Carl DuRocher, a local disability rights activist and homebrewing enthusiast, who repaired computers without the use of his hands and donated them to indigenous people, died Sunday at 73.
“He was the most remarkable, determined, kind, courageous, caring, beautiful person I know,” said Mary Ellen Rieland, his partner of 20 years.
DuRocher was 7, growing up in a small Wisconsin town, when he became paralyzed by polio. He moved to Madison 50 years ago to attend the University of Wisconsin. At the time, the city had no transit system for disabled riders.
In 1990, after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, all Metro Transit buses were equipped with wheelchair lifts. Private taxicab companies also began providing accessible service.
DuRocher’s activism, and later his work as a member of Madison’s Transit and Parking Commission for 12 years, played a big role in how disabled members of the community got around.
“He was fiercely independent,” said Rieland, 72, who was a public school teacher moonlighting as a paratransit driver when she met DuRocher.
He was one of her first passengers. “And he wasn’t quite sure I knew what I was doing,” Rieland said.
DuRocher called her supervisors to complain, and Rieland got back at him by practicing the entire next day. “So I just fixed him next time I saw him,” she said.
“‘I’m ready. I’ve got this down, just watch me,’” she told him. “And we just played back and forth like that for a few months and all of a sudden months turned into years.”
They took many trips together in Rieland’s car, including driving as far as they could into northern Ontario until they “ran out of road.”
They also traveled to the Rosebud Indian reservation in South Dakota delivering computers.
DuRocher’s death didn’t come from a specific cause, said Rieland, who went to the hospital with DuRocher Saturday night and was with him when he died. She said he had pneumonia-like symptoms, but that his death came from lifelong complications of polio.
“It was a serious case. He probably lasted longer than anybody else in this area who had polio as bad as his was,” said Rieland, noting that his treatment as a child in tiny Coleman, Wisconsin, north of Green Bay, included traveling by himself to polio centers around the country and using an iron lung.
The couple had gone to the holiday party Saturday night of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, which DuRocher had been active in for about 20 years. He had formerly served on its board of directors and as its treasurer.
Paul McGuire, the group’s president, said DuRocher was instrumental in the group’s charitable giving program and also in organizing cabs, shuttles and other transportation for the group’s annual Great Taste of the Midwest craft beer festival.
“Up until today, he was the linchpin of the charitable giving program, and the transportation program for the festival, as well as his previous service on the board,” McGuire said. “So we’ll miss him.”
DuRocher rarely missed a guild meeting or its August festival. “Nothing could really keep Carl down,” McGuire said.
In 2007, DuRocher, who owned a small house on Williamson Street, which had a ramp for his wheelchair, ran for the District 6 seat on the City Council against Marsha Rummel. His only “campaign literature” was customized fortune cookies.
DuRocher had an unpaid position as chairman of the constituent advisory committee of the University Center on Developmental Disabilities at the UW Waisman Center. He was also the executive director and founder of RetroTech Computer Corp.
Rieland said DuRocher used a typing stick because he couldn’t use his hands. He’d fix computers by instructing volunteers.
“He was just a very positive individual,” McGuire said. “I found him to be very gracious, just in the way he was with others. And in the way that he would provide you with explanations about something you didn’t understand or a viewpoint that he had.”
Rieland got choked up Sunday night talking about DuRocher and reading all the condolences coming to her from the homebrewing community.
“He’s certainly left a big hole in people’s hearts in the city,” she said.