A Tribute to Paul Tobin
Many of you are aware of the passing of Paul Tobin, a legend in our field. Paul passed on January 18, 2023, surrounded by his loving family including his wife, Lorraine, son Connor and daughter in law Anna.
Paul is known to many of us from his years of leadership at United Spinal Association. Under the leadership of Jim Peters, Paul began at United Spinal in 1996 as Hospital Service officer, then Director of Special Projects, Associate Executive Director of member services, to Deputy Executive Director. When Jim died suddenly in 2006, Paul moved into the role as President & Chief Executive Officer. Under his leadership, he served an essential an pivotal role in the expansion of the Tri-Association to the Academy of Spinal Cord Injury Professionals. Paul was involved in every aspect of activities under the professional sections (journal, member services, annual conference). Paul embraced the mission and vision of ASCIP to provide superior education and research in spinal cord injury medicine, rehabilitation and community integration. Paul was foundational in guiding ASCIP to sustainability, always bringing data to mission to ensure the longevity of our organization.
By way of background, Paul earned a BA in Civil Engineering. As noted in the Legacy commemoration of his life( https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/siadvance/name/paul-tobin-obituary?id=38737006), Paul obtained his Civil Engineering Corps Officer Certification, was commissioned as a Civil Engineer Corps Officer and was the Assistant Resident Officer in Charge of Construction for 3 years at Naval Air Warfare Center in Lakehurst, NJ. Paul retired from the Navy as LTJG, USN after sustaining a spinal cord injury. Paul pivoted his career to begin work with Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, which later became an independent entity, United Spinal Association. Paul returned to university while continuing his busy career and completed his MSW from Fordham University to further his skills in mentoring others with spinal cord injury. Paul left United Spinal and began a productive consulting career from 2014 to 2023 as QOL Advisors, LLC. Paul served on numerous boards and committees as an advisor and advocate including advisor or board member of numerous organizations and committees, he offered testimony on Capitol Hill and was invited to write the foreword introduction for the Mayo Clinic Guide to Living with a Spinal Cord Injury. When ASCIP was no longer in a partnership with United Spinal Association, Paul continued to support and provide guidance to ASCIP based on his firm belief in the mission and vision of the organization. He was a strong support and guide as ASCIP became an independent organization and would say many times over, “whatever I can do to help.” Paul was the “go to” person for guidance at the highest level. He stepped into a new role providing administrative services to Division 22/Rehabilitation Psychology of American Psychological Association and Foundation for Rehabilitation Psychology 2020 to late 2022, where he developed and expanded vital infrastructure for both organizations, a role now carried out by his son, Connor.
I have provided only a brief summary of an amazing career and life of influence. Paul was a mentor to many people. With permission, I add remembrances of friends and colleagues from ASCIP, Div 22 and FRP:
Bill Bockenek, MD: “What stands out most regarding my memories of Paul was the steady support he provided to APS and the rest of our sections when we formed ASCIP. He came into his role at United Spinal during a very turbulent time, but always projected a very calm demeanor. He had big shoes to fill when Jim Peters passed but, filled those shoes with great professionalism and wisdom. We would not be the organization we are today without his support.”
Lester Butt, PhD, ABPP: “It was with profound sadness that I heard about Paul’s premature death.
I had the privilege of having contact with Paul during the early days of Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association and its transition to United Spinal.
I found Paul to be quiet and regal…..a lesson that one does not have to be loud, brash, or egocentric to have a significantly impactful presence.
Paul was a humanitarian, giving unselfishly to others and organizations that supported the less fortunate. His fight was seemingly always for the underserved, the needy….and in that regard his heart was true and unyielding.
I poignantly remember the absolute grace and perceptiveness he displayed during the early years of the challenges within our national SCI organizations. Paul always felt that blind power was simply that…..blind. Yet in spite of this conviction, his stance then was one of a calm and reflective demeanor, coupled with fierce compassion. His aim was never self-serving but whatever served the ‘higher good.'
I always felt that Paul was a ‘man of the people,’ as stated above, serving within organizations that truly assisted others. I completely believe that all of us can learn from his humanitarian and altruistic soul….he serves as our model today, giving more than amply back to others who need his energy, good will, kindness, and caring heart.
It is with full thankfulness that I believe our paths crossed, albeit for far too short of period of time.
Paul evidences a life truly well lived…..I trust we will all learn from this beautiful man.
So, rest well my friend, you’ve so earned your respite.
With loving sadness, Lester Butt”
Steve Kirshblum, MD: “Paul Tobin served in many different roles throughout his career, and I had the pleasure of working with him in a number of these endeavors. No matter his title or position, there was one constant; that Paul would treat everyone with respect. I believe Paul was so successful because no matter how powerful he was in terms of his position, his primary goal was not personal achievement but for the success of the mission of the organization. His leadership style was to be gentle but clear in the direction that was needed. Paul was the epitome of an administrative leader, as he gained the esteem and admiration of all who worked in the spinal cord injury field. His style, personality, and character, will surely be missed.”
