied extensively for various public health concerns. The Lasker Foundation, a foundation built to enhance public awareness and understanding of medical research, issued Mr. Reeve an award for public service in 2003.

His medical research efforts have been cited in virtually every venue supporting stem cell research. He appeared at the Democratic National Convention in 1996 to lend his support for the Americans with Disabilities Act. "It's purpose is to give the disabled access not only to buildings but to every opportunity in society," he said in his speech.

Ms. Stephens recalled how Mr. Reeve's political opinion was only voiced when he felt it was appropriate, and with all of the right facts. The actor was involved with a group, the Creative Coalition, where actors were able to acquire information on various issues before speaking out in favor or against them.

Christopher Reeve was born on September 25, 1952 in New York City. At age four, he and his younger brother Benjamin moved to Princeton with their mother Barbara Johnson, a long-time journalist who still lives in Princeton. The two brothers both attended PDS.

Mr. Reeve went on to graduate from Cornell University, studying afterward at the Julliard School.

Christopher Reeve is survived by his mother and brother, his father, Franklin Reeve, his wife Dana, his son Will, 12, and two children from a previous relationship, Matthew, 25, and Alexandra, 21.

No funeral plans have been announced. Donations can be made in the actor's honor to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation at www.ChristopherReeve.org. Cards can be send to the family care of the Foundation at 500 Morris Avenue, Springfield, NJ 07081.

PDS will honor and remember Mr. Reeve on Alumni Weekend in May.

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