‘The New Normal’ for Richard Bontrager
For the past four years, I have had the honor to meet and feature many amazing people in this newsletter. In most cases, the interview process is very straightforward. The patient is selected, the photo shoot takes place, and then I begin the writing process. However, this particular interview took an unexpected turn.
Knowing that I wanted to photograph Richard Bontrager and his semi-truck in an urban setting, I randomly came across the ideal location of the former Chrysler factory in Kokomo, Indiana (pictured below). As we were leaving the site, Richard looked up at the abandoned top floor of the building and pointed to a large, broken window.
“That’s where we shot our movie”, he said, as his mind journeyed down memory lane.
I replied the way anyone would by asking, “Movie? What movie?”
Richard then shared with me his fascinating story.
Born and raised in Kokomo, Indiana, Richard Bontrager had an often thought about, but not always vocalized, dream of acting. He performed in several high school plays, but never put any serious thought into it by the time he graduated in 1965. He would later attend Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan with aspirations to be a veterinarian. This would lead him to his first and last medical position as an orderly at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo.
As his interests for the medical field began to diminish, Richard left his position at the hospital and took a job at the phone company back home in Kokomo. Knowing that this was only a transitional job, Richard felt that the acting bug was becoming harder to ignore.
In the summer of 1972, with nothing to lose, Richard packed up his car and drove to California.
“I rented a house in Canoga Park, California, twenty miles west of Hollywood, and took a job running a lathe in a machine shop to make some cash”, said Richard. “This was a job I had no clue how to do”.
“Making it” in the acting business was proving to be much harder than he anticipated. To make ends meet in the meantime, he obtained his real estate license. Shortly afterwards, he met a fellow realtor who, coincidentally, also happened to be one of the directors for The Young and the Restless, which filmed nearby. Richard expressed his passion for acting, and before he knew it, he found himself on camera as an extra in the show. The director was obviously impressed with Richard’s acting chops, as he was then featured in more episodes and soon given the speaking role of Peter Benson from 1972 to 1976. After his run on the show, he worked on various projects but was having difficulty finding much work.
“One of my friends recommended that I change my name to “Richard Allen”, he said. “My friend strongly believed that I wouldn’t get much work with the name Bontrager. I couldn’t believe how well it worked. The phone rang off the hook”.
During this time, he met another director, Peter Maris, who was in the early stages of filming his movie, Land of Doom. Not only was “Richard Allen” featured on camera as one of the terrorizing raiders, but he also served as one of Peter’s assistant directors, which was filmed primarily in Istanbul, Turkey. Peter was also in the early stages of planning another film, Terror Squad, and was looking for a small town as the primary filming location.
“I made the suggestion of my hometown of Kokomo, Indiana, and much to my surprise, Peter loved the idea”, Richard said with a grin. The early scenes in the movie were also shot in Instanbul, but the majority of the movie was filmed in Kokomo, Indiana in the mid 80’s. “I was in charge of hiring and firing actors, negotiating contracts with their agents, scheduling and managing the various service companies on set, and working with the Kokomo Mayor, Police and Fire departments for all of the stunts that took place throughout the city, including a chase scene through the streets of Kokomo”, he said.
This is where the story circles back to the photo shoot. The top floor of the former Chrysler building that Richard pointed to was where the stunt man drove a car through the window as it crashed on the ground below in a giant fireball. Richard’s job during the scene was to ensure the safety of the entire crew, and to make sure that the stunt man jumped out of the car in time. During the filming of the movie, Richard met his future wife, Kay, who worked as the secretary for one of the clean-up crews. He knew that there was no way that Kay (and her daughter, Ashleigh) would be able to move with him back to California. Richard made the decision to tie up his loose ends and waved good-bye to Hollywood, as he moved back home to Kokomo.
“Finding work once I moved back to Kokomo was harder than I thought it would be. I worked for various different companies for several years remodeling and building houses, managing a mobile home park, and selling manufactured and modular homes. Everything was very short lived”, said Richard. “It wasn’t until 2005 when my dad suggested that I get my CDL license. I drove coast to coast for several years, but I hated the schedule of only being home 3 days a month, especially since at this point, Kay and I had another daughter, Kallie”.
Richard was elated to come across the ISI trucking company in Kokomo in 2010, where he was able to be home every night, and was only traveling in the state of Indiana. However, Richard’s world would change forever only a year later. In the spring of 2011, Richard had developed a blood clot that ran from his groin to his ankle. He underwent surgery; however, it was not successful.
“I don’t remember much of what happened”, Richard said. All I know is that I had coded two times on the operating table, and five days later, I woke up in a hospital in Indianapolis. My sister, Deb, was standing above me and said “I have something to tell you”. Richard’s right leg had been amputated above the knee.
“I never remember feeling bitter”, said Richard. “I just stared up at the ceiling and, with the help of the pastor who came in and prayed with me, accepted it immediately. It was definitely a God thing. However, I did often wonder “What’s next?”
Richard was then transferred to St. Joseph Hospital in Kokomo, Indiana where he met Dave Gunter and Bryan King from SRT Prosthetics. “Bryan, Dave and I hit it off right away”, said Richard. “Bryan really spent time with me and asked me what I wanted to be able to do with a prosthesis. For a while I didn’t know what was going to happen until I met SRT. Bryan King and Teva Turner (his physical therapist at St. Joseph) were the best things to happen to me. Teva is tough, but she challenges you and gets the best out of you. I would still be hopping around if it wasn’t for her. I can’t say enough good things about SRT and St. Joseph”.
Even before he received his prosthesis, Richard and his family were encouraged to attend the Amputee Walking School in Kokomo where he met Dennis Oehler and Todd Schaffhauser, the founders of the program. “The Walking School was an eye opener for me”, said Richard. “I realized that I wasn’t the only amputee in the community and that life was definitely not over. I met a lot of other amputees who had it much worse than me, and I was determined to not let my amputation define me”.
Shortly after attending the Amputee Walking School, Richard was very excited to finally receive his prosthesis with the Rheo Knee. “The Rheo Knee is very natural and easy to operate”, he said. “It’s hard to fall on this thing. Once I really got used to it, it felt just like my other leg”.
Richard now often “pays it forward”, visiting with new amputees at the hospital, as well as frequently attending the Amputee Walking School as a mentor to new attendees. “It’s a new normal”, said Richard, firmly. “Life is not over after amputation. Do whatever you want to do in life; just learn to do it a different way. Many people said that I wouldn’t be able to continue driving truck after losing my leg, but I adapted, and proved them wrong”.
The SRT family is very honored to know Richard and are very proud of his accomplishments. He is a shining example of someone who finds the positive aspect in even the most horrible of situations. If you want to find Richard, you can see him in the silver lining of life, or on the silver screen.