Looking back on the legacy of the Ability360 leader
**Editor’s Note: A clarification has been made regarding Phil Pangrazio’s grandmother (Ma) who, at times, would act akin to an army sergeant in order to keep her grandchildren in line.
The headline came first:
“ABILITY360 PRESIDENT & CEO PHIL PANGRAZIO STEPPING DOWN AT YEAR’S END”
It was another event fitting for 2020.
Phil didn’t just lead the remarkable growth of Ability360–to many, he is Ability360.
He was the architect behind the organization’s astronomical rise. He ushered in the rebranding of Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL) to Ability360 in 2015. Phil was the visionary behind an all-encompassing, truly inclusive campus for persons with disabilities in Arizona.
Phil’s vision and commitment to the Independent Living philosophy also drove the construction of the accompanying Sports & Fitness Center which was the first-of-its-kind in the nation for a Center for Independent Living.
Under his leadership, the organization grew to become the state’s largest Center for Independent Living (CIL). Of the nearly 400 CILs around the nation, most employ just a dozen or so people. Today, Ability360 employs nearly 2,000 people and operates with a budget of approximately $50 million.
Perhaps Phil’s proudest accomplishment, though, is that Ability360 is the embodiment of inclusivity, creating and sustaining long-standing careers for some of its employees (with and without disabilities). Some staff members have been with the organization for decades.
After 20 years of hard work building a legacy, it was the end of an era.
Phil’s story was always floating around in bits and pieces, an anecdote peppered in a speech, a factoid hidden in an interview.
Other than those details (and his public achievements), his past remained pretty elusive. But Phil didn’t appear from thin air, and neither did Ability360.
It’s hard to reach out when everyone’s locked in; Arizona was under shelter-in-place, and Phil’s home state of New York was still reeling from being the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.
“We can’t exactly send you anywhere,” my editors said. “But we can set up video calls.”
So we start at the farm.
Le Roy was—and still is—a small town in western New York. And as of 2010, it holds a population of less than eight thousand, the same as it was in the 60s.
Phil Pangrazio lived on a hill on the outskirts of town, past a sea of alfalfa fields. He was the youngest of eight siblings–six brothers and one sister, to be exact–and loved sports, especially football, which he would be known for, and basketball, which he didn’t have the height for. Their grandparents lived 50 yards away; Phil could hit a rock over their house with a baseball bat.
Every summer included hay baling, fixing fences, milking cows and camping outdoors, and every spring, their father planted a garden with the boys–the bigger the yield, the better. They’d let the zucchini grow until it was enormous, and the asparagus would scrape the sky. His mom chided the boys to pick the harvest before it was overgrown. Thankfully, for the most part, they did. Mom and Ma (Phil’s maternal grandmother) canned much of it for the winter food supply.
The whole family went to church, attended Le Roy’s Holy Family Catholic School, and every Pangrazio boy was an altar boy, which was very important to their mother, but not so much to Phil (he would steal the communion wine from the priests and would occasionally try to make mom and Ma laugh while receiving communion). Something that came with some risks, as Ma had been like an army sergeant and tried to keep the boys in line.
When Ma came to live with them in the early 1960’s, Phil spent the most time with her because he was the youngest. But as he grew older and gained more friends, he spent more time at his friends’ houses than
“He seemed to get adopted into many families of his friends,” says Ann Pangrazio-Stuhler, Phil’s only sister. “Wherever he goes, he makes a home.”
Tom Rapone had been best friends with Phil since first grade at Le Roy’s Holy Family School. By the time they finished 8th grade, Phil had chosen to attend Notre Dame High School, the private Catholic high school in Batavia 10 miles away, instead of Le Roy Jr./Sr. High School nearby.
He was the only one in his family to do so. The schools had a rivalry, and Phil’s older brothers were impressive Le Roy athletes, but Phil made his mark at Notre Dame.
“I’m currently the business manager,” Rapone says. “So I’m working at our alma mater, and I can tell you with certainty that Phil is a legend at the school.”
Basketball. Football. Wrestling. Track and field. If Phil did them, he did them well, and his athletic and academic prowess earned him the distinguished title of Man of the Year, the 1978 New York State Section V Class C championship, and an induction into the Athletic Hall of Fame.
“When you walk in our school, there’s a huge window with the six state championships that our school has won, and the background photo is Phil holding the first trophy ever, and it’s pretty dramatic,” Rapone says.
Theresa Palmer-Sisson doesn’t remember exactly how she and Phil met, but she does remember how he dressed: badly.
