My coworker and my friend – in fact he was one of the coolest guys I’ve ever known – died Wednesday afternoon after a long battle with cancer. He was 44. That’s way too young.
Jarrett "Spiderman" Knyal (or Jarrett "Cockroach" Knyal – depending on what day you talked to him) was one of the most inspirational people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. He understood me when I said "I can’t eat at P.F. Chang’s, since no Chinese people eat there." My other coworkers usually stare at me with blank faces when I say stuff like that, but Jarrett understood.
Well, anyway, to do a tribute for such a great person, to try to put in words what he meant to me and the impact he had on me, where do I start?
I guess when I first met him.
The first time I saw Jarrett, I have to admit, I was taken a bit back by his appearance. You see, Jarrett was in wheelchair and had one prosthetic arm. I remember meeting him for the first time, shaking his hand and thinking, "he has his wedding ring on his right hand." Not surprising, since he didn’t have a left hand.
I had trouble looking directly at him that day. I didn’t want him to think I was staring. He probably wondered what my damn problem was. I’ll talk about this more in a minute.
Somehow, with only one hand, Jarrett was a web designer (and a good one, I might add) and an expert in web usability and marketing. He really knew his stuff. In fact, he was so good that he was a regular speaker at web usability conferences across the country.
But to really know Jarrett, we have to go back to his days as a young man growing up in suburban Chicago. From the stories he told me, he was a pretty rambunctious and athletic kid. He played football, was a concert bouncer after high school and very active and physical.
A year or so ago, his brother Jeff was visiting Jarrett and a few of us met Jeff for lunch. Jarrett and Jeff told a few crazy stories. Such as the time Jarrett dared Jeff to eat a light bulb…and he did!
Then there was the time they had a tree house that was pretty high up in this huge tree in their back yard. This must have been a pretty big tree house, because they built a pulley system to lift heavy objects such as furniture and rail road ties up into the tree house. Rail road ties?
Even Jarrett couldn’t remember why they were lifting railroad ties up into their tree house, but they were. So Jarrett, Jeff and two other friends roped several railroad ties together (total weight several hundred pounds) and the four of them began pulling the rope lifting the ties off the ground. I should mention that Jarrett had convinced Jeff to wrap the rope several times around his arm so that the rope wouldn’t slip. Once the four of them had the railroad ties around 15 feet off the ground, Jarrett and the other two suddenly let go (they pre-planned this). Jeff, with the rope tied around his arm, shot straight up in the air almost 20 feet when the weight of the railroad ties came crashing down. Jeff fell back to the ground, luckily only having the air knocked out of him.
Unfortunately, the next time Jarrett was involved with a high fall, the outcome wasn’t so good. Back in the late 80s, Jarrett was helping a friend with a roofing job when he struck an electrical wire. It badly burned his left arm and knocked him off the roof of the building, leaving him a paraplegic.
After a period of recovery, Jarrett made a decision to live life to its fullest, despite any obstacles in the way.
That’s what he did.
He went on to graduate from the University of Illinois Chicago with a graphic design degree and create a great career at several design and web gigs – which eventually led to his stint at Quicken Loans. His contributions to Quicken Loans growth over the past four years can’t be underestimated. He was instrumental in our web site development, he created our web usability program, and he launched our extremely popular chat program. Jarrett was the man when it came to web marketing.
And he was our friend. Everybody liked Jarrett. It wasn’t because he was in a chair. It was because he was a great person.
Over the years I learned I had a lot in common with him. We both loved zombie movies. In fact, we planned out, in pretty good detail, how we would lead a group of survivors to live in a Costco once zombies took over the world. Think about it, Costco has everything you need to survive for years and only one main entrance that can easily by blocked and guarded for safety against blood-thirsty, flesh-eating zombies. And some Costcos even have gasoline! We’d need guns too. That was a problem. We hadn’t quite figured that out, but we were working on it.
We both loved sushi. We’d go out every so often to get sushi and I remember one time it seemed like everyone one was staring at Jarrett. And over lunch we talked about people staring at people who look different and Jarrett commented – "do I have food on my face? I don’t know. Maybe the way I look freaks people out." I remember that pretty clearly. Because when he said that it, made me think of two things. First, I had been a little freaked out the first time I met him. Second, I had forgotten he looked different. Seriously.
I’m not sure if this makes sense, but Jarrett made you forget he was in a wheelchair. It’s strange, but I didn’t consider him disabled or whatever. His personality and absolute 100% ability for self-reliance made me forget. I would help him get his wheelchair in his car when I was with him and I know it made it easier for him, but he could do it alone. And when he drove, he attached his fake arm to the steering wheel and used his other hand to accelerate/brake using buttons on the dashboard. It was pretty cool.
Once, when a writer on the DIFF team wanted to do a feature about Jarrett and how he was such an inspiration to her, he felt uncomfortable and asked it not be published. He didn’t want the praise and attention. He was just living his life like everyone else and he felt uncomfortable being recognized for it. I thought he deserved the praise, if you want my opinion, but the post never ran.
Jarrett was also extremely hopeful. He once told me he held out hope for the day research would allow him to recover from his injury. He knew the odds were slim to none, but as long as they were slim, he had hope. That was Jarrett.
There isn’t much more to say. I really liked Jarrett. We all really liked Jarrett. He was the DIFF, without question. He will be missed so much there aren’t really words to describe it.
Here’s what Jeff, (the brother Jarrett dared to eat the lightbulb) wrote on Jarrett’s page on carepages.org:
You were my gladiator and always looked after me. My mind is filled with the images of our youth. Running on the football field and the smell of freshly cut grass in the air. I wanted to thank you. For being the best man at my wedding. And the best man that I ever knew.
I’d like to say that Jarrett is in a better place now, free of the pain of cancer, free of the disability he lived with for the second half of his life. I’d like to say that because it sounds good. But it’s not true. The Jarrett that I knew would rather be here, with his wife and kids, and with his friends. Cancer or not. He wanted to live and he did as long as he could.
So rest in peace my friend. No, actually, forget that. Run, my friend. Run in the fields with the football you loved. Run. Feel the wind on your legs. Run, my friend. Run.