Ability360 CEO and President Phil Pangrazio officially retired from his two-decade tenure on Dec. 31 but he has been still in what was supposed to be his former office, handling a myriad of tasks that includes helping to find his successor.
Even after a national search was launched by the Ability360 board of directors, that is proving to be one tough job.
The search has now been passed along to an executive search firm.
Pangrazio, an Ahwatukee resident for 35 years, was a reluctant retiree as it was and he expressed that in his farewell statement.
“Stepping down comes with great emotion, as this has been my life’s work for the past 20 years, but I feel it is time to let the next generation take over,” said Pangrazio, a quadriplegic and wheelchair user for over 40 years since a tragic car accident at 19.
“With my disability, things are only getting harder, and I am running out of gas,” he said. “I think it makes more sense for me to leave now, than sometime down the road when I find my health more in crisis.”
With his ready smile and soft voice, Pangrazio agreed that retiring at 60 may be early.
“I know I’m not old, per se, but when you live with a disability for 41 years, it just made sense to do it now,” he said.
And though Pangrazio is giving up his leadership titles, it doesn’t mean he’s leaving the organization.
“I love the organization and the work we do,” said Pangrazio. “I want to stay involved and help in any way. Yet for me, after having done this for almost 21 years, not being CEO would be nice.”
His eyes light up whenever he talks about Ability360, a nonprofit that under his leadership developed into one of the nation’s largest Centers for Independent Living and established itself as a premiere model for other centers throughout the country.
Pangrazio guided Ability360’s growth to an annual budget of more than $48 million while expanding its programs and services.
He also oversaw the planning, construction and financing of the Ability360 Center, home to Ability360 and nine other non-profit organizations that serve people with disabilities in Arizona. Also with his guidance, the $12.3-million, 45,000-square-foot Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center was opened in 2011.
Not bad for the teenager who was partially paralyzed as the result of a horrific car accident the night before he was to leave for his first year at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.
Pangrazio graduated from Notre Dame High School in Batavia, New York, where he’d been active in all sports, as he had been since grade school.
The accident resulted in a spinal cord injury that required hospitalization from Sept. 1, 1979 to June 1, 1980 – what would have been his freshman year in college.
It left him a Cervical 6-7 quadriplegic, which allows him good arm movement, no use of muscles below his shoulders or legs and wheelchair dependent for life.
Returning to his family home after 10 months in the hospital and then 20 years old, he faced a tsunami of ongoing challenges that resulted in moments of despondency but also set a new direction for his life.
“I came home and lived in my parent’s living room - all the bedrooms were on the second floor,” he recalled. “They built a little room off the side of the house for me.”
His parents are now deceased, but the home, now owned by his brother, still has the side room ready for whenever Pangrazio visits.
When the snow started early the year he was hospitalized in western New York State, and wheelchair access anywhere at that time was nearly impossible, the realization of his new reality hit hard.
“That first winter, I remember staring out the window and thinking, ‘I can’t live like this. I needed to fly.’ I started thinking about the future and what I was going to do.”
While hospitalized, Pangrazio had been visited by a friend who was attending Arizona State University.
“He said it was accessible, it was flat, it was warm. It planted a seed in my brain,” he said.
At the time, Pangrazio was already looking at colleges in warmer climes like Texas and Florida. Arizona was the choice.
“‘There’s a lot of water gone under the bridge since those times,” he mused. “I came to Phoenix in August of 1981, and I got my bachelors and my master’s degree at ASU.”
Pangrazio earned his bachelor’s in justice studies and a master’s degree in health services administration and policy.
It was through the friendship with an ASU professor and his wife that Pangrazio discovered Ahwatukee.
“They found me a home in Ahwatukee, and I’ve been here since 1986,” he said. “I’m single and I live by myself; I’m a Cervical 6-7 quadriplegic, and I’m fortunate to be as independent as I am.”
Though he has been awarded many honors and sits on a number of prestigious boards, Pangrazio is also lauded as a founding member of the first quadriplegic wheelchair rugby team in the state of Arizona.
“I was 50 the last time I got in a rugby chair and played with those guys and I said that’s enough,” he laughed. “I was about 30 when I started playing.”
Pangrazio said his being disabled at age 19 has offered him an empathy with others who found themselves in similar straits.
“I know what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence,” he said. “Perfectly healthy, perfectly nondisabled. Losing that was devastating. And now having been disabled 41 years, I understand what people with disabilities have to battle everyday.”
Prior to his work with Ability360, Pangrazio was employed for 10 years at Maricopa Integrated Health System and Maricopa Medical Center, where he held several positions in hospital financial management and administration.
Pangrazio also served on Ability360’s board of directors from 1992 to 2000 and presided as chairman of the board for four of those years.
Andrew Reilly, current chair of the Ability360 Board Of Directors praised Pangrazio for his “remarkable job” guiding the organization’s strategic growth.
“Phil leaves a tremendous legacy at Ability360, and with the many individuals living with disabilities throughout Arizona,” said Reilly. “Having him on board through the search process will ensure a smooth transition for the organization and our consumers.”
See Ability360.org for more information.