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Emotional graduation day surprise for supermom of quadriplegic student

Judy O'Connor, mother of a quadriplegic student at Chapman University, receives honorary MBA for attending every class with her son.

We defy you to hold back the tears when a choked-up Chapman University announcer awards this supermom an honorary Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, at her quadriplegic son’s commencement ceremony.

For the past two years, Judy O’Connor has accompanied her son Marty O’Connor to every one of his classes at the Southern California grad school. Marty, a former competitive snowboarder, was left quadriplegic after a tumble down a flight of stairs in 2012. After the initial shock and two years of intensive physical therapy, he chose to shift his focus from physical limitations to mental possibilities and enrolled for Chapman’s MBA program.

At that point, Judy retired from her job as an elementary school teacher in Florida, and moved to California to be Marty’s 24/7 caregiver and scribe. “I did it willingly,” she told ABC News. “When a spinal cord injury happens, you want to swoop in and make everything better and you can’t.”

Initially at school, Judy was mindful not to cramp Marty’s style. “we kept the mother-son relationship on the down-low and I’d just introduce myself as Marty’s assistant,” she told Carol Off, in an interview on CBC Radio’s As It Happens. But her role was invaluable: She took notes in lectures; she set up Marty’s technological devices so he could work at home; put together study guides and helped write papers that he dictated. “I knew he could do it and I just wanted to have his back,” she is quoted as saying in a BBC News report.

Photo: Chapman University via AP

It was Marty who nominated his mom for the honorary degree. “She was there in the trenches with me throughout the whole process,” he told CBC, adding: “We formed bonds that we might otherwise have missed out on.” Marty describes seeing Judy collect her diploma to a standing ovation from his peers and profs as “one of the most overwhelming moments of my life.”

Now that school’s out, what’s next for mother and son? Judy will be fundraising to help improve the care and quality of life for people who have sustained debilitating injuries through the Marty O’Connor Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in the name of her son. And Marty will be working for a former snowboarding buddy’s start-up, DiVERTcity. Their mission is to make street, surf and snow sports accessible to all and draw on the core values of these action sports—resilience, self-expression and motivation—to transform at-risk communities. Way to give back!

We wish these classy grads all the best in their future ventures.

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