Scott Richard, PhD: “I, along with many in several organizations, have great respect and admiration for the administrative/executive skills Paul brought to his work with and for us. It was interesting for me to see him pursue graduate training late in life in social work (I believe). I think he always appreciated and identified with our profession. That training honed what was an inherent characteristic of him: an interest in service and helping others. Competent and companionable; attributes for us all to admire and emulate.”
Catherine Wilson, PhD, ABPP: “Paul Tobin was an extraordinary leader in the field of disability. I could write pages identifying his many accolades and professional accomplishments without even scratching the surface. Instead, I’d like to focus on the more personal aspects that made him such a great advocate for those who have a disability. Years ago, he merged two organizations to create the largest membership organization in the US dedicated to improving the quality of life of people with spinal cord injuries and disorders. He committed his life to improving the quality of life of people with disabilities and his constant advocacy efforts on behalf of people with disabilities through his grassroots advocates and local initiatives.
When you lead an organization like Division 22, you’re very fortunate if you can find people who value it as much as you do. Paul may not have been a psychologist, however, he took ownership of our organization in a way that I probably never could have. It won’t be the same without his constant, steady presence guiding our way.”
Kim Gorgens, PhD, ABPP: “I had the great pleasure of seeing Paul in action for the last few years and marveled at his non-profit leadership acumen as well all benefitted from his organizational superpowers. We will benefit from his investment in Div 22’s well-being for years to come. I also found Paul to be singularly funny in that smart, snarky, sarcastic way that lights me up—he was also an equally ardent fan of sci-fi and thriller audiobooks and his recommendations never disappointed. I hope we can rally to keep that up too (looking at you Brad D!). Sending love to his family and hope that we can continue to be worthy of the pride he placed in our work.”
Jan Tackett, PhD, ABPP: “This is such an incredible loss to the Rehabilitation Psychology community. Paul was an impeccable behind-the-scenes leader, generous with his time and knowledge, and gave us all hope through some of the hardest times of Division 22. Paul spoke the hard financial truths we needed to hear and provided us options for survival. On top of his critical skills, he exuded a steady, supportive, and hopeful stance to every meeting, no matter how discouraging the topic. He will be missed, and his contributions will be felt as long as Division 22 exists. I will miss him personally, and I still think I can call him to ask for advice sometimes…that kind of person. “
Sigmund Hough, PhD, ABPP: “When one meets Paul, you immediately feel good in his charm, wisdom and caring for people. “The go to person” Just a wonderful individual. Thank you for sharing a part of your life journey with me. “
Steven Perkel, DSW, LCSW: I was lucky enough to see aspects of Paul that others likely did not get to see. For example, Paul and I frequently traveled together on United Spinal business. We all recognize that the world is not so friendly to people using wheelchairs but Paul and I often expressed our frustrations about our communities challenges over an adult beverage in a hotel bar after a long day working. Paul and I also collaborated on identifying and negotiating strategic alliances with other organizations. He was a good thinker and a great planner. I spent many hours with Paul as he considered how to restructure the Tri-Associations into the Academy. Paul was a visionary with unrelentless commitment.
Paul and I spent a week in residence at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government taking an intensive course on non-profit strategic planning. In my eyes he was one of the smartest, if not the smartest person in the room as his engineering background always gave him an edge.
On a more personal note Paul and I drove his van from Staten Island to Ft. Myers in 24 hours, stopping only to eat junk food and take Paul and Lorraine’s dogs for “potty breaks”. Now, what many of you don’t realize is how tall Paul was. His height vs. my absence thereof set up a comical set of circumstances when it was my turn to drive, as the van was modified to fit Paul. I couldn’t reach much of anything with either my legs or hands. Thankfully, Paul had the foresight to just throw several pillows in the vehicle as an accommodation to me being vertically challenged. What Foresight! Paul was smart, driven, witty, compassionate, respectfully frank, candid and he had a gentle way with us.
With Paul’s passing my world and life have an empty spot that no one else will ever fill. The following words written by Jimmy Buffet provide me solace when I think about Paul being gone. “Grief is like the wake behind a boat. It starts out as a huge wave that follows close behind you and is big enough to swamp and drown you if you suddenly stop moving forward. But if you do keep moving, the big wake will eventually dissipate. And after a long time, the waters of your life get calm again, and that is when the memories of those who have left begin to shine as bright and as enduring as the stars above.”
Terrie Price, PhD, ABPP: “As to my remembrance, Paul was a true friend, honest to the core, and incredibly bright and forward thinking. His wit and humor were legendary. Paul was always the voice of reason and reality, knowing that truth is not the enemy. So many times through the years and through different roles, I turned to Paul for his experience, analytical thinking, clarifying questions, attention to values and ability to readily compose viable options. For Paul, advocacy was his daily life and we all learned from him. I am thankful to Lorraine and Connor for their support of Paul that allowed him to step into situations when needed. I had such fun talking to him, like an old friend, who did not hesitate to tease me and who took teasing just as well. I am so grateful to have known Paul and like so many others who knew Paul, will continue to feel the void created by his passing.”