Thaddeus E. Judge III (or Ted, as everyone calls him) wants to show me a magic trick.
We’re sitting in a Cabot Science Library basement study room on a balmy Saturday in October. The library has just opened for the day, so there’s only a gentle murmur of conversation.
“I need you to squeeze those pencils as hard as you can,” Ted says. He hands me two pencils. I begin to squeeze. He keeps insisting — “squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, more, more more,” — and I obey. I squeeze until my fist shakes over the table. Eventually, Ted says he is satisfied with my efforts.
Then he reveals the next step of the trick: “Don’t move, just relax,” he commands. “Don’t do nothing.” He gently removes the pencils from my hand, but my fist stays curled in on itself. “Now,” Ted continues, “very slowly open your hand.”
I attempt to unfurl my fingers. I cannot. I struggle for a moment more, striving to wiggle my cramped digits, and fail again. I concede, laughing.
“That’s the way my body works!” Ted exclaims.
Ted Judge, 61, of Everett, MA, lives with cerebral palsy. His magic trick was meant to be instructive. Cerebral palsy severely limits a person’s ability to move, maintain balance, and control their muscles. It is the most common motor disability experienced by children worldwide, and while symptoms limit mobility in a range of ways, they do not worsen over time.
Ted is confined to a motorized wheelchair, which he uses to tear down hallways and sidewalks at breakneck speed. Ted’s cerebral palsy also affects his “accent,” as he calls it. His tongue is somewhat inflexible, making his speech at times difficult to understand.
Ted has no formal connection to Harvard. But he has become a campus fixture nonetheless.
For more than 40 years, Ted has worked with a series of Harvard undergraduate volunteers for several hours each weekend. While these volunteers are primarily responsible for helping Ted send emails, many of them forge friendships with Ted that continue far beyond their undergraduate careers.
Ted’s affection for the university is evident — he almost always wears a Harvard baseball cap. He is wearing this hat the first time I meet him.
Apoorva Rangan ’19 is the latest volunteer in the long line of Harvard students who have worked with Ted. The first time Apoorva met Ted, she had no idea what he was saying. “It kind of made me feel like shit, because I couldn't understand him at all,” she says. Her older sister, Ramya Rangan ’16, also helped Ted when she was an undergraduate. Apoorva stepped in to fill her sister’s role after Ramya graduated. In the three years since, Apoorva and Ted have grown close. She is now well-attuned to his speech patterns.
“I think about the times in my week that bring me the most joy and the most satisfaction, and it's definitely — Ted is up there,” Apoorva says. Most of her close friends have met Ted, she adds. “He has a real place in my life.”
When they meet in the Science Center almost every Saturday at noon, Ted dictates emails to Apoorva, who transcribes and sends them out. She also reads emails and other mail aloud to to Ted, whose severe dyslexia makes reading extremely difficult.
Ted’s emails are the concrete reason why he meets with Apoorva every Saturday, but she emphasizes that the weekly gatherings are more than a volunteer opportunity.
“I don't even know what to call it; ‘volunteering’ feels so cheap,” Apoorva says.
Ted originally found Harvard student helpers via Access Boston, a now-defunct Phillips Brooks House Association program that paired undergraduates with residents of the Greater Boston area who live with physical disabilities. When Access Boston collapsed, Ted was left to seek successive volunteers on his own.
The string of students form a precarious chain that already broke once — and could come undone again at any moment.
‘WE HIT IT OFF’
Though Ted has worked with Harvard students for decades, his interactions with students through Access Boston transcended the physical boundaries of Harvard Yard.
Access Boston — meant to help Bostonians with physical disabilities gain greater access to the world around them —, came partly as a response to a law known as the Federal Rehabilitation Act. Passed in 1973, the legislation prohibited organizations that receive federal funding from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.
“My understanding is that Access Boston arose in the early 1970s as a [PBHA] response [to this legislation] to support community people who were looking for access,” says Peter D. O’Driscoll ’84, who both volunteered with Ted and directed the program as an undergraduate.
Ted can’t remember exactly how he got involved with Access Boston. He says his mother was an active member of the Easter Seals (a larger group also providing support for people with disabilities), and he suspects that likely led to his connection with the Harvard program.
Ted now has several personal care assistants who help him with daily tasks — including showering, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning — so his Harvard volunteers have historically filled a more niche role.
The Access Boston pairings largely manifested as “Big Brother” relationships, Daniel L. Golden ’78 recalls. Golden was the first student Ted worked with; the two met several times a month.
Ted jokingly refers to Golden as a “geek” in recounting their time together. “All the Harvard students were geeks,” says Ted. “I had a great time with them.”
