Notre Dame alum nearly loses his life in 1972, but comes back strong as a musician, teacher, businessman and philanthropist.
Notre Dame alum Bill Hammers ('68) remembers May 19, 1972, as his "rebirth day." That's because it was the day he nearly lost his life in a very serious industrial accident only a month after graduating from Eastern Michigan University. It left him a quadriplegic.
"I got a night-time summer job after college as a steel worker at Paragon Steel, located at Hoover and 8 Mile Rd.," Hammers recalled. "On my fourth night on the job, I was knocked off of a 12-foot-high stack of 40-foot-long beams. I landed in a sitting position, but my legs were impaled on two rebar and my head hit another stack of steel beams, cutting my scalp ear-to-ear and breaking my neck – causing instant paralysis below the collar bone, including my hands and half of each arm."
Two of the beams he’d been standing on – weighing about 2,500 lbs. total – then fell across his hips and cracked his pelvis. When the ambulance arrived, the EMTs didn’t know how to pick him up because all the usual places on his body to lift were broken.
"By then, I was going in an out of consciousness, so I don’t know how they got me in the ambulance," said Hammers in an interview from his home in Arizona. "Neither the EMTs nor the ER doctors at Saratoga Hospital expected me to live more than a few hours."
He calls that fateful day in 1972 his "re-birth day" because it sent him off on a new life journey that included master's degrees from Arizona State University, Berklee College of Music and Oakland University, a Ph.D track in learning and instructional technology from ASU, and a hugely successful career as an educator and businessman. If that's not enough, he's also an amateur pilot.
Where math met music
Hammers' success is undoubtedly due to talent and to perseverance in the face of unthinkable odds. But he also credits the intersection of math and music that he experienced in grade school at St. Raymond on Detroit's east side and which continued throughout his four years at Notre Dame High School in Harper Woods.
"I started playing in dance bands when I was 13, learning eight instruments over time," he said. "But, oddly enough, I never got to play in any of [Notre Dame band director] Larry Egan’s bands because I couldn't sight-read music. I still can’t. I can write out anything I hear but have made lead sheets from recordings so that songs and musical pieces could get copyrights, plus I've won a number of performance and composition contests in college. I also hold my own music copyrights, but I just can’t read music – which is why I didn’t pass the auditions for becoming a music major in college."
Hammers said his attraction to math also started when he was quite young.
"In 7th grade at St. Raymond, Sr. Mary Blanche was trying to teach 'the new math,' an approach that was just starting at the time," he said. "Our textbook was badly typewritten and hard to follow, and not completely understanding what she was trying to say, I kept asking, 'Is this what you mean?' After a few weeks of her patiently dealing with my questions, she said, 'You seem to understand this stuff. Why don’t you teach the class?' And so I did."
From then on, whenever a fellow student was out sick for a while or when there was a new transfer, Hammers could be found out in the hallway helping them catch up with their work.
"I was never a mathematician, but I can explain concepts in everyday, easily understood terms, which is probably why I became a math teacher."
According to Hammers, math and music are universal languages inextricably intertwined.
"Pythagoras is considered the father of both math and music," he said. "In addition to the Pythagorean Theorem, Pythagoras also discovered that certain fractional lengths of a string produce the overtone series. String players use this concept when playing artificial harmonics. And by the way, Einstein was a violinist!"
Now retired from teaching, Hammers' last position was at Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix where he taught algebra for 12-1/2 years during which he also earned both employee-of-the-year and innovator-of-the-year honors. He still occasionally tutors Algebra I for the college via Skype.
His love of music is also what led Hammers to start a business called Altissimo Recording Studio LLC, an audio and video recording, editing and conversion studio located in Scottsdale.
"After my industrial accident, I couldn’t play anything except the radio," he said. " But in 1984, technology started providing an alternative with early computers and synthesizers. Gradually those tools evolved to the point where I could use them despite my physical limitations."
Over the past 30-plus years, Hammers has taken new courses, earned specialized degrees, acquired equipment and software, and honed his recordist skills enough such that his company at one time had been rated the #1-studio in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area.
Hammers has done much with his talent and time since that tragic day in 1972. But he's forever grateful for his education and for being able to attend schools like St. Raymond, Notre Dame High School, Arizona State University and Eastern Michigan University. He said that's why he recently decided to establish a $1-million memorial scholarship endowment at EMU.
But Notre Dame also holds special memories for Hammers.
"Although I always felt very awkward and a bit high-strung in high school, I was surrounded by a caring staff and excellent teachers who provided velvet-glove discipline and mutual respect. They were all influential in countless ways," he said. "Plus, I’m proud to say I was a classmate of current ND Prep principal Fr. Joseph Hindelang."
Hammers also said he fondly remembers a number of faculty and staff members from his time at Notre Dame. We asked him who and why. . .
Angie Vitale, who worked in the cafeteria: "We often had extended talks."
Joe Pompeo, janitor: "After track practice, he’d tell us to go home and eat our spaghetti."
Bro. Leonard Haley: "We also had extended talks."
Walter Bazylewicz, football coach and Algebra I teacher: "I still think of solving equations in terms of moving variables off left or right tackle."
Roger Cyr, study hall after lunch: "He would say, 'I want six rows of statues,' then laugh at himself.'"
Fr. Ouellette and Mr. Ruja, drafting: "One pep rally poster read, 'Mr. Ruja hates Fords, Mr. Ford hates Rujas.'”
Fr. Joseph Chase, rector: "His sonorous and gentle voice."
Tom Kelly, teacher/coach/athletic director: "Never my teacher or coach, but he always knew my name. He was the most genuinely humane person I’ve ever met."
Fr. Normand Martin: "Took care of me for three weeks a few years after my accident, allowing my parents to go on a much-deserved vacation."
Fr. Clifton Moors, English teacher: "The last band I was in won the bid to play at my senior-year homecoming dance. But three of the seven members had their own homecomings that same night. Understanding the situation, Fr. Moors rented a Hammond B-3 for me so that I could cover both the organ and bass."
Harold Rice, history teacher: "Hated the subject, admired the man."
Conrad Vachon, track coach and English comp teacher: "I still have 'How To Read A Book' by Mortimer Adler. I learned so much about writing that I almost didn’t have to take English Comp II at Eastern Michigan University. In English Comp I, the professor read my first paper aloud to the class, then asked me to tutor English Comp in the department’s clinic. I also very fondly remember Mr. Vachon’s purposeful classroom antics."
Fr. John Bryson: "Always walking the halls praying the rosary, always selling something like ‘personality pens,’ always somehow getting Motown or other famous artists to play at the Friday night dances."
Fr. Ron DesRosiers, Latin [and French] teacher: "He taught me how to make teaching real. (Troja ignit: He drew a city skyline on the board then pulled out a lighter and put it up to the board. 'Troy burns.') My wife, Mariana, is from Romania and at the time we met, she had only been in the U.S. for three years. The Latin I learned helped me understand my wife, and she understood me from our first date forward. This year’s St. Valentine’s Day was our 10th anniversary. I also remember Fr. DesRosier’s entire poem about 'put the ablative with de. . .,' but what had a greater impact on me both personally and professionally was his citing St. Jerome: 'Good, better, best. Never let it rest. When your good is better, make your better best.' The unofficial slogan for Altissimo Recording Studio is, 'It’s your job to sound good. It’s my job to make you sound better.'"
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Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame's upper school enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All three schools are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org.