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Published: Monday, 3/5/2001

Waldron's chief suffered brain injuries in stock car

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Waldron, Mich., school Superintendent David Anspaugh experiences pet therapy in a nursing home. His Chevrolet hit a wall at a track on Aug. 26. Waldron, Mich., school Superintendent David Anspaugh experiences pet therapy in a nursing home. His Chevrolet hit a wall at a track on Aug. 26.
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WALDRON, Mich. - “Buena suerte. Yo te quiero.”

Charlotte Anspaugh remembers saying those Spanish words - “Good luck, I love you'' - to her husband on Aug. 26 just before he drove his stock car to the starting line at a Wisconsin race track.

And she remembers David's familiar tender response: “Se quieres'' or “You're loved.''

The exchange was part of their private prerace ritual, one that began years ago when Mrs. Anspaugh became involved in her husband's high-speed hobby.

During the week, Mr. Anspaugh, 52, was the Waldron school superintendent, running a rural southeast Michigan district of 460 students. On weekends he raced on the American Speed Association circuit, driving his stock car up to 120 mph on small oval tracks in the Midwest.

But his life changed on Aug. 26. That's when a malfunctioning accelerator caused his car to spin out of control and crash into a wall during practice laps at the Milwaukee Mile Speedway. Mr. Anspaugh was taken unconscious to nearby Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital with serious head injuries.

“They told me that there was damage on both hemispheres and around the brain stem,” Mrs. Anspaugh said. “I was told that it was a bad brain injury and that he was likely going to die. But I told them, `I understand I have to hear the worst, but you obviously don't know David.'”

David Anspaugh lived an active life.

A longtime educator with two master's degrees and a doctorate in educational leadership, Mr. Anspaugh was full of energy.

He jogged every day, sang in the halls, and delighted students by adding their names to the body of his race car - No. 37.

With no children of his own, Mr. Anspaugh spent most of his time with his wife of 27 years. And he became a role model and friend to his students.

He took baked goods to school for the teachers and showed up dressed in full racing gear to talk to elementary school pupils on career day.

“The No. 1 thing you think of when talking about David is what an energetic individual,” Waldron High School Principal Fred Bowers said. “He has high expectations of those around him, including the kids, adults, teachers, and himself.”

Mr. Anspaugh spoke freely of his passion, which began nearly 30 years ago when his brother, Frank, brought home a used race car. Frank Anspaugh became the mechanic and crew chief. His little brother, David, was the driver.

“This area tends to be a real supportive area of NASCAR or any type of racing,” said middle school teacher Tammy Price. “He had a real connection with those students who were interested in racing.”

More than six months after Mr. Anspaugh's crash, the shock was wearing off for the community. But the fatal crash of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 brought back painful memories for teachers and students.

“If you keep busy and don't think about it, you can distance yourself from him,” said Sue Gruber, who worked closely with Mr. Anspaugh.

She paused for a moment.

“But it really hits hard when you go down and see him,'' she said, tearfully.

Mr. Anspaugh was propped up in bed in Miller's Merry Manor, a nursing home in Lagrange, Ind. His eyes wandered around the room, absorbing the faces of the visitors.

With help, he used his right arm to shake hands. When reminded of a happy time in his life, he smiled. Now nearly 40 pounds lighter and forced to work on basic skills -reading, talking, swallowing - Mr. Anspaugh isn't the same man his students and staff remember.

But he's working his way back.

After the crash, Mr. Anspaugh had few visible injuries. The impact caused severe brain damage.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 1 million people are treated and released from hospital emergency rooms annually for traumatic brain injuries. But 50,000 people who suffer traumatic brain injuries die each year.

Severe brain and brain stem injuries often result in long-term rehabilitation and acute disabilities, said Dr. Lawrence Horn, chairman of the Medical College of Ohio's physical medicine and rehabilitation department.

Mr. Anspaugh remained in a coma for more than a month. Mrs. Anspaugh said it was a miracle to see her husband open his eyes, although there was little more he could do at the time.

“That week intense therapy began,” said Mrs. Anspaugh, 52. “They started working with him every day because they wanted to find out what he could do.”

Therapy was often painful. Everyday someone worked with him on speech, motor skills, movement.

After six months, Mr. Anspaugh can speak in a low and muffled voice. He softly mumbles nursery rhymes and reads and spells easy words. His therapists help him regain strength by standing with the assistance of parallel bars.

But the left side of his body is still weak. When sitting or trying to stand, he often leans. He is fed meals through a stomach tube while he continues to work on learning how to swallow properly.

It is not certain how much he will recover. But Mr. Anspaugh doesn't seem discouraged. And when asked what he plans to do when he gets his strength back, he smiled and muttered, “Drive cars.”

Mr. Anspaugh was one of about 85 full-time drivers on the American Speed Association circuit.

The 34-year-old association is similar to NASCAR, said spokesman Mike Miller. But there are differences - ASA cars have fuel-injected engines and fiberglass bodies.

And ASA drivers usually peak at about 120 mph, slower and usually safer than NASCAR drivers. The slower speeds are due to a smaller track - ASA tracks are only three-quarters of a mile long, compared to NASCAR, where the tracks run an average of 11/2 miles.

Mr. Miller said only one driver has died in the organization's history. The only other death, a pit crew leader, occurred at a race but did not involve a crash.

Mr. Anspaugh crashed his Chevrolet into a retaining wall during the first of three practice rounds leading up to qualifying for the Time Warner Cable 200 at the Milwaukee Mile track in West Allis, Wis.

Mrs. Anspaugh said her husband knew the dangers but that wasn't enough to stop him from racing. “It's never going to happen to you,” she said softly, explaining how drivers think. “And I've seen him take out flag poles, flip his car, and run into walls. This one, this crash, was very different.”

Mrs. Anspaugh lives in Sturgis, Mich., with the couple's three beagles. She visits her husband every morning and night. She has since gone back to work as a teacher in a local alternative school.

But she admits that her life is often lonely. And she said it's easy for even the most optimistic person to have periods of doubt.

“There are days you just want to crawl in bed and stay there forever and ever,” Mrs. Anspaugh said. “When that happens, I turn myself around and tell myself I have to be positive, not only for me but for when I see David.”

His insurance company has paid most of his hospital bills. But three fund-raisers have been organized by the community to help the Anspaughs with expenses.

Mrs. Anspaugh looks forward to the day when her husband returns home. And thenshe hopes to see him back at work. Waldron schools have kept his job available.

“Eventually he'll go back to work,” she said. “I'm not sure in what capacity, but he'll be back.”

Until then, Mrs. Anspaugh takes one day at a time. She smiles and congratulates her husband on every small accomplishment.

As she headed out the door to school after a morning visit, Mrs. Anspaugh turned to her husband and said her familiar good-bye - “Yo te quiero.''

And in a low, muffled voice, Mr. Anspaugh responded: “Se quieres.”



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