Walter Engel Passed Away

Date: April 4, 2007


Then on Wednesday, April 4, 2007, Walter appeared on the front page of the Record newspaper standing next to Kenneth Bruno.

Inspiring others to the end

By Jay Levin, Staff Writer

Walter Engel's 1989 stroke was devastating. It left the freelance orchestral conductor paralyzed and unable to communicate, except through blinking and minute eyebrow movements. Neurologists call the condition "locked-in syndrome."

"His life could have ended then," said Mr. Engel's friend, Dorothy Neff of Ridgewood. "But he continued to live fully, to love and to give inspiration to so many people."

Mr. Engel, who died Sunday at 51, left significant legacies. The Englewood resident sponsored a northern New Jersey festival of young musicians now in its 16th year. He was instrumental in a Fairleigh Dickinson University professor's creation of devices that help severely disabled people communicate, including a telephone interface that was awarded a patent in February. And paintings Mr. Engel created by using his wheelchair tires as a brush were exhibited in New Jersey and New York.

Jill Sagarin said several lessons can be gleaned from her former husband's life.

"Patience, patience and more patience" is one, she said. "Have high expectations for yourself and others" is another."

Mr. Engel, who grew up in a large family, was a classical-music-loving kid at Ridgewood High School. He went on to the Manhattan School of Music and conducted for the New Jersey Philharmonic and Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra, among other organizations. He suffered the stroke on Sept. 9, 1989, while working at a decorating company in Englewood.

Mr. Engel was in a coma for six weeks. A year-and-half in a rehabilitation center was followed by 8½ years in a nursing home. By 2000, when he was profiled in The Record, Mr. Engel was in an Englewood apartment, supported by round-the-clock nursing care. Mr. Engel showed how he created wheelchair art: cuing a nurse through eye movements to rub a specific color of paint on his wheelchair tires and then roll the wheelchair over a canvas.

"I wanted to be creative again," Mr. Engel told The Record through his nurse. "This was a time in my new life when I needed to show gratitude to my family and friends for being supportive to me."

Mr. Engel did more than show gratitude. He gave back. He was an enthusiastic patron of the Walter Engel Festival of Young Performers, which Neff -- a Ridgewood schoolteacher whose daughter had performed in one of Mr. Engel's orchestras -- established in the early 1990s. The non-competitive event gives young musicians a stage and has awarded more than 55 college scholarships.

Ten years ago Mr. Engel came to the attention of Eamon Doherty, now an FDU computer science professor and director of the school's cybercrime training lab.

In their development of systems allowing the severely disabled to send signals through facial movements, Doherty and his students used Mr. Engel as a test subject.

Two weeks before Mr. Engel died, Doherty showed him the plaque that accompanied his first patent, No. 7170977, for a device that would allow Mr. Engel to use a telephone.

In addition to his former wife, a genealogist who lives in Asheville, N.C., Mr. Engel is survived by five brothers and three sisters. The funeral Mass is today at 1 p.m. at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Ridgewood, followed by private burial. Trinka-Faustini Funeral Home in Maywood is handling arrangements.

The family suggested donations to the Walter Engel Festival of Young Performers, c/o Dorothy Neff, 349 Graydon Terrace, Ridgewood, NJ 07450.

The 16th annual Walter Engel Festival of Young Performers concerts will take place April 21 and 22, at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. each day, at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, 113 Cottage Place, Ridgewood. Admission is free.