Magazine / People

Markusson taught others how to live a full life

Erik Markusson receives his diploma

Erik Markusson received his DU diploma in 1992. He died in 2009, leaving a gift to DU to help other students with disabilities.

There are people in this world who, simply by living their lives, teach those around them how to more fully live their own.

Dennis Erik Markusson (BS ’92), known as Erik to his friends, was one of those people.

“His attitude was, ‘I’m here. I’m going to do this,’” says his father, Dennis Markusson. “That was kind of infectious to the people around him. You learn more from someone like Erik than he learned from us.”

Erik died in December 2009 at age 44 due to complications caused by Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare genetic degenerative muscular disease that often takes boys (girls rarely get the disease) by the time they are in their teens.

According to his parents, Dennis and Nanci (MA ’92), from diagnosis at age 4 until his death, Erik never expected special treatment. Thanks to an unbridled curiosity, he frequently coaxed people around him into mind-boggling, exhilarating adventures.

Like the time Dennis and a guide carried Erik in his wheelchair to the top of the Acropolis in Greece. Or the time Erik’s entire Boy Scout troop carried his wheelchair into the woods for a campout. Or the eight years Erik and Nanci spent together at the University of Denver earning degrees.

“I had to go with him to all of his classes, so I told him that he would also have to take a few with me,” Nanci says. “That’s how he ended up with a major in biology and a minor in history, because I got my master’s in history.”

When Erik died, he left $1,000 to special needs programs at DU. “Erik did not have much wealth,” his father says, “but one of his wishes was that DU share in what he had.”

Read Erik Markusson’s memoir

In his memoir, Erik admitted that biology was a tricky major for him because of the lab work, but with the help of aides, his mom and other students, he had a complete experience, conducting experiments, using microscopes and participating in group studies.

“Going to college and graduating was a great example of how I didn’t let Duchenne prevent me from doing something I wanted to do,” Erik wrote. “To me, it’s better to try and fail than to not do something and wonder if you could have.”

He also shared how the disease shaped his approach to life: “After living with Duchenne for 40 years, I have formed a definite philosophy for coping with the disease. The most important traits to have are perseverance, patience and a positive attitude. Self-pity and using the disease as an excuse will get you nowhere. With the uncertainties of the disease, don’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow, deal with it when it comes.”

His memoir is more remarkable when one considers the fact that he wrote it using a joystick that he operated with his tongue. The Markussons say Erik’s disease was never something they viewed as unpleasant — just sometimes inconvenient.

“When you have a child like Erik, when you never know what the next day is going to bring, you don’t say, ‘We’ll do this tomorrow.’ You do it today,” Nanci says.

Dennis agrees and says that’s what Erik’s memoir is all about.

“It’s about how to live,” he says. “I think that’s what he’d like to communicate: The boundaries of how you want to live your life are in many respects the boundaries that you create yourself.”

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