14 years after accident, Tyler's still a hero

By Cynthia Kimball Humphreys

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Jennifer and Tyler Wilkinson with their three children.

Family Photo, Family Photo

ST. GEORGE — Tyler Wilkinson and Jennifer Orton faced tough times.

During their senior year at Dixie High School in 1991, Tyler fell asleep at the wheel while on his way to see then-girlfriend Jennifer in a dance competition. The accident left him a paraplegic.

But that didn't stop either of them from reaching their goals — getting married, having a family and creating a life together.

Years ago, their story of true love in the face of adversity was captured in the movie "Tyler, a Real Hero," narrated by former NFL quarterback Steve Young. (BYU-TV also updated the family's story and has been broadcasting "LDS Lives — Tyler Wilkinson" after each showing of "Tyler, a Real Hero.")

The Deseret News recently caught up with Tyler and Jennifer in St. George, where they've made their home with their three children, Sanders, Payton and Julia.

"Life's great, but there's a lot of routine to it," Tyler said. "I'm not out bungee cord jumping each weekend."

Home life

Tyler Wilkinson is a local celebrity in his hometown, although he'd never call himself that. He's vice president of wealth management services for Soltic, an investment advising firm, where he manages financial portfolios. That's when he isn't serving on the City Council or the Chamber of Commerce board. He now drives himself to work in a minivan.

When Tyler and Jennifer's three children learned to walk, they did so pushing their father's wheelchair.

"As they're getting older, they're realizing their father's different," Jennifer said. "It can be a little humbling at times. Payton will say, 'Dad I wish you weren't in a wheelchair so you can go out and play ball with me,' but he figured it out and played in the house. They realize that more is required of them and they can be around people who are different."

Tyler and Jennifer attend their children's sporting events and other activities. They're still very close to their families, who also live in St. George.

Randilyn Wilkinson Sparks, Tyler's sister, said the family has "bonded in a lot of ways" since the accident.

"We were always a close family, but never the huggy type," Sparks said. "But when you go through something together, it bonds you. We became closer."

Sparks is just two years younger than Tyler, whom she called "a tough act to follow." Her husband, Jon, is Tyler's personal physical therapist and calls him every morning but Saturday to help get him up and going.

"At first they worried that it might affect their relationship," Sparks said. "(But) they have a good relationship and can joke about anything."

Speaking, civic work

St. George City Councilman Jon Pike first met Tyler 14 years ago while serving in the Chamber of Commerce, and instantly felt he was an inspiring person.

"What I think he has taught me is that you can do anything if you try hard enough and set your mind to it," Pike said.

Today, Tyler speaks at church, civic and corporate events up to four times a month, although he and Jennifer don't travel as extensively as they once did. When the movie first came out, they visited places such as Scotland and the Cook Islands.

The question Tyler gets asked most at presentations? "How have you managed to have a good positive outlook and attitude and go forward in spite of challenging circumstances?" Tyler seems to have the question memorized.

"I have a good or better support structure around me than any person could ever have, with Jennifer, great family and friends," he said. "I have to add, for sure, that a part of that support structure, without question, would be faith and Latter-day Saint beliefs."

Mike Wilstead, president and CEO of Career Step in Provo, has been friends with Tyler since before his accident. Wilstead's brother played on the same Dixie High baseball team as Tyler, and his father was the coach. Wilstead has hired Tyler to speak at sales meetings and ecclesiastical events.

"I felt like I took a risk in hiring Tyler to motivate professional sales people; felt it was a little risky," Wilstead said. "But I've had more compliments from those presentations than any I've ever hired."

According to Jennifer, speaking is Tyler's "way of serving." He would say, "If I can just touch someone and help them have a different perspective on life; it is my way to give back."

"The key message that I share is that every day we can look at and focus on all the bad things in our lives or we can focus on all the positive and all the good things," Tyler said. "And if we do that, life is much more enjoyable and positive. People want to be around us more if we can maintain a positive outlook.

"Everyone has the choice. Everyone can focus on good or bad, and sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances beyond our control, but we can always focus on our attitude."

Advice for others

Tyler and Jennifer have visited and reached out to others who have sought them out, and both have advice for those in similar circumstances.

Jennifer says to "look for the good and the positive and the blessings in our life," and like the hymn says, "it will surprise you what the Lord has done."

"Everyone falls and that's not the determinant of success," she said. "It's really a matter of whether you keep getting up each time.

"I would say to not try and do it all alone because it isn't good for a relationship. I feel like there are people that are willing to help and that's one reason we are here is to help each other and I feel so good when I'm able to help someone else. Sometimes we have to swallow pride when someone wants to help us. Be willing to help. Sometimes you have to ask and sometimes it's not fun and not easy."

Tyler says that when the gospel is the foundation of life, there are always blessings to focus on. But whether challenges are apparent or not, everyone needs encouragement.

"Sometimes people look at my situation and they can see one of my challenges," Tyler said. "And as a result, I have people encourage me all the time. But all of us have challenges that I believe are just as real and just as difficult. Others need the same kind of words or a word of encouragement."

On heroes

Tyler didn't title the movie, but says it should be called "Tyler and a Real Hero."

"I would say without question my biggest hero is my wife, Jennifer, and I sincerely mean that," he said. " … Because when I was paralyzed I didn't have any option. But Jennifer, she had an option and it was 'I don't have to marry into this challenge,' but she did and I think our relationship is deeper and stronger. We've just had some really neat experiences as a family I think because of the unique challenges that we have."

"Jenn was and is beautiful," said high school friend Shayne Scott. "She's always been a special person. I don't think we thought twice about Jenn staying with Tyler."

Tyler calls Jennifer a great mother and wife who is "very selfless."

"Jenn is, maybe, with the exception of our faith — which is what our relationship is built on — the greatest rock or foundation in my life," Tyler said.

Friends for life

Almost every Thursday since high school, Tyler and a bunch of buddies have met for lunch. One of those friends is Scott, who met Tyler in the seventh grade. They grew up together, played football, did a lot of skiing and were in the same LDS ward.

"Tyler's accident changed us a lot earlier; kind of made us all mature sooner," Scott said. "Fasting and even our prayers became more sincere.

"I could go on for hours about the things I've learned from Tyler, about determination and having a positive attitude. He has really shaped my life. I'm proud to call him friend."

Tyler's view of life has also been set by his reality.

"The accident and experience taught me, one thing's for sure — that this life can be challenging for everyone at some point, and that's not the question," he said. "The question is: How are we going to deal with our challenges? That is what really defines us or determines the kind of person we become."

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