Charlie Wittwer, a decorated veteran and wheelchair athlete who once appeared on a Cheerios box, died Friday after an illness.
The 66-year-old Island Lake resident was remembered Sunday for his positive outlook, his tenacity and his leadership.
"He wanted to be a hero, and he was. He thought you could raise the bar and everybody could do better," said his wife, Jan Wittwer.
Wittwer served as a U.S. Marine machine gunner during the Vietnam War, earning a Purple Heart among other military honors. He fought during the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968, suffering shrapnel wounds from a mortar round. In 1979, 10 years after he returned from the war, Wittwer lost the use of his legs after an accident with a semitrailer, leaving him a paraplegic. Seventeen years after that, one of his legs was amputated after an infection.
"You can't not be inspired by that guy," said Duluthian Shawn Corbin, who played wheelchair basketball and softball with him for 27 years. "He went through so many bad things in his life. ... If there was anyone who had the right to be jaded or pessimistic, it was him. But he was the opposite."
Wittwer started the Minnesota Flame Throwers wheelchair softball team after playing for the Minnesota Rolling Twins. A pitcher and the coach, he took the Flame Throwers to national competitions, coming in fourth last year.
He volunteered for the Minnesota Paralyzed Veterans group both as a sports director and as president, traveling to Washington, D.C., to lobby for better laws for people with disabilities. He was honored with dozens of medals from the wheelchair games held with the state paralyzed veterans group, in a variety of fields. That's how he landed on a Cheerios box in 2008, Jan Wittwer said. A gold-medal finalist in the 2007 National Veterans Wheelchair games, he was pictured with other athletes on a special box after being chosen by the Veterans Canteen Service.
"It was pretty amazing," Jan Wittwer said. "He saw himself, really, as an athlete first. The chair was secondary."
Wittwer played for 17 years with the Twin Ports Flyers basketball team, and he learned to parachute, golf, scuba dive, water-ski and downhill ski from a wheelchair.
"He's done so many things from a wheelchair to inspire other people and himself," Jan Wittwer said. "He wouldn't say 'no.' He would try anything."
He was most proud of his family, she said, where a "symbiotic" relationship existed.
"You need to rely on other people, but we relied on him just as well," she said.
Wittwer was a champion in northern Minnesota for wheelchair sports, teaching others about the benefits of competition for people with physical disabilities, said Eric Larson, program manager for Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute-Northland, previously known as Courage Duluth.
"He always had a glass-half-full approach," Larson said, noting Wittwer looked at life with humor, never taking himself too seriously. "He tried to make others recognize it isn't all bad. You can have fun and contribute to something larger than yourself."
Wittwer told the News Tribune in 2010 that he was "hurt at the right time," because those paralyzed years ago were "cast aside."
"Now we're in an age where the wheelchairs are better and people are more accepting of wheelchair athletics," Wittwer said. "We're every bit as competitive because most of us were athletes before."
Educated as a teacher, Wittwer spent 15 years as a social worker at St. Mary's Medical Center and five with Courage Duluth as a sports director. He also coached several youth sports.
Corbin, who plays with the Flame Throwers, said Wittwer was "the heart and soul" of the team. While he wasn't recently able to play, he still traveled to the Twin Cities for practices.
Despite his difficulties, "he never had a bad day," Jan Wittwer said. "He had these cute little quips: 'Walking is overrated.' "
Wittwer is also survived by five children and 11 grandchildren. His funeral is set for noon Tuesday at the Sunrise Funeral Home in Hermantown.