ANCHORAGE — Conor Daugharty was the last student to receive a diploma at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s spring commencement ceremonies Sunday.
He walked gingerly, with the help of two lifelong buddies he called his “wingmen.”
Nearly three years to the day after Daugharty suffered a devastating brain injury in a car accident, watching the 25-year-old Eagle River native walk at all was something family and friends considered a sweet gift.
That he had completed his last handful of college credits while at the same time painstakingly relearning functions like swallowing and balance pointed to something greater.
Elisha Baker, the dean of UAA’s business and public policy school, handed Daugharty the diploma. Baker wiped his eyes with a handkerchief while talking about the 25-year-old earlier in the day.
“He earned this degree,” he said.
Daugharty, raised in Eagle River by two parents who are both educators, has long been a driven student, former teacher Leha Uehling Manderson said.
At Chugiak High School, Daugharty was a very social standout student who once talked Manderson into taking a group of students on a subway odyssey to Harlem to see a famous basketball court during a class trip to New York City.
“He is a great negotiator,” she said.
During his tenure at Chugiak, which also included playing on the basketball team, Daugharty was a state student government officer and liaison to the student activities board.
“He had vision,” she said.
After starting college at Northern Arizona University, Daugharty decided to return to Alaska to save money for his eventual goal of attending law school.
He had just signed up for LSAT prep classes when, on May 8, 2009, he went to a volunteer appreciation breakfast at Mountain View Elementary School. His mother worked as a vice principal there and he had volunteered as a recess monitor and coach.
After the breakfast, Daugharty stopped at a traffic light at the corner of the Glenn Highway and Mountain View Drive when an out-of-control SUV slammed into his Chevy Malibu, tossing it into the southbound lane of Mountain View Drive.
He suffered a “devastating” brain injury that sent him into a deep coma.
Suddenly, Patty and Scott Daugharty’s son — who loved long, rambling conversations with friends and family, worked his physique to a muscled tone and constantly spouted plans for the future — was reduced to what doctors at one point called a “persistent vegetative state.”
“This long road is full of unknowns,” his parents wrote in an online journal just after the accident. “We yearn for it all ... Conor back exactly as he was before this tragedy.”
Daugharty slowly regained consciousness but faced grave brain injuries that affected everything from his sight to endocrine system.
He has spent most of the past three years in intensive brain injury rehabilitation facilities in Colorado and Nebraska, working with therapists.
Patty and Scott Daugharty have traded off stints working in Alaska and spending time with Conor in the Lower 48. One parent has been with him at all times since the accident.
While Conor’s progress has been remarkable, he still faces profound problems, his mother said.
“Every system was hit,” she said.
In the family’s online journal, she wrote of her son’s feeling of panic at his impairments and his rush to get on with his life.
“He feels he is not keeping pace with his life’s goals,” she wrote.
After 15 months of relearning basic functions, Daugharty was hungry for school work.
His father worked with Claudia Clark, the associate dean of UAA’s College of Business and Public Policy, to design a plan for Conor to complete the rest of his credits. He had just 18 to go.
The school would likely have waived the remaining courses for Conor, said Baker, the dean of the business and public policy school.
But the family didn’t want that.
“They didn’t ask for a gift,” he said. “They asked for an opportunity to do the work. How can you say no to that?”
A total of six credits were waived. Clark worked with professors to give Conor assignments for the remaining classes, such as real estate law.
While strapped into a therapy chair that helped him readjust to standing up, Conor would read or do computer work.
Many students struggling with far less serious challenges fade away or give up, Baker said.
Today, Daugharty is a handsome 25-year-old taller than his parents.
Words come slowly and with effort, and he struggles with his memory.
But the thoughts — and a dry sense of humor — are there.
“I’m thankful for that,” he said.
In Alaska for graduation, Daugharty has been catching up with old friends — having coffee with his elementary school teachers at Jitters in Eagle River and eating barbecue with lifelong buddies at home. Many of those close friends visited him at the rehab centers in Colorado and Nebraska.
All the while, Patty and Scott Daugharty have been there, helping him to ease into a chair and taking care not to speak for him in an interview. His younger sister Katie Daugharty has been a support too.
In a week, Conor will go back to Omaha for more grueling rehab, this time with his newly-minted college degree.
“This is the hand I was dealt,” he said. “I have to deal with it before I get to move on to better stuff.”
He has different kinds of goals, he says. Some are short-term: like walking across the stage on graduation day. Others are long-term, like getting his balance back.
He sees his friends moving on with graduate school and careers and he wants that too. Law school is a goal.
The Daugharty family, more than most people, know that the future is full of the unknown.
On Sunday, things were about as good as they’ve been any time in the past three years, his father said.
School officials rose to stand as Daugharty slowly walked to the stage.
Thunderous applause filled Sullivan Arena.
For a moment, he was just Conor Daugharty, class of 2012.
Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com