By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
An enemy mortar round had exploded behind him, instantly severing his spinal cord. He fell to the ground unconscious. "The next thing I remember I was on a helicopter," he continues, "and there was a guy holding my hand and he said, 'Don't worry, we're going to be okay.' I looked at him and I believed him. I believed I was going to be okay. And then I got to the field hospital and they took me off, and during triage the doctor looked at me and I heard him say, 'He's too far gone to save. Put him over there.' And I remember my head looking down at a row of stretchers, half of which had the tarps pulled over their heads, which means they were dead. And I remember being set down there to die."
But Hawkins held on. "I woke up six weeks later," he recalls. "The doctor said to me, 'I think you'll probably be paralyzed for the rest of your life.' But at least I knew I was going to live." In addition to suffering paralysis, Hawkins lost the little finger on his right hand, injuries that led to a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
Despite eight major operations since the war, Hawkins remains in almost constant pain, requiring daily medication. And his diet is restricted A he is unable to eat and properly digest red meat, and he must avoid milk. "He was never bitter, he was never moody," his mother says. "He was just anxious to get on with his life." At the top of his list: finishing law school. Within a year of his homecoming, he was back at Wayne State. In the meantime, Mary Jean had given birth to a boy they named Richard.
For the next two years Larry and Mary Jean struggled to adapt to the dramatic changes in their young lives, but the combined pressures of Larry's injuries, parenthood, and law school proved to be too much. During Hawkins's final year at Wayne State, Mary Jean left him. "Not her fault," he says flatly. "She had two babies to raise -- my son and me."
Carolyn Hawkins recalls an additional marital problem, an aspect of her son's personality that was exacerbated by the injuries: his efforts to reassert his masculinity. Hawkins himself doesn't disagree. "Back then, when I used to drink beer at night and go out and play pool, stay up all night on the weekends and play cards rather than study, I think there was a bit of Larry Hawkins that had to prove he was still a man and a macho guy," he says, his voice low and deep with intensity. "But those days are long over for me. I'm content with who I am."
In 1971 he became the first wheelchair-bound person in the history of Wayne State to receive a law degree. Hawkins never took the Michigan bar exam, or any state's bar exam, he says, because he was never interested in practicing law; he wanted the degree on his resume to help him land a job in the business community.
Having spent nearly his entire life in Michigan, Hawkins concluded it was time for a change, especially in light of his injury. "After three years of pushing through the snow in a wheelchair, I realized that wasn't a way I wanted to go," he explains. He moved to Miami in 1972.
That Hawkins soon gravitated toward politics should have surprised no one. Both his parents had been politically active in Michigan, and being lifelong Democrats, there was never much doubt as to where their son's party loyalties would lie. Hawkins's first job in Florida tossed him into the political fray as a lobbyist for veterans and the disabled in Tallahassee. In one session alone, he successfully lobbied for nineteen bills and helped to change the state's constitution to prevent discrimination based on physical handicaps. "I think at the time we were only the second state in the country to have written that into their constitution," Hawkins says. "There are still very few states that have that."
In 1978 he made his first bid for public office, running for an open legislative seat in South Dade. His principal opponent: Dexter Lehtinen. Following a grueling campaign, Hawkins beat Lehtinen in the November 1978 runoff election. But the campaign proved bittersweet. Earlier that year Hawkins had married Judy Spates, a single mother of two children. According to Hawkins's mother, Judy was strongly opposed to her new husband running for office, but he did it anyway. When he won, his wife was doubly upset -- so much so that she didn't attend Hawkins's swearing-in ceremony in Tallahassee. His parents were there, of course; they had moved to Florida in 1976 to be closer to their son. Hawkins's own son Richard was also there. But not his wife. In fact, a couple of days later, when Hawkins and his family returned home, they found his house empty. "To get in we had to climb in through the kitchen window to unlock the door," Carolyn Hawkins recalls. "Judy had taken everything." The couple divorced a short time later.