One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1972 film production of “Man of La Mancha.” It’s based on the classic story of Don Quixote, a man known for taking on impossible causes in pursuit of something greater.
“Man of La Mancha” has always reminded me of my late ex-husband, Murray Schneps, who died last week. He fought what many people thought was an impossible cause and won. He forever changed how children with disabilities are served.
Murray did it against all odds, and today, hundreds of thousands of lives are better because he dreamed the impossible dream and achieved it.
Although we were divorced decades ago and rarely spoke I can’t help but love him for what he achieved and for our four children.
Murray was blessed to have his three living children — Samantha, Elizabeth and Josh — holding his hand as he took his last breath. When they knew from Murray’s hospice nurses that the end was near, all three went to his bedside, staying with him for days until his last moment on Earth.
We divorced after my daughter Lara died, and after he had gone through heart valve replacement. During the operation, the surgeons put him on a heart-lung machine to keep him alive as they replaced his heart valve. The new valve caused his heart to beat a different way — and with it, he wanted a new life after recovering.
We parted after 28 years, but not before we both had changed people’s lives forever. I created Life’s WORC, an organization that offers people with disabilities dignified living in our group homes and day programs. Life’s WORC now includes the Family Center for Autism, reaching thousands more people living in the autism spectrum.
But it was Murray who did the heavy lifting. While Lara was at Willowbrook State School in their Infant Rehabilitation Center, budget cuts forced the elimination of staff to care for the mostly helpless people living there.
Though she physically aged, Lara remained developmentally 3 months old and required total care, including feeding, dressing and diapering.
My members picketed and protested when steep budget cuts came to Willowbrook. Despite our protests and dramatic TV coverage, nothing was done to alleviate the problem.
An attorney by profession, Murray realized that only a federal class action lawsuit would make a real difference. He pushed the Legal Aid Society to take the case, but served as the brains and braun to see it through.
During the struggle, one of the directors of the Queens State School, Dr. Tesse, told me, “Your husband turned his rage into good and changed the world!” Indeed he did.
Winning the multi-year lawsuit enabled federal funding for the state programs to instead be redirected to fund group homes and day programs for the 5,400 people who lived on the grounds of Willowbrook. The lawsuit forced Willowbrook’s closure, and the campus was subsequently redeveloped into the College of Staten Island.
Murray went on to be lead counsel in other class action lawsuits, successfully fighting for the rights of people like our daughter, Lara.
Those years were a struggle — but they ultimately led to glory days of success.
Murray was the first person in his family to graduate college and then law school. His upbringing gave him the grit and determination to know how to fight for what he believed in.
I credit him with giving me the power to start The Queens Courier in our living room and the push — well, it was more like an ultimatum — to either get the “office” out of the house, or for me to leave! I moved the newspaper to a nearby office, and the rest is history.
He was a fierce friend and for many years made me feel like I was a queen on a pedestal. I like to remember his birthday gift of flowers delivered weekly and, of course, most precious gift of all, my most beautiful flowers of all — my children.
You did good, Murray. Your legacy is forever in our beautiful children and six grandchildren, and the work you did for Lara and all the other Laras in our world. You made a difference.
Rest in peace!