“We hit it off,” Golden says. At the time, Ted was roughly the same age as Golden, then a sophomore in college. On Saturdays, Golden would often drive a PBHA van to Ted’s family home in Medford.
“I can still remember that drive,” he says. “I know where to take a right and a left and everything.” Golden and Ted would then head to a local pool and spend the morning swimming alongside other young adults with disabilities and their accompanying volunteers. After discovering their shared passion for chess, the pair began attending meetings of the Boylston Chess Foundation.
Over the three years they spent together, Ted and Golden became close friends. Golden grew to know Ted’s family — and was touched when they gave him a gift for Christmas or his birthday. “I believe it was aftershave,” he says. “I wasn't the most sophisticated kid and I don't think I'd ever used aftershave before.”
Golden was also on campus when Ted’s mother died of cancer. He attended the funeral. “I remember coming back and sitting in Harvard Yard by a tree just desolated because first of all, she was a really nice person, and second of all, it seemed he didn't deserve another blow.”
Around the time of his mother’s death, Ted moved to Winchester to live with his aunt, who died soon afterward from “a massive heart attack,” Ted says. “It was basically a broken heart.” His father died of a brain aneurysm when he was two years old; Ted says his only memory of his father dates to his own infancy — all the way back to when Ted lay in a crib.
Still, Ted’s “incredible zest for life” was obvious to Golden. “It was ironic; I would show up [to meet with Ted] and I would be depressed because of some relatively minor thing that had happened at school and he would be cheering me up,” Golden says. “And yet I had absolutely nothing to complain about.”
Ted came to Golden’s Harvard graduation. He has attended the graduations of every single one of his volunteers. He rattles off this track record with pride.
Peter O’Driscoll volunteered with Ted after Golden, starting some time in 1980. O’Driscoll would go to Medford to visit Ted, or the two would meet in Boston; Ted used (and continues to use) The RIDE, the MBTA’s accessible van service. O’Driscoll notes that Ted “loved to come to Harvard,” so sometimes Ted would make the trek to Cambridge. While O’Driscoll typically assisted Ted with administrative tasks — reading mail, paying bills — he notes that “what began as volunteer placement became much more of a friendship… A brotherly relationship.”
While Access Boston lasted, Ted could always count on a new student volunteer to succeed the old. As soon as one volunteer graduated, program staffers paired Ted with another. This support network lasted from the 1970s to the late 1990s.
But, by the early 2000s, Access Boston had fizzled out of existence.
“I really don't know the true cause of the demise of the program,” Ted says. He says he thinks the fact that students ran the program posed certain challenges. Turnover was inherently high. Students’ engagement and involvement eventually petered out.
Anwar E. Omeish ’19, president of PBHA, corroborates Ted’s understanding of the situation. “A lot of it is dependent on student interest,” says Omeish. “If a program is student-led and there are no students to lead it, then that’s a problem.”
As Access Boston began to decline in the mid-1990s, PBHA launched a dramatic restructuring. While the PBHA of today is “student led, staff supported,” as Omeish says, the organization saw little professional oversight until the 1990s, when administrators began taking steps to more closely manage the group.
Uma Nadiminti O’Brien ’97 is one of the last volunteers Ted found through Access Boston. While the program technically remained the same, O’Brien’s interactions with Ted took a different shape. Under the auspices of Access Boston, Golden and O’Driscoll were able to use PBHA vans to pick up Ted and drive away from the Harvard bubble. O’Brien says she never drove a van when volunteering with Ted.
Instead, she remembers meeting Ted at the Science Center. O’Brien helped Ted with his correspondence — letters, cards, and, occasionally, emails — and continued doing so until she graduated. “This was when email was just coming around,” O’Brien remembers.
From at least the mid 1990s until the present day, the Science Center — a building accessible to those with disabilities — has been a mainstay of Ted’s weekend meetings with his volunteers. Across the years, Ted has largely spent time with his volunteers in the same way.
“I'm there to help him, so whatever he needed help with we would always address that first,” O’Brien says. In large part, this meant serving as the intermediary between Ted and his friends by transcribing heartfelt notes and letters.
“It’s such an intimate thing to go through someone’s correspondence with them, and you learn about the people they’re talking to as much as you learn about them,” says Anne W. Solmssen ’15, another former volunteer.
Still, it is crucial for helpers to understand the intricacies of Ted’s network of friends. “The thing about working with Ted is that you answer emails, but you answer emails that are very much in a social fabric,” Apoorva says. Ted’s network of friends spans the globe: This in part stems from summers Ted spent at a camp for people with disabilities that is run by counselors from around the world.
Volunteers also help Ted with other tasks such as paying bills, and — on a recent Saturday — voting in the 2018 midterm elections. Apoorva aided Ted in filling out his absentee ballot, reading out explanations of the three Massachusetts ballot questions from a voter information guide as she did so. Ted voted Democrat.
