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CSUN LAUDS ALUMNUS FOR REMARKABLE ABILITY.

Byline: Dennis McCarthy

It's a remarkable journey Mike Day has been on since he dove into a shallow wave at Santa Monica Beach in 1970, a simple act that changed his life forever.

A journey that could easily have ended in tragedy and failure for a bitter 19-year-old teen-ager suddenly sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair as a paraplegic after breaking his neck hitting bottom on that dive.

That was precisely the journey Day envisioned for himself after he came home from the hospital - a short life with nothing left, really.

He never saw this other journey coming - the one that has led him to be honored 30 years later by his alma mater, California State University, Northridge, as a distinguished alumnus.

``This wasn't even on my radar screen, not even close,'' Day said Monday from his office at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where he holds a doctorate specializing in X-ray crystallography - the use of crystals to determine molecular geometry.

I'd explain it further if I could, but I can't. Trust me, you wouldn't understand it, either. The important thing is, Day does.

For 10 years after his accident, he didn't do much but sit around his house watching TV and feeling sorry for himself, basically just waiting to die, Day says.

``I thought what's the point of living, I can't do any of the things I used to,'' he said. ``I used to run track and cross country, race cars - I wasn't in one spot very long.

``Then, I dive into a wave and all my dreams blow up. So I just spent a lot of years moping around, waiting for the end to come. But one day I woke up and thought to myself, 'Hey, you thought you'd be dead two years ago, and you're still here.' ''

``That's when I decided I'd better start doing something with my life,'' the 49-year-old said.

What he did was something nothing short of remarkable. He drove his handicapped access van over to Los Angeles Valley College, and enrolled in classes that always ended the same way - with Day getting an A.

``Then I took a chemistry class and flunked my first test,'' he said, laughing. ``All of a sudden I had found something I knew I was going to have to work hard at to succeed.''

So, he did. In 1991, 21 years after diving into that wave and thinking his life was basically over, Mike Day graduated from CSUN with a master's degree in chemistry.

``We checked and found that he was the only handicapped college student in the entire country to receive a master's degree in chemistry that year,'' said Gary Mounger, director of alumni relations at CSUN.

It was one of the main factors for the committee of the Distinguished Alumni Awards program to chose Day for this year's honor. After CSUN, Day received his doctorate at Caltech.

``We want people who have had notable achievements in their professional and personal lives, and are approaching the pinnacle of their careers,'' Mounger said. ``That's Mike Day.''

It's funny, says Mike's mom, Polly Spangler. A couple of years ago when Mike was being honored by Los Angeles Valley College, she ran into one of his old professors.

``He told me the first time he saw Mike come into class, he thought he was a drug-crazed hippie,'' she laughs. ``Mike had really long hair, a beard, and wouldn't wear shoes.''

Then, her son woke up one day and found he had outlived his own supposed mortality, so he'd better get serious about life because it looked as if he was going to be around for a while.

``I think it's encouraging to see what Mike has been able to accomplish,'' she says. ``Sure, his IQ is important, but there are an awful lot of smart people out there wasting time.

``Mike feels like maybe the Lord took him off his feet to stop him from wasting his,'' she said.

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Photo: Caltech professor Mike Day's journey of life has led him to being honored as a distinguished alumnus at CSUN, 30 years after a diving accident left him a paraplegic.

Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 21, 2000
Words:702
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