“He’s got like, really awful plaid pants on,” Palmer-Sisson says. “Terrible, but that’s what it was back in the 70s. He’s got big, bushy hair. It doesn’t look it now, but back then, he had a ton of hair. And he’s got a huge grin.”
She was a year older than him and part of his friend group, an inseparable cast of characters that included her future husband, John.
Le Roy was the kind of town where everyone had a nickname, and Phil was no exception. He visited Theresa’s house late one night after attending the Christmas dance. Spying a little ledge that connected the kitchen to the living room, he wrote ‘Pinhead was here’ underneath it. It’s still there to this day.
He was known as a good kid, which earned him another title: the bail-out guy. If Rapone ever needed to go out for the night, he’d tell his father he was with Phil (sometimes even when Phil wasn’t really there, he admits).
“Most of my buddies’ parents thought that I was an angel and there was a halo around my head,” Phil says. “It’s kind of comical.”
But that wasn’t exactly true. While school was still in session, Phil decided to throw a party in an abandoned stone quarry on his grandfather’s land. Word got around, and kids from four different towns showed up. Phil had carried two kegs of beer and set up a generator, along with stereo records and a speaker blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen, Marshall Tucker band, The Doors, Rolling Stones, and Bob Seger among others.
“I think all the school faculty found out about that party,” Phil says.
According to Rapone, only Phil was capable of pulling that off without much consequence. That was just the kind of guy he was.
After the Notre Dame class of 1979 had thrown their caps, it was time for everyone to go their separate ways.
August was coming to a close. Johnny, one of Phil’s close friends, had already left for college a couple of days earlier. He was at Alfred University, about a three-hour drive from Le Roy. Phil had a car–his mother’s car, which she had bought for his brother but handed down. It was a 1973 Super Beetle with an FM radio, which was big back then, and it had a sunroof.
“That car was sweet,” Phil says.
His friend Drew told him, “Hey, let’s go down and visit Johnny, and we’ll have one last hurrah.”
Neither of his parents knew about it. He vaguely remembers saying something along the lines of: “Hey, I’m gonna go hang out with Drew tonight, I’ll see you later,” before leaving. They drove down to Alfred, had a good time with Johnny, and drove home.
It was dark. Drew was driving, and Phil had fallen asleep in the passenger seat. They had already made it back to Le Roy when the crash happened.
Phil remembers being conscious, although he doesn’t remember seeing Drew.
The accident was horrific. Phil was later told the car might have flipped over, but he doesn’t know for sure.
“I woke up in the car,” Phil says. The Le Roy fire department was already at the scene.
A responder spoke to him. He was probably only a few years older. “Hey Philly,” he said. “Take it easy…don’t move. We’re going to get out of there, just hang on, hang on. We’re gonna get you out of there. You’ll be okay.”
Phil looked up, disoriented, but saw a friendly face trying to pull him from the mangled car.
“Hey, Snorky…how you doing? What’s going on? Hey, I don’t need any help. I can get out here. I’ll do it myself. I can get out of here.”
He tried to move. Nothing moved.
He blacked out.
“I went into shock, obviously,” Phil says. “And then I woke up in the hospital. I don’t remember anything after “Hey, Snorky!”
At some point, Phil was told that Drew had passed away in the accident.
Phil sustained a C6-C7 spinal injury.
“I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it,” he says. “I knew I was screwed. I knew this wasn’t going to be temporary. They told me my spinal cord injury was a complete
severance of the cord. It wasn’t like it was incomplete.”
They told him that he had no chance of walking again.
“I suppose I could’ve not believed the doctors and tried to say, ‘well darn it, I’m gonna beat this!’ but I didn’t,” he says. “I never felt like that was likely. I knew–I knew–that this was it, this is what was going to be my life the rest of my days, and I just accepted it for what it was.”
Rapone visited Phil for the first time in October. It was fall break, and the trees around the University of Rochester Strong Memorial Hospital were changing.
“I wasn’t prepared for what I saw,” Rapone says. “I lost it.”
He wanted to talk to him about a million things at once. What’s the prospect of recovery? What’s going to happen? But Phil had other questions.
“Doing good in baseball?”
“He was so concerned for me,” Rapone says. “I mean…I mean, I feel like crying now talking about it because he was…that’s just Phil.”
Phil stayed in the hospital for 10 months.
By Christmas, he was allowed to go home. They carried him up the stairs, and he found himself lying on a hospital bed in his living room.
“I think my family knew that that wasn’t a practical place for me to live the rest of my days,” he says, and they decided to build an extra room for the house. But as soon as it was finished, he was already leaving for Arizona.
