Raising the bar to a new level
Blinded in Vietnam War, city native carves out a full life in law
But after 40 days in that country as a 23-year-old tank commander with the 11th Armored Cavalry, Szumowski was wounded so severely it radically changed his life.
A rocket-propelled grenade exploded on his tank turret, spraying fragments everywhere, knocking him out, and leaving him blind. Despite medical care, including removal of shrapnel from his eyes and face, nothing could be done to save his eyes.
Before the tragic incident, “I envisioned a steady path through life seeking success and happiness,” he writes on the back cover of his newly published book, “Reach for More: A Journey from Loss to Love AND Fulfillment.”
“The Vietnam War nearly derailed me from these goals.”
That was 1969 near Dau Tieng.
His 130-page book details his journey from what would be a sudden devastating disability to the ranks of the California judiciary.
“My faith, family, friendships, opportunities and determination helped me overcome obstacles and realize a satisfying life. This is my story of achievement by never giving up,” he writes.
After the injury, he said, “I was kind of hoping it wasn’t going to be as serious. The doctors were trying to let me down easy.”
A 1963 Gloversville High School graduate, he pursued a his bachelor’s degree in political science and history at the University of Richmond. He was in ROTC and a fraternity, where he found brothers that have stuck with him through life. As a sophomore, he said has was having “too much fun” and had to buckle down to keep from flunking out– not unlike many students.
Coming back to the states after his war injury, he realized his college degree didn’t give him many employment options, so he earned a law degree from the University of Denver in 1973. He thought “a law school education could give me insight into what I was going to do.” He worked as a veterans counselor for a while.
“I had not dealt with getting by in real life. I was really on my own now.”
Suffering “a bit of a tailspin” and probably some PTSD, he said he started “wallowing in self-pity for a while.”
Then he realized he was “wasting time I would never get back.” He moved to San Diego, met a woman who later became his wife, and passed the bar exam there.
Szumowski said he also reconciled with God. He realized that “God wasn’t punishing me. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time [in Vietnam].”
“Maybe God had a plan for me and was guiding me to something worthwhile.”
He again began working as a veterans counselor and didn’t have much success in private practice. He applied and was accepted as a deputy district attorney in San Diego, where he stayed for 12 years.
“Just because I can’t see doesn’t mean I can’t think,” he said.
Then Gov. Pete Wilson later appointed him to municipal court judge and, thanks to a state referendum, he became a Superior Court judge, spending a total 18 years on the bench, until retirement. He said he rose in the ranks because, he said, “I had people backing. I was known as a pretty square shooter.”
Szumowski has also benefited from advanced technology that translates written words into speech and readers provided by the government.
Sinclair said his lifelong friend had to adapt to blindness. In Coronado, an island off California where Szumowski lives, “he has a map of Coronado in his head. He knows how many steps to take,”Sinclair said.
Each year, their fraternity meets in Jacksonville, Fla., for golf. Sinclair said Szumowski “loves golf, and he does it pretty well.”
Friends, colleagues and his fraternity brothers encouraged him to write a book about his life story, which Sinclair believed is “absolutely inspirational.”
“Life threw him a curve ball, and he decided to hit it even though he couldn’t see it,” Sinclair said.
Szumowski’s book is self-published through another fraternity brother, Wayne Dementi of Dementi Milestone Publishing in Manakin-Sabot, Va.
Dementi said “the darn thing [the book] is almost sold out. I’ve rarely seen that kind of response.” It is being made available on audiobooks, he said.
Szumowksi reads two or three books a week, which he credits for improving his writing. Having gone once to summer school for English in high school, he joked that he wrote the book because “I wanted my high school English teacher to roll over in her grave.”
He gives credit for his successful career not only to his own perseverance but to his friends. “Never forget your friends, people who care for you because of who you are,” he said.
Most of all, his book is dedicated to his wife, Janice: “Your love and support for the last 42 years has sustained me and given my life meaning beyond words,” he writes in part.