“I think he's voted in every election for the last like, 30 years,” Apoorva says.
“I don’t know why people don’t,” says Ted. He later adds, “This is my country, and we have to be involved as much as possible.”
Ted’s weekend meetings may serve a practical purpose — but that in no way impedes his enjoyment of his time on campus. "I just really love coming over here,” he says. “It's like a form of sanctuary.”
Though the dissolution of Access Boston in the late 1990s easily could have torn down this sanctuary, Ted initially found the change navigable. The chain of Ted’s volunteers continued in almost the same manner as before.
Sans Access Boston, the continued existence of Ted’s line of helpers came to depend on the initiative of student participants. Though several volunteers I spoke with from this period could not recall the name of the person who succeeded them, they did remember reaching out over email lists or leveraging current connections to secure their replacements.
The system was fragile. Disruption was inevitable.
Early on a Tuesday morning in the fall of 2011, Ted took the bus to Harvard Square from his home in Everett. He positioned himself near Straus Hall and approached a student leaving the dorm: Parinaz Motamedy ’15.
“I was actually having trouble understanding what he was saying to me,” Motamedy says. Ted had anticipated this. He had brought along a piece of paper explaining what he was seeking: a student volunteer who could help him use the computer and send emails for a few hours every weekend.
The chain of volunteers had finally faltered around 2010; Ted doesn’t remember the specific timeline. Two seniors who volunteered with Ted promised that they would find someone to take over for them after they graduated. As Ted describes it, the duo assured him they had plenty of time to find a replacement.
Then they graduated.
“I relied too much on those two seniors back then,” Ted says. (He doesn’t remember their names.) “In the back of my mind, I was hoping beyond hope that they understood, but they didn't understand the magnitude of the situation.”
Ted was left in limbo. Eventually, he took matters into his own hands:. He printed out flyers seeking volunteers and hung them around Harvard Yard. Each time he hung the posters, though, someone tore them down. Ted feared his efforts were futile.
He saw two options before him: either take out an ad in The Crimson or begin directly approaching students. He decided on option two — which brought him to Straus Hall on that Tuesday morning.
Motamedy did not know Ted and had never seen him before. Nonetheless, she “pretty much agreed immediately” to do the job, she says.
Ted was delighted. “Fireworks were going off,” he says.
“I think I was really impressed by his initiative,” Motamedy says. “It was simultaneously that he was independent in approaching me and asking for help on his own behalf, and also that he was able to ask for help when he needed it.”
Soon after, Motamedy invited a friend, Anne Solmssen, to accompany her to a Saturday meeting with Ted. The trio quickly bonded, and both women continued to volunteer with Ted for the rest of their undergraduate careers.
Ted attributes his perseverance in seeking out a new chain of volunteers to a bestselling self-help book called “The Secret,” which suggests that thinking about certain things can make them appear in one’s life. Ted lives by this philosophy.
“I knew some way, somehow, I would find that person,” Ted says.
‘WHEREVER I GO, THEY GO.’
A lot had changed — in the world and on Harvard’s campus — since Ted’s “Big Brother” relationships with Golden and O’Driscoll in the late 1970s and 1980s. One thing was no different: the indelible personal connection Ted soon forged with his volunteers.
Birthday messages form a particularly important part of Ted’s correspondence with his friends. Most Saturdays now, he asks Apoorva whether any of his friends have upcoming birthdays.
“All he really wanted was somebody to help him say happy birthday to his friends and let them know that he's thinking of them, and he doesn't let barriers — technological or otherwise — come between his friendship with these people,” Motamedy says. “People have lots of excuses not to keep in contact and fall out of touch and he really made none of those excuses. He made it work.”
Ted’s dedication to staying in touch has strengthened his friendships with volunteers. “Part of the reason I got to know him so well was through writing his correspondence to other people,” Lisa G. Lederer ’03 says.
Lederer began working with Ted halfway through her sophomore year. Earlier that year, Lederer took a medical leave: she had been in a severe car accident that led to a brain injury. Because of this experience, Lederer became interested in disability advocacy. An older friend saw her as a perfect candidate to work with Ted, and Lederer took over the reins.
When Lederer got married in Boston several years after graduation, she invited Ted. This trip marked the second time he attended the wedding of a former volunteer. The first was Uma O’Brien’s, which she describes as a “big Indian wedding” at which Ted met many of her friends and family members.
The third instance came early this October, when Ted traveled with a personal care assistant to Vermont, where Anne Solmssen, one of his former helpers, tied the knot.
Solmssen called Ted when she sent out her wedding invitations, informing him she would love to have him attend but understood if the attendant challenges were insurmountable. The location wasn’t perfectly accessible — her wedding took place in the backyard of a farmhouse, or “in Vermont in a field,” as Solmssen describes it.