Before Phil was discharged from the hospital, his friend Pat Condidorio had stopped by with some advice. Apply to Arizona State (ASU), he had told him. Pat was already attending ASU. “You’ll love it out there. Flat, no hills, it never rains, and the sun shines every day,” Pat told him.
“When I got accepted, I was like: I’m going there,” Phil says. “Mom, Dad—see you later! I’m out of here.”
He arrived in Tempe in August 1981.
At Arizona State University, Phil initially thought of majoring in psychology. He got a Bachelor’s degree in Justice Studies but wasn’t enthusiastic about becoming a parole or probation officer. He then returned for a Master’s degree, which ended up being in Health Services Administration and Policy.
“He had some friends drive out with him to help him get settled,” Ann Pangrazio-Stuhler says. “When he first started school, it was tough because, of course, there sometimes were no elevators when he had classes on another floor. He had to pretty much instruct himself because he couldn’t enter the class physically.”
Still, Phil loved ASU. He spoke so positively about his experience that his friend Michael Wagner, who was going to school in New York, transferred to Arizona. Wagner met his future wife, Kristin, shortly after.
“Phil was also the best man at our wedding,” Mike Wagner says. “The three of us spent an obscene amount of time together.”
They had stories upon stories of Phil’s college days, most of them involving his girlfriends, who were…interesting–like the blonde who wore short roll skirts and sweaters with pins.
“She was what they would call ‘preppy,’” Kristin says.
“She was a mess,” Mike says.
Kristin had gone over to Phil’s dorm to help with his laundry. Before she left, he asked her for one more favor. Could she untie his shoelaces? The girl had tied them together in multiple knots.
“I was so horrified,” Kristin says. “And then I helped Phil go Christmas shopping for her.”
That Christmas Eve, Mike and Kristin sat down to dinner when Phil showed up at their door. The girl had disinvited him. The two offered Phil to join them.
“And this is like one of the biggest jokes,” Kristin says. “We were having crab legs and artichokes. So, with those quad hands…”
“Yeah, we ended up feeding him,” Mike says laughing.
Ed Alexander first met Phil while attending ASU. Specifically, they had met in the adaptive gym, which was in the middle of Tempe campus–a small, maybe 800-square-foot space that didn’t have much but had staff on hand to help you use the equipment.
“Now as I think about it, that probably brought up a lot of the way Phil came up with his SpoFit [Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center] idea, because he saw that gym was utilized by a lot of disabled students,” Alexander says.
Years later, Phil ran into Eddie by chance. They hadn’t seen each other since college, and Alexander was trying to start the first wheelchair rugby team in the Phoenix area.
There was already a group of guys practicing together, Phil recalled Eddie telling him. You got the physical ability to play the sport–come out and give it a shot.
Phil thought it was the stupidest thing in the world.
“Oh my god, he’s kidding me,” Phil had thought to himself. “I used to be a jock as a teenager. I played sports. There’s no way that playing wheelchair anything with a bunch of quadriplegic guys could possibly be anything fun or exciting or make me feel like a
Eddie had told him where they were practicing. It was in places like tennis courts in the early days, with ditches that would swallow any stray ball (or wheelchair) if one wasn’t careful enough. This time, it was a grade school cafeteria in Mesa, Ariz.
Phil showed up one night, for some reason.
“My brain was like, I guess you can just go check it out. You got nothing better going on in your life,” Phil says. “I really didn’t have anything better to do.”
He was 30, trying to advance professionally. He had just finished his Master’s degree and was transitioning to a full-time career.
“I must admit, I kind of had fun with it,” Phil says. “When I left that night, I was like, I can see this could be kind of fun. I could see the potential of it, even though we were awful. Eddie was a very good player, and I like to think I became a very good player eventually.”
Not only did wheelchair rugby help him physically, but mentally as well.
“It changed my life in so many ways because it gave me a certain level of confidence that I probably hadn’t had up until that point,” Phil says.
He felt better about himself and became friends with other people with disabilities, an experience he took with him when promoting ABIL and Ability360’s peer support model. Through rugby, he gained a wealth of knowledge from older guys who had lived with the same injury, adjusted, adapted, and had good lives. It changed Phil’s life, and in turn, it had the power to change others.
“That’s why my role at Ability360 has been so supportive of sports and recreational fitness and all that stuff,” Phil says. “Because I experienced the benefit of it, and it’s importance.”
