Nearly everyone who attended Cheltenham High School in the mid-1990s seemed to know Josh Winheld. Most striking was his smile. His whole face would light up as he rode down the halls in his motorized wheelchair, his male aide a constant presence at his side.
On Dec. 5, Winheld, 31, succumbed to Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the lethal genetic disease that he had battled since he was 4, and that had forced him into a wheelchair by age 10.
Until the end, the 1996 Cheltenham graduate served as an role model for some of his schoolmates.
"He helped me through some really difficult times, and inspired me to live my life to the fullest and take chances and risks even when they are scary," said Cara Bendler, who talked to him almost nightly, right up until he entered the hospital for what was to be the last time.
Winheld told his story in his autobiography, Worth the Ride: My Journey With Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. In it, he recounted his daily experiences about trying to be "like everyone else."
Duchenne's didn't stop Winheld from attending mainstream schools; taking honors classes; having a Bar Mitzvah and being confirmed; earning a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's in urban studies from Temple University; or from focusing on his thesis about handicap accessibility.
"His smile alone made us all believe we could go as far as we could go," stated Pat Furlong, founder and president of the Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, an Ohio-based nonprofit organization that works to improve the quality of life for those with the disease. "He taught us so much. He never complained. He never said, 'Why me?' — never said, 'I can't go on, can't succeed.' "
Furlong, who lost two sons herself to Duchenne's, became acquainted with Josh about three years ago while he was working on his book, all the proceeds of which have gone to the Parent Project.
More than 400 people attended his Dec. 8 funeral at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, a longtime friend of the Winheld family, referred in his eulogy to the timing of his death so close to the celebration of Chanukah.
"Josh Winheld was a modern miracle," explained the rabbi, and like the story of the Maccabees so many years ago, Josh's light and legacy will live on after him.
Winheld is survived by his parents, Linda and Michael Winheld; and his sisters, Amy Winheld and Stephanie Winheld.