By Kim Constantinesco
If a life has ended, but was well lived, then there’s always time to get to know a person better.
Even though Katie Leimkuehler’s grandfather, Paul Leimkuehler, passed away when she was 8 years old, she is digging into the family archives and historical footage to make sure that every ounce of her grandfather’s impact is well known; and for good reason.
Paul was a ski legend, a leader in orthotics and prosthetics, and a war hero. After he lost his leg during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Paul put his mechanical engineering skills to good use, designing not only his own artificial leg, but other prosthetic devices for those who also lost limbs. He went on to construct the first three-track ski and became known as the “Grandfather of Handicap Skiing.”
Katie, who is a 31-year-old Denver resident, is currently filming a documentary about his life called Fresh Tracks.
“He took his disability and turned it into a possibility,” Katie said.
Busy Hands Calm A Busy Mind
Born and raised in blue-collar Cleveland, Ohio, Paul knew the value of hard work and ingenuity, and it helped him in the months after he was severely injured in World War II.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the second lieutenant in the Army’s 84th division lost his left leg above the knee. While recuperating at McGuire General Hospital in Richmond, Virgina, he became familiar with the all-too-common agony that came with being fitted for an artificial leg. Would the leg fit? How much pain would it cause? Would it allow him to walk and get him back to his everyday routine?
Rather than being a hushed and dormant patient, the Purple Heart recipient convinced his doctors to let him help design his own leg. After all, he had a degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio State, so why not go work in the hospital’s limb and brace shop?
During his nine-month rehabilitation stint, Paul collaborated with the shop’s artificial limb expert to offer insight on modifications that would improve artificial legs for other veterans. Doing that alone would have been impressive, but that was just his launching pad.
Paul eventually enrolled at the University of California, NYU, and Northwestern University before founding the Leimkuehler Limb Company, which is still in business today. Then he started the PEL Supply Company — “One of the first companies to provide quality prefabricated parts and supplies to other orthotics and prosthetic facilities and distribute them.”
All was well. He was helping others get their lives back after they lost so much.
Skiing For Everyone
Paul grew up an athlete. As a teenager, he competed in the 1936 U.S. Olympic Cycling Trials and went on to become the 1938 Ohio State Cycling Champion.
As you can imagine, he had to redefine himself as an athlete after losing his leg.
During a ski trip with friends, in which he sat in the lodge, Paul learned of a video called “Miracle on Skis,” featuring European skiers who were amputees. That ignited his fire, so he sawed-off some crutches and attached them to children’s skis. Those were the first outriggers in the U.S.
He wanted to share his work with other amputees, so he offered up his drawings and measurements, and intentionally didn’t patent his design so that others could build their own equipment.
“He was a constant inspiration for what you can do when obstacles come your way,” Katie said. “He reminded me that there’s always a way, even if you can’t see it or don’t see it at the moment. He taught me that If you just have faith and persistence, you can really accomplish anything that you want.”
Paul eventually co-founded 3 Trackers of Ohio, which is one of the oldest adaptive ski programs in the country. In 1981, he was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, and in 1996, he was inducted into the National Disabled Ski Hall of Fame for his role in getting adaptive athletes out on the slopes.
After Katie was born, Paul was the first person to hold her aside from her mother. As Katie’s father was picking up her siblings to bring them to the hospital, she locked into her grandfather’s crystal blue eyes, and an everlasting bond was formed.
His house was always laced with toys for his grandchildren to play with, and he’d take off his artificial leg to get down on the ground and join in.
“He just had this demeanor that everyone loved and respected,” Katie said. “He could get along with everyone. He was a really easy going guy, but also really driven; always joking around, and never took life too seriously.”
Although Katie doesn’t remember him much, she has collected information about his life through family members and through artifacts, like the love letters he wrote to his wife, Kay, while he was away at war.
“They kept a lot of memorabilia about their life, so it made it easier to visualize the type of life that he lived,” Katie said.
Always intrigued by her grandfather’s story, Katie knew she had to do something with it.
“I could never shake the impact of the story, and everyone I ever told the story to was amazed by it, and amazed that he could do all these things especially in a time period when there was limited access,” Katie said. “You didn’t have the internet, and you didn’t have a huge community of amputees to rally around you. He saw things in a different light than other people. The fact that he was an amputee, he didn’t let that limit what he was doing.”
Back in 2011, Katie wrote a screenplay in just under a year. However, after talking with those in the film industry, she decided to switch gears and plan for a documentary so she could control the content, manage how it’s produced, and have a heavier hand in how story unfolds.
A Story For All
In August, Katie and her film crew hunkered down in Cleveland with her father, two uncles, and aunt for a full day of interviews and stories.
She immediately realized that she had a story that extends beyond the amputee community.
“I think the story gives people hope that whether they’re an amputee or not, they have the power to change their life, and it’s all up to them,” Katie said. “That’s the main reason I want to tell the story. Maybe someone who sees it can walk away saying, ‘I can do something like this, too.'”
Katie and her crew are in talks with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame to plan their next film date at the Hall.
As for where adaptive skiing is today, Katie thinks that her grandfather would be impressed with how far the sport has come.
“I think he would be dying to get out there on the slopes and try it out,” Katie said.
As for where Katie is today, we think Paul would be impressed with that, too.