Even if he hadn’t lost his legs in an Army helicopter crash in 1961, Chet Mottershead would have had a soft spot for disabled and disadvantaged people, his friends said.
But the fact he did lose his legs in the accident in Okinawa, Japan, made him even more empathetic to their plight and more determined than ever to be their advocate, they said.
Mottershead died Sept. 26 at his home in Rocky Mount after touching countless lives as one of the original founders of the Tar River Mission Clinic and president of Tri-County Industries. The clinic offers free health care services to low-income and uninsured adults. Tri-County Industries offers work training and job placement for the disabled or disadvantaged.
Both of these causes were near and dear to Mottershead, friends said.
“My observations are certainly that he was someone who was committed to helping the less fortunate,” said Gene Wilson, executive director of the Tar River Mission Clinic.
Friends describe Mottershead as being highly intellectual, teaching history at N.C. Wesleyan College in the late 1960s. The Duke University graduate also was an active member of a book club.
Mottershead never seemed to let his disability bother him, said Mottershead’s close friend, Brack Townsend.
“He loved going to the beach,” Townsend said. “I can tell you a bunch of us would pull him through the sand in a wheelchair and it would fall over. He’d fall out. It never seemed to phase him.”
Mottershead actively supported Democratic candidates who were running for office but never ran himself.
“He was a political creature,” his wife Rochelle “Riki” Mottershead said.
Friends also said Mottershead had a quiet sense of humor.
“He was not always joking,” Townsend said. “He was very serious, very thoughtful and wise person.”
Mottershead was also a tenacious person, Townsend said.
“You would have to be pretty tenacious to achieve all he did considering how hard it was for him to get around,” Townsend said.
Besides losing his legs in the crash, Mottershead had suffered severe burns.
“In all the years I knew him, I never heard him complain about his disability,” Townsend said. “I never heard him say, ‘I can’t do it.’ He was always thinking about other people and trying to make the world a better place.”
Mottershead was an active member of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rocky Mount for more than 40 years, where he helped establish a soup kitchen and shelter to serve homeless people. In 1974, he took a position at Tri-County Industries. In 1976, he was appointed president, a position he held until he retired.
He was an active board member of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits.
“His knowledge and understanding of nonprofits was a big, big part of why he was such a valuable board member on the clinic and the homeless shelter,” Townsend said. “He had lots and lots of friends.”
Rocky Mount Council member Tom Rogers, Mottershead’s friend and neighbor, said an example of Mottershead’s advocacy for the disabled came when he pushed for them to be included in the People’s Bank logo.
“Chet appealed to the bank’s management that the silhouette be more inclusive, and the logo was changed to have a person in a wheelchair and person with a seeing eye dog (in the logo),” Rogers said. “That was long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.”
Teri Taylor, the patient assistance coordinator for the Tar River Mission Clinic, said Mottershead had a big heart.
“One of the things that really stood out to me was he was very quiet when he was in meetings,” she said. “But when he spoke, he spoke with wisdom.”