Rogers Severson looked out from behind the podium Tuesday into the faces of some of Orange County's most influential and wealthy residents.
"We've got enough people here to buy Orange County," he joked, as the 230 in attendance laughed while perhaps thinking, "I wonder if we could."
The audience included politicians, developers, lawyers, heads of banks and corporations. Among them: Anthony Moiso, president of the Santa Margarita Co.; Bill Baker, president of Del Taco Restaurants; and Charles Johnson, senior vice president of Wells Fargo Bank. These are people who are used to being tapped for cash and causes. Some, in fact, had been overheard grousing, even before the salmon entree arrived, about the proliferation of demands on their wallets.
But there was no grumbling about this cause, not on this day at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach. As much as anything, the lunch was a celebration of life and its possibilities.
Severson, a popular industrial developer, stood before them on somewhat shaky legs, asking for a hand.
A year ago, while horseback riding with many of them on the Portola Ride--an annual men-only get-together on Mission Viejo Ranch--Severson was thrown. He landed on his head and neck, snapping two vertebrae and initially getting the kind of prognosis that most of us only think about in nightmares: You might never walk again.
After therapy that is now entering its second year, Severson proved the doctors wrong. Today, a year and four days after the accident, he can get around with two canes and sometimes one. But during the six months he spent at the Casa Colina Center for Rehabilitation in Pomona, Severson made a commitment to try to help other patients who, unlike him, did not have the insurance to cover extensive therapy.
"One fellow left the hospital, and he had a chance to walk," Severson, 48, said the day before the luncheon. "Six months later, he was in bed, had bedsores and had gone from 165 pounds to 100 pounds. I saw him, and it was like you couldn't recognize him. It was tragic. Here was a guy who had so much desire and was doing so well in therapy. To see him at that point, it really got to me."
What happened, Severson said, was that the man's insurance expired and his sister, with whom he lived, couldn't provide the home therapy he needed. It is a situation that Casa Colina, a nonprofit organization, is largely powerless to stop, he said.
And so, Severson decided to solicit financial contributions from his friends. It wasn't a decision he made lightly, he said:
"It's hard for me to ask friends for money. I've never done it, and even though you can say the money's not for me, that it's for somebody else, that was a big thing for me to get around."
Severson plans to set up a permanent fund, eventually reaching $1 million, to subsidize patients' care at Casa Colina. Tuesday's luncheon was designed to establish seed money: Severson wrote 750 letters inviting people to the $500-a-plate luncheon.
The response, Severson said, was "truly overwhelming."
The attendees contributed $171,000, he said. Included in that figure was Severson's personal contribution of $50,000. Another 100 people who didn't attend gave another $37,000 for a total of $208,000.
Severson has promised to be among five people who decide which patients get the financial help. It will go to those who both need it and have the desire to put in the grueling hours that are necessary in rehabilitation therapy.
Therapy was "the toughest thing I had ever been through, by far," Severson said. "The strain was incredible. Lifting a muscle is one thing, if you can lift it. If you can't lift it, it is one of the most frustrating things in the world. It's like trying to grab something and you can't do it. The mental strain is more than the physical strain. You strain and strain, and you absolutely wear yourself out. You do it again and again, and that's the hardest part."
But Severson kept with it. About a month after the accident, he wriggled a toe. Then, relatively quickly, he generated movement in his ankle and the top of his thighs.
He got the notion he would walk some day.
Severson had always been an achiever. Athlete of the year at Tustin High, president and co-owner of his own company at 40, married and the father of four children--he had been living the good life.
"My life, my God, it couldn't have been going better for me," he said. "I've had a very fortunate life. My business had always been very successful, my family life was good, I had many friends. My life had just been a bed of roses. If I would have designed my life, I wouldn't have designed it any better."
The accident on the horse trail, which occurred with the horse at a walk, changed the design in an instant.