Updated on 09/17/2011 12:36PM

For 30 years, he beat the odds


WASHINGTON - I knew Glen Gallivan for the last six years of his short life, which ended last week, and during that time I never heard him complain about anything - except, perhaps, a tough loss at the racetrack. He refused to express a word of regret or self-pity about the affliction that fate had dealt him.

Glen had been born with spinal muscular atrophy, a disease whose victims progressively lose their ability to move. At first, doctors predicted that he wouldn't live to see his second birthday. Even if he survived, he was not supposed to be a functional human being. But for 30 years, Glen beat the odds. He used a motorized wheelchair to move, a portable ventilator to breathe, and voice-activated software to work at a computer, and he acted as if these were minor inconveniences. "I'm just a person who needs more equipment," he said.

If he remained upbeat and enthusiastic, it was partly because he had found the passion that constantly engaged him. He loved to go to the track, to handicap races, and to bet; he had finished his daily speed-figure calculations shortly before he died of cardiac arrest at his home in Ocala, Fla.

Glen's mother, Patti Hackett, had been determined that her son would live his life as normally as possible. They were living in Cincinnati when he was ready to start his education, and she enrolled him in a mainstream school. In an era when society was not attuned to the needs and rights of the handicapped, school officials tried to bar him. Hackett appealed directly to the mayor of Cincinnati, Jerry Springer, and won her battle to keep him in class.

Glen did well in school and made many friends. He was the statistician for school baseball teams, and that sport was his first love. After taking a trip to visit seven major-league ballparks, he recognized that the facilities for handicapped fans at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium were distinctly subpar and undertook a campaign to improve conditions. When the city council ordered the stadium to make changes, The Associated Press reported: "The drive to improved access was initiated by Glen Gallivan, a 14-year-old handicapped Reds fan."

While he enjoyed record-keeping for baseball teams, Glen thought he might be able to use his facility with numbers and statistics in a more profitable fashion. His mother said, "He knew he wasn't going to make money by mowing lawns or working at Burger King," and Glen wondered if he might be able to make money at the track. He started studying the races, and when he collected $150 on his first winning bet, he was hooked.

In 1997, when he was an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Glen attended Churchill Downs's seminar for college journalism students; the annual event is held in the track press box on the weekend before the Kentucky Derby. Glen wasn't particularly interested in the seminar, but he had always dreamed of going to Churchill and seeing the Derby. Once he was there, he pleaded with publicity director Karl Schmitt for a pass to cover the Derby - and eventually reported on the race for a Florida radio station.

Glen introduced himself to me in the press box, and during the week we talked often about racing and handicapping. I saw a way to put his interests and skills to good use.

A partner and I operate a business that provides to Daily Racing Form the Beyer Speed Figures that appear in the record of every Thoroughbred. We and our employees download information about the day's races at every American racetrack, analyze it, make our calculations, and transmit our speed figures back to the Form. I thought Glen could be an ideal employee. Since he was adept at using a computer, his physical handicaps would not handicap him in this job. When I broached the idea to him, he was enthusiastic; after a few weeks of training, he started working daily to produce speed figures. He had plenty of other activities, too: He was the racing editor of a publication in Ocala for a few years, and he maintained his own website, Bet Glen 2 Win, where he made daily selections for tracks around the country.

In a society where people regularly ask for benefits and dispensations because they are disadvantaged, Glen wanted no favors and made no excuses. In the six years that I was his boss, he never uttered the phrase, "I can't do this. . ."

His spirit never failed him, even though his frail body did.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post