A presence in Pingry’s Upper School, Will DiGrande ’17 is the manager of the wrestling team, a former member of the tennis team, a member of Student Government (president of his freshman class and will be Senior Class President for 2016-17), and a two-time winner of Pingry’s Citizenship Prize. He is also a leader on the Quiz Bowl Team. “You don’t want to challenge him on any geography questions,” Spanish teacher Margi DillonP ’17, ’18, ’20 told Middle and Upper School students at this year’s Stifel Award ceremony on April 20. “He will crush you like a bug!”
Will is the 2016 recipient of the Henry G. Stifel III Award, established in 1984 to “be awarded to the person who best exemplifies those characteristics exhibited by Henry G. Stifel III’83 in the aftermath of his accident and spinal injury: courage, endurance, optimism, compassion, and spirit.” Mr. Stifel was paralyzed in an automobile accident during his junior year at Pingry and returns to the Basking Ridge Campus for each presentation of the award. He is vice chair of the board of directors of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation (originally the Stifel Paralysis Research Foundation, founded by Mr. Stifel’s late father), dedicated to curing spinal cord injury by funding innovative research and improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis through grants, information, and advocacy.
Ms. Dillon explained that, when Will was born, his ribs were fused, he was missing his right kidney, and he had congenital scoliosis, resulting in an 80-degree curvature of his spine. The curve caused a condition called thorax insufficiency syndrome, meaning “the space inside the area of the skeleton that houses the heart and lungs—the thorax—becomes too small to contain the growing organs.” As an infant, Will had vertical, expandable prosthetic ribs implanted to make room and protect the organs inside his thorax. Over Will’s 17 years, he has had 34 surgeries to either expand the devices or replace them with larger ones; the surgeries will continue until his spine stops growing, probably between the ages of 18 and 19. He also wears a platform shoe with a brace inside it—a result of his spine being nicked during his first surgery. The spinal cord injury resulted in slower growth and weakness in the right leg, so that leg became shorter and weaker than his left, and the shoe keeps him level.
“Will smiles at all he meets in the hallways and never complains about his own physical struggles. He is a dear friend to many of you, both in and out of the classroom,” Ms. Dillon said.
In his remarks, Mr. Stifel acknowledged Will’s character, humility, and grace while commenting on how the Pingry community supported him after his own accident. “I don’t know what you’ve gone through, Will,” Mr. Stifel said, “but I do think our common parallel is that we come from families and communities who give support when needed, but also give us space to thrive.” Mr. Stifel reminded students that those experiencing struggles want to do more than overcome them—they want to continue being able to follow their individual dreams. That determination requires remarkable personal strength, but it also requires a community like Pingry that is willing to lend some help despite the unknowns: “A community does have a choice whether it will support a person with a physical or psychological need.” In Mr. Stifel’s opinion, Pingry makes that choice every day