A native Nebraskan paralyzed from the chest down by a drunken driver in Omaha started a new job this week — senior economist for the President's Council of Economic Advisors.
“I hope it's not the pinnacle of my career, but it's certainly a high point,” said Douglas Kruse, 54. “I'll be able to work on economic policy for the president of the United States, and that will provide me a lifetime of lessons to share with my students.”
With the economy in need of more jobs, Kruse's one-year appointment took effect on an appropriate day — Labor Day. He is working in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, his window overlooking the White House next door.
It's a long way from the night of June 10, 1990, when a car traveling 100 mph struck the rear of the vehicle in which he was a passenger on Interstate 80, just east of 72nd Street. Doctors told his parents, the Rev. Lowen and Ruth Kruse, that Doug, then 31, might not live until morning.
But after months of rehabilitation for his spinal-cord injury, he returned to teaching the next year at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Despite typing with only one hand because of his injuries, he since has achieved a prolific record as an author, editor and researcher.
“He is the most amazing and courageous person I know,” said longtime Rutgers professor Joseph Blasi. “You can never pull Doug down into the doldrums, no matter how difficult the circumstance. He will take the high ground or make a joke.”
On top of that, Blasi said, Kruse has “worked like a horse” ever since he was a student. Now he is known internationally in economics.
“He has become the most distinguished economist studying employee ownership and profit-sharing,” Blasi said. “It makes a lot of sense that he would be tapped by the White House.”
As for his one-handed typing, Kruse quips: “I can type 40 words a minute. I tell everyone that's faster than I can think.”
A former runner and tennis player, he hasn't dwelled on how his life would have differed if he hadn't been paralyzed.
“Apart from being in a wheelchair, my life did not radically change,” he said. “I was able to preserve the three things that matter the most to me in life — my marriage to Lisa, my relationships with family and friends, and my career. That's a large part of why I never got depressed or discouraged.”
Doug grew up in Broken Bow and Norfolk before graduating from Lincoln Northeast High School, where he took part in drama — a good background, he says, for a future professor.
“A lot of teaching is performance,” he said. “Drama gets you well-prepared.”
After graduation from Harvard, he returned home and earned a master's degree in economics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
He was working in state government on a project to measure the state's “brain drain” of educated youths going elsewhere when — oops — he received an offer to return to Harvard on scholarship to work on his Ph.D.
In 1988, he married Lisa Schur, a New York City native he had met when they were Harvard undergrads. Two days before their second anniversary, after attending a wedding in Wisconsin, they were within two miles of his parents' home in Omaha.
Sitting in the back seat and weary from the trip, Doug lay his head in his wife's lap to rest. His seat belt was unbuckled, and the force of the crash at 9:40 p.m. rolled the car and threw him out. His wife and the car's two other occupants survived with minor injuries.
In the emergency room, Kruse required six pints of blood. The extra lung capacity from all his running helped get him through the night and the double pneumonia in the days ahead. But many more hard days lay in the future.
Doug's father, an ordained Methodist minister and later a Nebraska state senator, said he and his wife first feared for their son's life and then for his mind.
Paramedics, nurses, surgeons and others, Lowen Kruse said, worked hard and skillfully to give Doug a chance to recover.
“They saved his life,” he said, “but they also saved his brain.”
After several weeks in an Omaha hospital, Doug was sent to the Craig Institute in Denver, which specializes in spinal-cord and traumatic brain injury.
One visitor was his Rutgers colleague Joseph Blasi, who peppered Doug with questions about a book they were working on. The elder Kruses at first thought all the questions were too much for their bedridden, weakened son.
But Doug replied to his parents' concern with a slight smile and a thumbs-up. Though his body was broken, they realized his mind was not.
Said Blasi: “That moment set the mold for our lifelong collaboration. Doug never even missed a beat on his commitment to research and scholarship, even in such a tragic time.”
Lowen and Ruth Kruse recently saw a 10-page, single-spaced summary of their son's 25 years at Rutgers and joked that it wore them out just reading it.
A book by Doug on profit-sharing was featured in Barron's and the Wall Street Journal. He co-authored “Kremlin Capitalism,” about Russia's efforts at privatization, which was translated into Chinese.
His articles have appeared in top economic publications, including the British Journal of Industrial Relations. He gave a keynote address at a conference last year in Paris. He was elected president of the International Association for the Economics of Participation, for which he is helping plan a 2014 conference in Uruguay.
President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law 6½ weeks after Doug's injuries. Besides his research and writing specialty of employee ownership and profit-sharing, Kruse developed another area of scholarship — disability.
In that field, he has collaborated with his wife, who has a law degree and a Ph.D. and teaches employment and labor law at Rutgers. With another professor, they wrote the just-released overview book “People With Disabilities: Sidelined or Mainstreamed?”
Computer technology has provided job opportunities for people with disabilities, Kruse said, though the overall employment rate of the disabled has not risen since the advent of the ADA.
Among working-age people with disabilities in the U.S., he said, only 34 percent were employed in 2010, compared with 73 percent of people without disabilities.
Though he has disabilities, Doug Kruse throughout his life has focused on his abilities. And even though his spinal-cord injury deeply affected him, he hasn't viewed his lifelong paralysis as a kind of life sentence.
The 18-year-old drunken driver, by the way, received a 30-day jail sentence.
As a state senator, Lowen Kruse attempted to stiffen penalties for impaired driving. Ruth Kruse served as local president of Mother Against Drunk Driving, and both continue to meet with victims and their families.
Ten years after the accident, Doug's dad asked him if he ever thought about how his life would have been different.
Doug has never complained about what he can't do,” said the elder Kruse. “He looks around every morning and thinks about what he can do.”