Whatever vision Phil had of Ability360 in his mind, Alexander says, he never stopped trying to reach it until it became a reality.
The early years of the team were clumsy. They had never played against any other teams, save for one California team that flew in for a scrimmage (“They slaughtered us,” Phil says). But in 1991, the team decided they were going to travel, either by driving or flying, to California and Oregon.
“All of us were scared shitless,” Phil says. They had never left their houses before, let alone tackled hotel rooms or plane bathrooms. Could they function outside of the bubble they lived in?
“We all dove in there and did it,” Phil says, learning from guys on other teams and establishing long-lasting mentorships and friendships. Over time they realized how independent they could be.
“You know, once we took a shot at this stuff, we realized we weren’t afraid to do anything,” Phil says.
During practice, the wives or girlfriends who typically accompanied the wheelchair rugby players had left.
“I’m sure they were all sick of us, so they went shopping or something. So we had nobody in there in case we fell out,” Phil says. “Anyway, I fell out of my chair.”
Phil remembers telling the guys, “we’re going to get me back in the chair.”
They used leverage, lifted, and pushed–successfully pulling off a floor to wheelchair transfer, which is next to impossible for a quadriplegic to do.
“I couldn’t have done it by myself, but with them, they’re helping me, and I was able to do it,” says Phil. “It’s a good example of how quads are really innovative. We can figure out anything if we put our minds to it.”
Now known as the Phoenix Heat, the team got bigger, stronger, and better funded, playing around the nation and worldwide. They went from barely knowing how the game worked to bringing home gold medals for Team USA.
Phil’s last season was in 2008, just shy of his 48th birthday.
By the time he met Jami Snyder, Phil had been playing wheelchair rugby for almost 10 years.
“She came to a lot of rugby tournaments and was tortured by having to live through the whole rugby scene,” he says.
After a residency at the Maricopa County Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System’s (AHCCCS) eligibility office and a decade of working at the county hospital, called the Maricopa Integrated Health System, Phil came to ABIL in 2000.
They had met through work. It was Phil’s first year at ABIL, and Snyder had just become the executive director of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. They, along with Susan Webb, the former executive director of ABIL, were driving back from a meeting and had stopped to have lunch. And for some reason, Phil didn’t have any money.
If you talk to any of his buddies from Le Roy, they’ll tell you that this isn’t new. Phil never seems to have money on him. (“My husband always says, and pardon my language: ‘Oh Jesus Phil, you still have your communion money,’” says Kristin.)
“I’ll buy you lunch the next time,” Phil had said to Snyder, and that led to him asking her out on a date.
They had a March wedding. The service was in a Catholic church in Tempe, and the reception was at the Desert Botanical Gardens–a nice, low-key celebration.
“I mean, he’s a really charming, funny guy, and so we get along really well,” Snyder says. “He really helped me to realize the importance of fun, even in the workplace.”
According to her, they had a great relationship, even though it didn’t last.
“We were together for nearly 10 years. We had a lot of fun times together and share many great memories. We still talk, mostly work-related, but we’re still friends,” Phil says.
Snyder remarried in 2012. Both moved to higher positions in their careers, Phil as the President & CEO of Ability360 and Snyder as the Director of AHCCCS.
“Now that I’m leading this large organization, I am much more thoughtful and introspective, especially around major decisions, and I really credit Phil for influencing that shift for me,” she says. “We’ve known each other for 20 years. Phil’s a visionary. He had a broader, grander vision for what the independent living center could be, not only on a state level but as a national model for independent living centers across the country.”
Phil was on the board of ABIL from 1991 to 2000 before he became the Executive Director (his title was later changed to President & CEO in 2014).
In 2004, Phil kept slinging around this idea of a nonprofit disability services campus that housed other disability-serving organizations, like the Statewide Independent Living Council and the Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association.
“It was something that we had been talking about with my predecessor Susan Webb, some of the other management team members, and some previous board members,” Phil says. “We had talked about this whole concept of a multi-tenant, nonprofit disability services campus.”
When he was on the board, they didn’t have the financial wherewithal to pull it off. But then, when he took charge of Ability360 and the organization started growing and having more financial success, he held a meeting at a hotel down on Central Avenue. He brought the executive directors of nonprofits and organizations together, and explained his vision for the campus.
“They all thought it was kind of cool,” says Phil. “Not all of them were thrilled by the idea.”
Some of them didn’t like the idea of having to pack up and move out of their current office space to some other facility, but mostly they just didn’t think it was going
“But what I told them that day was: here’s our timeline. Hope that by around October of 2008, we will have this center built, so don’t renew your leases or keep your office leases to a bare minimum,” says Phil.
