Joseph Larsen: Limiting the Limitations

“Joseph Larsen: Limiting the Limitations,” Ensign, Apr. 1988, 68–70

Joseph Larsen: Limiting the Limitations

On 2 June 1953, Joseph Larsen was driving alone on a Maryland highway when his jeep’s steering mechanism locked. The vehicle crashed into a guard rail, and Brother Larsen catapulted through the metal roof, landing about forty-five feet away. He remained conscious throughout the entire ordeal. “When I stopped rolling, I was flat on my back. I knew at that moment that my life was in the balance,” he recalls.

He suffered a broken neck and a badly damaged spinal cord. “My spirit literally started to leave my body. I earnestly prayed that if it were the Lord’s will, I would like to stay on the earth. When I finished praying, a peace came over me, and my spirit body reentered my mortal body. From that moment on, I knew I had nothing to fear.”

Brother Larsen and his wife, Shauna, were sustained through his long rehabilitation process by an unwavering testimony of Heavenly Father and a decidedly positive outlook. Sister Larsen says, “Life gives us all challenges—some we would rather do without. It’s what we do with the challenges that counts.”

Brother Larsen is committed to meeting those challenges. His friends and colleagues in Champaign, Illinois, describe him as a determined and energetic force in helping others achieve their potential. He believes that if there is a goal to be reached, “You just have to forge ahead, regardless of the obstacles.” Because he is paralyzed from the chest down, he forges ahead in a wheelchair.

This “can do” attitude has always been a part of Brother Larsen’s approach to life. Growing up during the Great Depression taught him some crucial values. “I learned to accept whatever I cannot change. But I also learned that there is much I can change. Long before I was in a wheelchair, I learned that stretching is an important part of life,” he explains. “Like Nephi, I had goodly parents who taught their children well. My father taught me at a very young age not to be afraid of work and sacrifice. It’s the greatest heritage that he could have left me.”

Part of Brother Larsen’s strength comes from his relationship with his wife, Shauna Stewart Larsen. Sherman D. Brown, Champaign Illinois Stake patriarch, comments, “Sister Larsen is like granite. She always stands by him. They work as a team under all circumstances.”

Family friend Sally Wyne says, “Their relationship is a model of oneness. Their joint attitude seems to be, ‘This is our problem, and together we can overcome it.’”

Since his accident, Brother Larsen has met attitudinal and physical barriers with characteristic determination. In 1954, with the full support of his wife, Brother Larsen began graduate studies in physiology at Johns Hopkins University. While there, he enrolled in a course taught by a famous and very demanding professor. “He called me to his office the day before classes began,” Brother Larsen remembers. “He said, ‘I don’t know what to do with you in a wheelchair, but I’m telling you this, Larsen. You’ll do everything in this class and you won’t be excused from anything, or I’ll flunk you cold.’ That did exactly what it should do. I set my jaw and said, ‘Fine!’

“That afternoon, I went to the laboratory to check things out and found that the lab benches were over my head. So, that night, a fellow graduate student and I obtained a table with short legs.

“The next morning the professor came in, saw our group working on an experiment at the low bench, and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ I turned to him and said, ‘You teach physiology, and I’ll do my job!” We just looked at each other. I was shaking in my boots because I didn’t know how he was going to react. He smiled a little, walked out of the lab, and never talked about it again.”

That experience and others similar to it have done much to prepare Brother Larsen for his current position as director of the Division of Rehabilitation-Education Services at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Brother Larsen’s duties include responsibility for the physical and emotional well-being of all the disabled students on campus.

Meeting their needs requires creativity. “I have always acted on what needs to be done,” Brother Larsen says. “If you need to make a change, make it. You design a new prosthetic or orthotic appliance, make mechanical lapboards, or cut eighteen inches off a desk.” Thanks to his efforts, much progress has been made to assist the disabled, on campus and elsewhere.

In recognition of his accomplishments, Brother Larsen was inducted into the United States National Hall of Fame for Disabled Persons in October 1987. Past recipients of this honor include Franklin D. Roosevelt and Helen Keller.

Brother Larsen speaks straightforwardly about life’s possibilities. “My philosophy is that people can do any worthy thing they want to do. They shouldn’t let fear and opposition deter them. Our charge in life is to overcome barriers.”

As a leader of the Church in central Illinois, Brother Larsen does what has to be done to help individuals meet their challenges, knowing full well it may require sacrifices. In some cases, it has also required sweat. “When I was a bishop,” he recalls, “I was determined to do one of the most important things a bishop can do—visit each family in my ward. I told my counselors, ‘Brethren, we’ll go out visiting two nights a week. You get yourselves in shape, because I don’t care how the house is designed, we’re all going in. That’s why a bishop has two counselors—one in front and one in back.’ Bless their hearts, they got themselves into good shape. There wasn’t a single home we didn’t go into.”

Bishop Larsen has also had a number of opportunities to help others struggling with the challenges of illness and despair. His patriarchal blessing promises that he would have the gift to heal the sick and to comfort the discouraged, “because of the blessings of the Lord which shall come through [his] administrations.” That gift was extended to many in his ward.

David and Martha Sargent in the Champaign Ward had a son who was born with severe eye problems. After examining him, a specialist said that the baby’s retina had apparently not developed fully and that he might be nearly blind. Distraught and far from family members, the Sargents asked Bishop Larsen to give their son a blessing. At a second examination, a physician said that the retina was fine; in fact, the doctor had never seen a patient with nystagmus (an eye condition the child did have) who had such good vision. Today, their son David is serving a full-time mission in the Italy Milan Mission.

Martha Sargent believes that Joseph Larsen’s blessing did more than help their son’s problems. “Brother Larsen has such strong faith that his words of blessing strengthened us all. He left us with a feeling of complete security and comfort.”

While serving as president of the Champaign Illinois Stake between 1972 and 1984, Brother Larsen produced and directed a number of dramatic productions, finding them catalysts for personal and spiritual growth among members of his stake. Sister Wyne, whose family participated in some of the plays, recalls, “President Larsen used the shows to build relationships, to bring out people who were talented and very shy, to reactivate the disaffected, and to teach correct principles.”

During the production of Because of Elizabeth, Sister Wyne recalls, Joseph Larsen insisted on checking every performer’s makeup personally. “At the time, I thought he was just being overly particular. I now realize that the audience was so far away from the outdoor stage that no one could possibly have seen our makeup. It was simply President Larsen’s way of saying, ‘Each of you [there were 206 of us] is important to me.’”

The rehearsal and performance schedules for each play required significant sacrifices of time from the participants, who traveled up to 120 miles each way. “The sacrifices were made,” Sister Wyne says, “because of our great love for President Larsen and our absolute trust in his leadership.”

To Joseph Larsen, all barriers to development—emotional, physical, and, most important, spiritual—can be overcome. In his personal life, his professional commitments, and his leadership in the Church, he shows just how limitless life can be.

  • Linda Hoffman Kimball is a homemaker and illustrator living in Chicago’s Hyde Park Ward. She serves as stake public communications director in the Chicago Heights Illinois Stake.

Photography by Linda Hoffmann Kimball