Craig Hyams had a smile that could light up a city. If you’ve lived in Santa Barbara during the last 30 years, chances are you encountered Craig performing at an Access Theatre production; manning a movie ticket line; sitting courtside at a basketball game; working odd jobs at the harbor, the zoo, or a restaurant; and participating in a Special Olympics event.
Besides his smile, Craig had a powerful set of hand gestures. His thumbs-up was so emphatic and so consistent that it was monumental, like Lady Liberty’s torch. Alternatively, he would display the two-fingered “Hook ’em Horns” sign, another expression of his enthusiasm. Craig was one of those people that you felt was a friend even though you didn’t really know him.
The very best fans a sports team can have are those who, like Craig, are physically challenged. How can players not be inspired to give their all when they are supported unconditionally by people who would stand up and cheer if only their legs worked? UCSB’s Athletic Hall of Fame is named after such a person: the Phil Womble Hall of Champions.
“Craig Hyams is my hero,” says Phil Womble, and that is quite a statement, because Womble is a hero to many others. He has shown that a life with cerebral palsy can be rich and active. He wrote a book about it with the title Never Give Up. Hyams quietly embodied the same lust for life. “He never gave up,” Womble says. “Nothing kept him down.”
Craig was born with cerebral palsy in 1953 in Los Angeles. He also was totally deaf. It’s too bad, given that he became an avid fan of the Dodgers and the Lakers, that he never got a chance to hear Vin Scully tell a story between pitches or Chick Hearn excitedly describe a slam dunk. On the other hand, Craig never heard any of the diatribes that the pundits of talk radio spew out. Maybe that’s why he was able to smile all the time.
Craig’s parents placed him in Santa Barbara’s Hillside House, a residential facility for people with cerebral palsy. That’s where Womble got to know him. “Everybody loved him,” Womble says. “He was an inspiration.” Craig was a teenager when his spirit was tested by a tumor that developed in his right leg. “They had to amputate his leg,” Womble says. “He wanted to get out of the hospital the next day.”
Marty Kinrose, development director for UCP (United Cerebral Palsy) Work Inc. in Santa Barbara, was a special-education aide when he met Craig 34 years ago. They forged a friendship, Kinrose says, “that I will cherish and remember to my dying day.” He accompanied Craig to games and movies. “He displayed a sense of awe and appreciation with every new experience,” Kinrose says. “There was no feeling sorry for yourself when in Craig’s company, no complaining over petty grievances.”
Craig expressed one frustration that grew more significant as time went on, as it did for Womble and others at Hillside House. He wanted to escape from the institutional living environment and gain the freedom to come and go on his own. With the advocacy of Kinrose and his colleagues at UPC, Craig moved into an apartment in 1996. That enabled him to engage more fully with the community at large, and he became a familiar face around town.
Craig died last month from esophageal cancer. He was 56. Kinrose has prepared a tribute to his friend that will be unveiled at the Celebration of the Human Spirit, an event that UCP Work Inc. is presenting on Wednesday, September 29, at the Marjorie Luke Theatre, 721 East Cota Street. It starts at 7 p.m., and tickets ($10) can be purchased at the door.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: UCSB has started scoring goals in men’s soccer, and the students are arriving this week for the fall quarter—which makes the match between the Gauchos and UCLA at Harder Stadium on Friday night (Sept. 24) come at a propitious time. The Gauchos started to live up to their preseason notices at New Mexico’s Lobo Classic last weekend, as they secured victories over No. 6-ranked Harvard (2-0) and Buffalo (4-0). UCSB will bring a 2-2-2 record into the 7 p.m. match against the Bruins, who are 4-1-1. Besides showing what they can do on the field, the Gauchos hope to showcase a big crowd. … Two high school football teams that broke into the win column last Friday will host games this weekend. The Dos Pueblos Chargers, 41-16 winners at Cabrillo, will take on a Lompoc High team that scored a 41-17 victory over Santa Barbara. Bishop Diego, which defeated San Luis Obispo Mission Prep, 28-7, will play Santa Paula on Saturday night at SBCC’s La Playa Stadium.