“Ted basically said, ‘Don’t be silly, I wouldn’t miss it,’ and basically did absolutely everything he needed to make sure that he could be there, and be at every venue of the wedding and celebrate with me,” Solmssen says. “It just meant so much to me.”
Ted and his volunteers share a mutual investment in each other’s’ lives. “They all have a special place in my heart,” Ted says. “Wherever I go, they go.”
Anar D. Shah ’06 began volunteering with Ted during her sophomore year; she says this feeling became clear to her almost immediately. “He just took an interest in my life,” Shah says.
The two keep in touch periodically. Ted made special note of the fact that Shah is an emergency room doctor when he described her to me. When I repeated this to Shah, she was struck by the fact he remembered the specifics of her career over a decade after her graduation.
“I don’t expect him to remember things like that, but he does,” she says.
Many of the volunteers I talked to describe receiving periodic birthday cards from Ted, always stuffed with personal details. “I try to stay in touch with as many as I can,” says Ted. His dedication to his volunteers, past and present, is clear.
“It just takes a long time [for me] to do things, so I’m very grateful,” says Ted of his volunteers.
Still — remembering his experience with the two students who graduated without finding replacements — Ted says he knows the situation is precarious.
Ensuring the chain of Harvard students continues is a “constant thought,” he says.
UP IN THE AIR
On Saturday, Oct. 20, I wait outside with Ted for his ride. We leave the Science Center around 1:30 p.m. and head to the corner of Oxford Street. Along the way, he demonstrates his technical wheelchair prowess by popping wheelies and turning in tight circles in front of the Science Center entrance before speeding down the sidewalk.
The RIDE, the MBTA’s “shared-ride paratransit system”, is slated to arrive slightly after 1:30. We continue chatting as people stream by.
Around 2 p.m., Ted gives me a phone number to call and I ask the dispatcher for the status of his ride. They say it’s only a few minutes away. Ted is skeptical. Fifteen minutes later, the van arrives. Its door unfurls, revealing a ramp-like mechanism that positions Ted’s wheelchair inside the vehicle. Ted boards the van, I wave, and we part ways — 45 minutes later than we’d planned.
Ted has relied on The RIDE for decades. It operates like a carpool — and, like almost any shared ride system, is prone to delays and scheduling issues. Customers must schedule rides at least one day in advance, and they receive confirmation of their ride the night before.
Though Ted is fiercely independent — “He’s nothing if not a self-advocate,” O’Driscoll says — his physical condition often forces him to depend on things outside his control.
The process by which his student volunteers transfer responsibilities marks another thing outside Ted’s control.
Anne Solmssen, whom Parinaz Motamedy recruited, remembers soliciting volunteers over a small email list. She was the one who found Ramya Rangan.
“Despite how fortuitous it was that we ended up finding each other the way we did, we really did not want to make him go back to the Yard to meet more strangers,” Solmssen says.
Luckily for then-senior Ramya, her sister Apoorva — then a freshman — was clearly next in line. Apoorva had long tagged along to Ramya’s weekly meetings with Ted. “I didn’t really think about saying no,” Apoorva says.
Now Apoorva is graduating — and she is looking for a successor. She has already begun introducing friends to Ted and asking them to watch for freshmen who might be interested. Apoorva says has not yet formally asked anyone if they would be interested in volunteering.
“How do you say that in a way that doesn’t just make it look like a chore or a task? How do you convince someone to be a friend with someone? I don’t know,” she says.
She has also reached out to the PBHA chapter of Best Buddies and Best Buddies of Massachusetts in hopes of securing a long-term volunteer, she says.
Ted says he knows the future of his volunteers is up in the air. His rapport with Apoorva is lighthearted and comfortable, but neither can avoid the fact that Apoorva’s graduation date looms in the distance.
Laughing, Apoorva recounts how Ted will often tell her “Girl, you better get on this!” But making the “sell” can prove difficult, she says.
“I don't know how to find someone who'll see him in the same way that I do,” Apoorva says. “It almost feels like matchmaking, a little bit, or like [having] auditions, almost, and people have come in and worked with him for a week and I don't know if it’s good enough, because I want him to be happy, but it's also so hard to find someone on this campus who'll do something without a title attached to it.”
Volunteering with Ted is a unique undertaking that necessitates a unique commitment: “consistency in combination with informality,” as Apoorva puts it. Informality like this can seem difficult to spot in Harvard’s often pre-professional extracurricular scene.
Apoorva remains optimistic.
“Hopefully, by the end of the semester there will be someone set up,” she says.
—Magazine writer Norah M. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @norah_murph.