Verbally, they agreed to it. But Phil got the feeling they didn’t take it too seriously.
“They probably just kind of laughed and thought, ‘oh, that guy’s crazy.’” But, eventually, when it got built, they were all on board. Most that came along are now still in the center. A few that didn’t, wish they had.
Alongside those conversations, another opportunity presented itself to expand the services offered at the campus.
The city of Phoenix was taking proposals from nonprofit organizations to be included in a bond package for capital improvements. Phil talked to different city officials about building a Sports & Fitness Center for the disability community.
“Everyone kind of started getting excited about it,” Phil says.
After the proposal was accepted, Phoenicians voted in favor of the bond package, and Ability360 received $5.3 million dollars. They launched a campaign to build the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center afterward.
“It was clearly all the years that I was involved in wheelchair rugby that made me feel like having something like this in our community would change thousands of lives of folks with disabilities, because it changed my life, just doing what I did,” Phil says. “And it started in the cafeteria, right? That’s kind of why we ended up doing it, and why I worked so hard to make it happen because I knew it was going to be awesome for our community.”
He says he’s not smart enough to have had a grand vision, and if he said he did, he’d be lying. There was an impressive management team in place already, and many of them were there before he was.
“They were good at what they did,” Phil says. “I never tried to get in the way of their programs or micromanage them in any way.”
According to Phil, there were two main inspirations for Ability360. The Ed Roberts Center in Berkeley, California–which initially conceived and even planned the concept (though funds were limited)–and the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama, which built a multigenerational sports and fitness center and served as a Paralympic training site.
“The thing that was unique about what we did is that we had the idea of having this disability services campus and the Sports & Fitness Center co-located together,” Phil says. “And that to me was the icing on the cake.”
The combination of varied disability organizations and the Sports & Fitness Center attracted a broad range of people. It made sense, says Phil. But there were many naysayers.
“What if I listened to those people?” Phil says. “This never would’ve happened.” Thankfully, most of them weren’t the main decision-makers, and Phil had learned how to gain the support of those who had the power to understand and help the cause, especially politically.
The Ability360 Center opened in 2008. The Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center opened in 2011.
When asked about what he sees in Ability360’s future, Phil says he doesn’t know. Maybe there’s more that could be done, or done better. He plans to be available for advice or help, but he says he thinks the next generation of leaders will be just fine.
“They’ll take it to the next level.”
So what are you going to do personally, now that you’re stepping down? Phil grins. “I’m gonna go hang out in Le Roy.”
Every time he’s been back to that small town in New York, Phil’s never stayed more than ten days. So next time, he plans to stay a little longer–a month, perhaps–but probably not during the wintertime.
“Definitely not in the wintertime.”
In a video call, Phil sports his classic half-smile. He’s in his office, and when his eyes drift while thinking, it’s as if decades of memories are flashing in his mind at once.
“I think I’ve been very lucky in a way,” he says. “I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to do this work. I really do believe I was very fortunate. Then the other side of it is I probably was the right person at the right time. There was probably some serendipitous alignment of the stars, I guess. I don’t know. You can’t explain that, right?”
I guess not.
“Something lined up because in some ways, I think that I was probably the right person at the right time that came along with the kind of skills and personality that was able to orchestrate this stuff and make it happen…I’m so lucky to have had this opportunity to do this work,” Phil says.
“It was like a labor of love in that regard.”
Kind of like growing tomatoes.
Back in Le Roy, the Pangrazios had a garden in their backyard, filled with tomatoes, squash and asparagus. Every Spring, he’d plant with his dad. It was a tradition he took with him to college, even making his own tomato sauce and lasagna for a girl.
Growing tomatoes takes patience, dedication and nurturing, just as growing one of the biggest CILs in the nation does.
You see, Ability360 wouldn’t be what it is today without Phil Pangrazio.
His legacy is unparalleled. He was the visionary behind the campus, the Sports & Fitness Center and even the name change to Ability360, whether he’s willing to admit that or not.
Now, Phil steps out of the limelight, leaving behind one legacy in Arizona, returning to another: his family farm in Le Roy, New York.
Aitana Yvette Mallari | Writer | @aitanamallari
Aitana Yvette Mallari is an online media journalist who runs on caffeine and WiFi. She’s lived in the Middle East, Asia, and both coasts of the US and writes about health, tech, and amazing people doing amazing things. She is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and probably has a deadline to get to.
Read more by Aitana Yvette Mallari.