SAU commencement speaker who overcame paralysis offers inspiration to grads


By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

MOLINE, Ill. — St. Ambrose University’s spring commencement speaker once experienced what it’s like to be treated differently and advised the Class of 2015 to remember that all people are valued human beings. Haley Scott DeMaria, a former Notre Dame swimmer who inspired others by returning to competition less than two years after breaking her spine, addressed St. Ambrose graduates May 9 at the iWireless Center in Moline. “It’s a true privilege to be here and welcomed into the St. Ambrose University family,” she said.

Anne Marie Amacher
St. Ambrose University graduates listen to commencement speaker Haley Scott DeMaria at the iWireless Center in Moline, Ill., May 9.

Haley recalled that doctors initially thought she would never walk again after a swim team bus accident in January 1992 that claimed the lives of two of her teammates. Haley used a wheel chair for a while. “I was treated differently,” she told the graduates. Her life had changed not just physically but she also found herself emotionally challenged.
She recalled that Notre Dame’s president at the time, Father Edward Malloy, CSC, visited her in the hospital and asked if he could pray with her. “I told him I was not Catholic.” He said, “That does not matter.” She was part of the Notre Dame faith community.

Haley had been baptized Presby­terian and became an Episcopalian and then a Methodist. Later, she converted to Catholicism. She told the graduates, “I never felt home in faith until I came to this community of faith.”


Now an author and motivational speaker, wife and mother of two, Haley told the graduates to not be afraid of hardship. Embrace it. Grow and achieve. Life does not offer an easy road. “Life has much to be written. Life is good. We are blessed.”

The journey in education can take place at any age, she reminded the graduates. She was in her 20s when she graduated with her undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and in her 30s when she received her master’s. Her husband was going back to school in his 40s. “Education at any age presents opportunities and challenges,” Haley said. It requires hard work and support.

“You haven’t lived the rest of your life. You have everything ahead of you,” she noted. Addressing the topic of social justice, one of the St. Ambrose University values, Haley encouraged the graduates to work harder to make a difference. “Keep a sense of humor and treat people who we don’t know better.”

She mentioned that she had been to the Quad Cities one other time. That was last summer for a wedding. “I discovered Whitey’s (ice cream).” The crowd laughed. She told how she and her husband had enjoyed plenty of the ice cream and promised she wouldn’t leave the iWireless Center to go to Whiteys. Her husband, she noted, had left the wedding reception last year to make sure he was able to have more Whitey’s. “We have plenty of time before it closes today,” she added.

Following her commencement address, degrees were conferred to more than 600 students. Haley received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

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