TUPELO – A man who lost use of his body in a 1980 trampoline accident has won an international award for the intensity of his spirit.
Walt Shinault, a financial adviser with Tupelo’s Merrill Lynch, was one of 11 people worldwide to win the firm’s prestigious David Brady award, named after an employee who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York.
Some 20,000 associates were eligible for the award, and 150 had been nominated.
It recognizes “employees who provide exceptional service to their clients, collaboration with their colleagues and contributions to their communities,” said Susan Atran, spokeswoman for Bank of America, of which Merrill Lynch Wealth Management is a subsidiary.
Though he cannot move his torso or legs and only has slight motion in his right arm, Shinault advanced through the ranks during his 26 years at Merrill Lynch and touched countless people with his story along the way.
“He’s just so unselfish and so positive,” said colleague and lifelong friend Richard Hastings, who was one of the people to nominate Shinault for the award.
“We all get dealt bad things from time to time, but he has taken it and made the most of it,” Hastings said. “I wanted people to see an example of that.”
Shinault was a 20-year-old University of Mississippi cheerleader when, in February of 1980, he snapped his neck while practicing stunts on a small trampoline outside his apartment building.
The injury happened when Shinault twisted his head in the air, he said, losing feeling in his body before crashing to the ground. Hastings, who also was an Ole Miss cheerleader, was the first to find him and stayed with him the entire first week at the hospital.
He recalled a doctor telling him and his friends to pray that Shinault would die rather than live life as a quadriplegic.
“The doctor said he’d never amount to anything,” Hastings said. “And nine out of 10 people probably don’t do as much as Walt has with their lives after something like that.”
Shinault said he believes the paralysis was provoked in part by a prior neck injury he had suffered while playing high school football in Tunica. He said he cried in the hospital, then accepted his fate and asked God to lead him.
Six months later, he was back at Ole Miss.
Four years after that, he graduated with a business degree and landed his first job at Merrill Lynch.
“The guy who interviewed me said, ‘I’m going to give you this job based on your ability to do the job,’” Shinault recalled. “It’s extremely humbling that Merrill Lynch opened the door for me in this worldwide firm. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Shinault types, punches telephone buttons and signs his name with the help of a 12-inch wand he grasps with his teeth.
Much of his work happens via telephone, so few clients realize he’s in a wheelchair until they meet him in person.
It almost always stuns them, Shinault said, until he turns on his charm.
“I’ve got the God-given ability to make people feel at home,” he said. “The wheelchair sort of goes out of the picture within a few minutes of talking to me.”
It’s not just his personality and motivation that earned Shinault his award. It’s also his giving nature. He regularly assists clients with their personal affairs, even though it’s not part of his job. Shinault said he enjoys helping people, whether it involves finding them a good plumber or just listening to their problems.
He also counsels those who, like him, have lost some of their physical abilities due to an accident or disease.
In the past, he had served as state and national chairman of the Easter Seals, which helps people with disabilities, and got to meet President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
Shinault had learned he won the David Brady award in early October and, just weeks later, the company flew him to New York City to accept it at a classy dinner reception.
It was his first trip to the Big Apple, and Shinault said he most enjoyed sitting in the sunshine and watching the people.
“Every day is a blessing,” Shinault said. “I really believe that.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal