James Shepherd, who co-founded Buckhead’s Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital after receiving a paralyzing spinal cord injury in 1973, died Dec. 21 at age 68, according to the hospital.

He was an Atlanta native and graduate of Buckhead’s Westminster Schools and the University of Georgia. He was injured in a body surfing accident. Frustrated by the lack of rehabilitation hospitals in the Southeast, he co-founded the Shepherd Center in 1975 with his parents Alana and the late Harold Shepherd and Dr. David Apple. Today, the 2020 Peachtree Road hospital is among the nation’s top rehabilitation and research facilities. James Shepherd long served as chairman of its board of directors.

James Shepherd. (Gary W. Meek Photography, Inc.)

“This is an enormous loss for Shepherd Center and the community,” said Shepherd Center president and CEO Sarah Morrison in a press release. “James was a dedicated and passionate advocate for people with disabilities. We will miss seeing him in the halls at Shepherd, during his visits with patients and staff, and most deeply, in our hearts.”

“For nearly 45 years, James devoted his life to ensuring our clinical teams could take the so-called impossible cases and help people put their lives back together,” Morrison said. “James often said that Shepherd Center was the bridge between ‘I can’t’ and ‘I can.’ Thanks to him, thousands of patients and families found a pathway to independence, hope and dignity. James was committed to doing everything in his power to rebuild the lives of the people in our care. There wasn’t a day that went by that you could not feel and see his influence.”

He was known as a public advocate for accessibility and rehabilitation. Locally, he was involved in the recent push to improve accessibility conditions on public streets.

According to the hospital, he and his parents received a national award for distinguished public service from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and an honorary doctorate from the University of Georgia.

He served as director of the National Rehabilitation Awareness Foundation; on the board of directors of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Rehabilitation Technology; on the Governor’s Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Trust Fund Authority; and as a board member of Initiative 2000, a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also served on the steering committee for the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, which led the Interfaith Conference on Disability Awareness. He volunteered on the accessibility advisory committees of MARTA, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome.

A memorial service is being planned, according to the hospital, with updates to be posted at shepherd.org.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.