Atlanta, GA,
09:11 AM

Remembering James Shepherd

Described as a good-humored prankster, die-hard Georgia Bulldog, kind friend and tireless advocate for our patients, families and staff, James was the catalyst for Shepherd Center to become the bridge from “I can’t” to “I can.”

Everyone, it seems, has a story about how they first met James Shepherd

Maybe they grew up together in Atlanta or were classmates at the Westminster Schools. For others, they met the avid Bulldog in Athens as students at the University of Georgia. Some worked alongside the businessman at Shepherd Construction and Plant Improvement. Others might have fallen for one of his notorious pranks, a sure sign he considered you a friend.

But for many people, the story of how they met James began with his life-changing spinal cord injury in 1973. James, along with his parents Alana and the late Harold Shepherd, and David Apple, M.D., founded Shepherd Center after James sustained a paralyzing spinal cord injury in 1973. James completed spinal cord injury rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Denver, where five months later he walked out with a brace and a crutch.

For some, that would have been enough. But for James and his family, it wasn’t. They wanted others to have access to state-of-the-art rehabilitation care in the southeastern United States, so they galvanized support among the Atlanta community to open Shepherd Center. It quickly became clear that James was never going to let his injury get in the way of him doing something he wanted to do – and he never did. Together with his family, he turned his tragedy into a lifelong passion.

On December 21, 2019, James H. Shepherd, Jr. died as he lived – a good-humored and loyal father, grandfather, son and friend, a devoted Georgia Bulldog, an advocate and a visionary.

Son, Father, Grandfather and Friend
James had a profound love and trust for his family that was visible in almost every area of his life. One of his greatest joys had been raising his children and having them officially join Shepherd Center’s mission – son Jamie as chief operating officer and daughter Julie as a case management team leader. James was also the doting grandfather to four and took every chance to talk about his grandchildren.

“James felt great pride in founding such an incredible organization with his family,” says Sarah Morrison, PT, MBA, MHA, president and CEO of Shepherd Center. “He felt immense love and absolute pride for his children, Jamie and Julie, knowing they will lead the next generation of Shepherd Center to even greater heights.”

Nearly every day until his passing, James could be found in Shepherd Center’s cafeteria having lunch with his family – a time he used to connect with them, but also to connect with patients and their families. He knew how important family is to the rehabilitation process and aimed to make Shepherd Center a place where patients and families alike felt supported and welcomed.

“I’m so grateful to James’ tight-knit family for sharing him with so many,” says Kathy Slonaker, BS, RN, CRRN, an admissions triage nurse at Shepherd Center and long-time friend. “A colleague once remarked that James had the biggest family in the world because he made everyone feel like family.” James was also known as a quick-witted friend with a penchant for well-timed jokes.

“I always knew that he was going to have a good joke in every meeting,” says Susan Hawkins, chair of Shepherd Center’s Board of Trustees. “I knew I was not going to leave without him saying something that made me laugh.”

Fred Alias is a long-time friend of James’ and a member of Shepherd Center’s Board of Directors.

“I have known James my entire adult life, and the thing I liked the most was his smile,” Alias says. “It was always a little devilish on one side and angelic on the other.”

James never outgrew his love of a good prank, especially if it fell on April Fool’s Day.

“He had a great sense of humor and fiery wit,” Morrison says. “James loved to punk people. We all knew what a prankster he was, yet that never stopped many of us from falling for his pranks. Despite this, James had an intense respect for the staff. He was our champion – probably in many ways you would never realize.”

A Damn Good Dawg
James made no secret of his love for the Georgia Bulldogs. A 1973 graduate of the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, James was the ultimate UGA fan and evangelist, both for the school and its athletic program. After a beautiful fall football weekend, James would often greet colleagues, patients and families with, “So, what’d you think about that game this weekend?”

“His love of UGA was enormous, and he gave so much of his time and talents to the business school and the athletic department,” Slonaker says. “He touched so many lives of students and student-athletes, including those UGA students and staff members who became patients here at Shepherd Center.”

His commitment to his alma mater did not end upon his graduation but rather strengthened through the years as both of his children graduated from the school. James returned to UGA several times to speak to students and even established a scholarship for first-generation college students.

“The University of Georgia is deeply honored to call James Shepherd an alumnus,” says Jere Morehead, president of the University of Georgia. “He lived a life of profound impact and inspiration, making his alma mater very proud at every turn. His legacy of hope and healing will continue to teach and lift up the Bulldog Nation long into the future.”

