Memories of Cheryl Sensenbrenner by Her “Democrat Friend”

I met Cheryl Sensenbrenner in 2007 when she served as the board chair of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD); I knew immediately that we would become friends. You could say, we had an affinity of spirits.

Cheryl was the wife of Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin and was a woman with a disability. Cheryl was in an automobile accident at the age of 22, that resulted in some paralysis in her lower extremities and went on to devote her life for equality for Americans with disabilities. Her passion for disability rights was like unbridled fury. Some people talk about disability rights and others live it-she lived and led the disability rights crusade.

When I met her in 2007, it was for breakfast at the William Penn Hotel. When she arrived, she immediately owned the restaurant. She was always larger than life. As soon as she was seated, she told me, that as the board chair of AAPD, she thought it was important to know me because I was a board member of AAPD and an advocate for employment. She told me that employment for people with disabilities was such an important crusade and she was thrilled to meet a business leader and disability rights leader in person.

She was the most beautiful woman when she walked into a room with her braces and stylish cane. She will always be remembered for her style and grace, whether at a diner or a Gala – always dressed in a stunning and colorful fashion. Cheryl’s beauty was more than just how she presented herself in appearance, it was how she presented herself as a person – someone with a kind heart and a charitable spirit. Cheryl made me feel special; she made everyone feel special.

We became close friends and worked together in the fight for disability rights and the work of AAPD, when she was the board chair and forever after. Something I will never forget about was the AAPD internship program for college students with disabilities and Cheryl’s commitment to those students. The internship program is the crown jewel at AAPD, and Cheryl absolutely loved it. AAPD finds opportunities for the interns to work during the summer on Capitol Hill in the offices of Congressmen/Women and Senators, and within Federal government positions. This internship program is funded every year by a different company and is considered the prize program at AAPD.

What people did not know, because Cheryl was so humble, is that while board chair she would take the interns to dinner and then to a museum. This was all Cheryl, and all funded by Cheryl. Those interns have not and never will forget her kindness. They say it is not just funding that is important to a not-for-profit, so is presence; Cheryl was present.

As I mentioned, she was a passionate disability advocate. One major example was the ADA Amendments Act signed by President George W. Bush in September 2008. Supreme Court rulings had limited the protection for people with disabilities and thus came the ADA Amendments Act. Cheryl was front and center on this bill. Signatures of the Congressmen/Women and Senators were needed to get this bill signed into law by the President. Cheryl literally ran through the halls of the Capitol and knocked on the doors of Congress to get the ADA Amendments Act signed. She would be at the AAPD office until all hours of the night scratching off the names of the men and women on the Hill who had signed on, and getting a list of those who had not yet signed on, so she could pounce on them the next day. When the ADA Amendments Act was signed into law, Cheryl and Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner stood right behind President George W Bush. She was beaming and so were all of us that day. She did it!

Cheryl was so funny and humorous. She invited me to the First Lady’s Luncheon for First Lady Laura Bush and introduced me to everyone at the luncheon as her “Democrat Friend.” When we were seated, a gentleman came to our table and asked Cheryl for her pass, I call it the “Big Shot” pass to prove she was the wife of a Senator or Congressman. She was in a state of heated anxiety when she could not find it. Suddenly she was being questioned by several people about her pass. She became so upset she went to the door where her inquisitor was standing and was rummaging through her Louis Vuitton bag. There was not a chair near the door, and she was becoming tired of standing with her cane against the wall. Then, she did only what Cheryl would do. She plumped herself on the floor with her beautiful dress and continued looking through her large bag. At this point, they told Cheryl to forget about the pass and please stand up and go to your seat. That was vintage Cheryl. I will never forget that exciting and delightful day.

The last time I saw Cheryl was hard for me. Cheryl had a stroke almost six years ago and resided in Virginia in an assisted living facility. The stroke had a significant impact; we did not think she would live. She did survive, but the impact was very debilitating. This once vibrant woman was now in a very different and very sad world. She was not well, and I was overcome with emotion and the loss of the fire and tenacity I knew, but then she looked up at me and I saw those beautiful eyes and they still had the fire. She was still Cheryl. The stroke had impacted her memory and I did not think she would know me, but she did know me. She said, “Joyce, I am so happy to see you” with that Cheryl smile.

Cheryl passed away on June 15, 2020. I felt an immediate sense of loss that this great woman was no longer with us. She was not just the wife of Congressman Sensenbrenner. She was Cheryl Sensenbrenner, national disability rights leader and a ball of fire.

Cheryl, I will always remember that fire in your eyes and that beautiful, red hair as you were running through the halls of the Capitol. I will always think of you as a person that passion guided with fierce determination. You were joyful and fun and spirited, and I loved you very much. I miss you but will always remember your vibrant tenacity, your love for young people with disabilities and your commitment to AAPD. Cheryl, I was proud to be your “Democrat Friend” and I always will be.