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Hidden Heroes
Advocate stresses abilities over disabilities
Polio put George Locascio in a wheelchair for life, but it didn’t cripple his desire to help others.
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George Locascio is founder of the B&G Endowment, which assists disabled people with special needs.
 
St. PETERSBURG – During World War II, George Locascio survived 32 combat patrols in PT 379. But the biggest fight of his life was still ahead of him.

While anchored off the Philippines on July 10, 1945, he felt sick, so he rowed ashore in a rubber dinghy and went to sick bay. He was examined, told there was nothing wrong with him and sent away.

But his shipmates told him he looked terrible, so he returned to sick bay and was admitted to be tested for malaria. That night, while returning from the latrine, he couldn’t climb the single doorstep to the sick bay tent.

“That was the last time I ever walked,” said Locascio, now 71. The diagnosis was polio, although one doctor was convinced Locascio was faking to get out of the Navy. After treatment at a hospital in the Philippines, he was sent to California on the USS Billy Mitchell, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on VJ Day.

He was given psychiatric evaluation in California, to make sure he wasn’t faking. But a congressman friend of the family got him transferred to Warm Springs, Ga., where President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also had polio, had died at his vacation home a few months earlier.

“Ten weeks at Warm Springs totally changed my life,” he said. “l had the same brace-maker who made Roosevelt’s braces.”

in December 1947, he met a fellow Navy veteran, Breverly Bluedorn, and married her four months later. He worked for the city of East Hartford in his native Connecticut, but he vacationed in St. Petersburg and loved the city.

In 1952, his father loaned him the money for a house in St. Petersburg. He worked at a variety of jobs, selling real estate and swimming pools, and managing the offices of a plumbing company and an industrial uniform cleaner.

In 1959, he answered a blind ad for someone with sales and marketing experience. It turned out to be Abilities of Florida, a Goodwill-style organization of disabled workers. Its founder, Hank Viscardi, who was born with badly deformed legs, hired him to sell direct mail advertising.

“We went after the big boys,” Locascio recalled. “We became one of the largest mailers in Florida.”

Polio robbed the former high school athlete of his dream of playing college football. But it didn’t keep him from realizing another boyhood dream: Flying.

In 1966, he got his pilot’s license and bought his own airplane. He no longer flies, but it wasn’t polio that grounded him. It was high blood pressure.

Locascio left Abilities in 1968, when its printing division closed. After briefly working for Aetna Insurance, he joined the commercial printing department of the St. Petersburg Times. The department was then bringing in about $400,000 a year, but Locascio landed a $1 million contract on one of his first sales calls.

He took long-term disability from the Times in 1981 and formally retired 10 years later. Breverly died in 1991, and Locascio married his current wife, Dorothy, the next year.

“During that time (on disability) I got involved in advocacy work,” Locascio said.

He persuaded the city to add 300 wheelchair positions to what is now Tropicana Field and upgrade handicapped access.

“George Locascio is a community activist who’s had a profound impact on the lives and families of people with disabilities,” said Frank De Lucia, president and CEO of the Abilities Foundation. “(He) is widely known as the area’s preeminent disability rights advocate.”

To honor his first wife, Locascio founded B&G Endowment. He pledged $100,000 of his own money, but has exceeded that pledge by at least half. The endowment, which now has $350,000 and hosts fund-raisers in hopes of reaching $1 million, is administered by Abilities.

“I wanted it for extremely special needs for disabled people who get in a bind and need help in the next 24 to 48 hours for such things as the first and last month’s rent on a new apartment,” Locascio explained. “We don’t touch the corpus; we operate off the earnings.”

Call 538-7370, ext. 345 or visit www.abilitiesofflorida.com.
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