One of the honors James was proudest of was receiving an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Georgia, a recognition made even more special because he received it alongside his parents. In addition to receiving the honorary doctorate at the spring 2011 commencement ceremony, James also gave the commencement speech, during which he said: “The story of our lives is not what happens to us, it’s what we do about it.”

An Advocate
While James and his family created a haven for people in need of neurorehabilitation at Shepherd Center, that was only part of their mission. James also aimed to create a world outside Shepherd Center’s walls that was more thoughtful and inclusive of people with disabilities. He regularly communicated with community leaders, legislators and the news media to increase public awareness. He also toured groups through Shepherd Center, spoke to community organizations, and made advocates and supporters of the many people he reached.

In Atlanta and beyond, he actively served on numerous boards and committees to further education and research to benefit people with disabilities. He served as director of the National Rehabilitation Awareness Foundation, on the Board of Directors of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Rehabilitation Technology, the Governor’s Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Trust Fund Authority and as a board member of Initiative 2000 (a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act). He also served as a delegate for the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals, as well as on the Steering Committee for the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, which led the Interfaith Conference on Disability Awareness. He was an active volunteer in the community, having volunteered on the accessibility advisory committees of MARTA, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome.

“James was committed to doing everything in his power to rebuild the lives of the people in our care, both inside Shepherd Center and out in the world,” Morrison says. “There wasn’t a day that went by that you could not feel and see his influence.”

A Visionary
In 1975, just two years after James sustained a spinal cord injury, Shepherd Center began as a six-bed unit operating out of leased space in an Atlanta hospital. James was able to leverage the business savvy and connections he’d honed working alongside his family at Shepherd Construction and Plant Improvement with the passion he felt to help people reclaim their lives after illness or injury.

“James was a forward thinker – always with the staff, patients and their families in mind,” says David Apple, M.D., medical director emeritus and Shepherd Center co-founder. “James had a sense of humor, which endeared him to staff and friends. James was the epitome of one who turned tragedy into triumph.”

Today, Shepherd Center is a state-of-the-art facility with 152 beds, including a 10-bed intensive care unit.

“James saw Shepherd Center with a 360-degree vision from the perspective of the patient, the medical and rehabilitation professionals, those providing care, encouragement and support, as well as those receiving care, encouragement and support,” says James D. Thompson, vice president of Shepherd Center’s Board of Directors. “His experience allowed him to understand Shepherd Center from the perspective of rehabilitation, operations, regulatory, finance, charitable giving, as well as community and governmental relations. James’ legacy is wide and deep.”

As chairman of the Board of Directors of Shepherd Center for nearly 45 years, James led the hospital to become the pre-eminent center of excellence for care and research for patients and families experiencing spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. “James devoted his life to ensuring Shepherd Center’s teams could take the so-called impossible cases and help people put their lives back together,” Morrison says. “Thanks to him, thousands of patients and families have found a pathway to independence, hope and dignity.”

While James certainly had the strategic vision to build Shepherd Center into a thriving organization, perhaps where he excelled most was in creating the culture that Shepherd Center is known for – one of hope, hard work and humor.

“One of the biggest parts of James’ legacy is the culture he helped build,” Hawkins says. “We foster hope instead of despair, and we believe in helping everyone live a life of purpose. It’s who we are and how we live.”

Before his passing, James was instrumental in launching Vision 2025 which was composed of touchstones for Shepherd Center to accomplish by 2025, the year of its 50th anniversary.

“With James’ leadership, patients and families have remained our true north as we plan for the future,” Morrison says. “He was incredibly excited to see Vision 2025 come to fruition. Achieving our goals of expanding patient access to all services, inspiring transformation through innovation and delivering a world-class experience for all patients and families is the best way we can both honor and carry on his legacy.”

In its nearly 45 years, it is estimated that Shepherd Center has changed the lives of nearly 30,000 patients – all because James had the strength to turn his life-altering injury into a bridge from I can’t to I can. Simply put, I realize I would not be here if James had not had his accident, explains Sally Nunnally, a long-time friend, member of the Board of Directors and early patient of Shepherd Center. “And there are thousands more like me who can say the same thing. If he had not had his accident and reacted the way he did, thousands of people’s lives would be very different. James paved the way.”

Written by Kerry Ludlam

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.