A Life: Craig ‘CJ’ John Lanzim ‘was always upbeat and positive’

C.J. Lanzim, of Plainfield, N.H., right, and, Jamie Lowery, of Wilder, Vt., are part of the Upper Valley Power Soccer team at the Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 10, 2013. The team also plays in Burlington and Massachusetts. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

C.J. Lanzim, of Plainfield, N.H., right, and, Jamie Lowery, of Wilder, Vt., are part of the Upper Valley Power Soccer team at the Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 10, 2013. The team also plays in Burlington and Massachusetts. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Jennifer Hauck

As he did for the past decade, C.J. Lanzim celebrates his Fourth of July birthday with fireworks, friends and family at his home in Plainfield, N.H., in July 2023. (Family photograph)

As he did for the past decade, C.J. Lanzim celebrates his Fourth of July birthday with fireworks, friends and family at his home in Plainfield, N.H., in July 2023. (Family photograph) Family photograph

C.J. Lanzim is hugged by Sylvia Kluge Dow, executive director of Visions for Creative Housing Solutions, while visiting his future apartment. (Family photograph)

C.J. Lanzim is hugged by Sylvia Kluge Dow, executive director of Visions for Creative Housing Solutions, while visiting his future apartment. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Accompanied by his sister, C.J. Lanzim would regularly go on rides on his four-wheeler on the family property in Plainfield, N.H., shown in summer 2007.

Accompanied by his sister, C.J. Lanzim would regularly go on rides on his four-wheeler on the family property in Plainfield, N.H., shown in summer 2007. "He loved speed," said his mother, Kathy Lanzim. (Family photograph) —

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-10-2024 6:01 PM

Modified: 03-12-2024 2:57 PM


PLAINFIELD — Craig John Lanzim, or “C.J.” as he was known, was a role model to many for how to treat others. He had a gift for making people feel valued, whether a close friend or a stranger. He accepted others as they were and exhibited patience and compassion in situations where many falter.

“He was the best out of all of us,” his sister, Jessica Hoadley said. “He didn’t have an unkind bone in his body; he was excited for life. And despite all the pain and challenges that he had throughout his life, he always looked at things with hope or a positive outlook.”

Lanzim died in his home on Jan 21, after being hospitalized with pneumonia in December. He was 41.

For nearly 20 years he was a familiar face at the front desk at the Carter Community Building Association, or CCBA, in downtown Lebanon, where he would greet or chat with guests or sometimes give rides to children in his wheelchair. Anywhere Lanzim went, whether the supermarket, a department store or the hospital, someone was guaranteed to recognize him and wave, his parents said.

“He couldn’t walk, but he sure got around,” said his father, Craig Lanzim.

Lanzim was born in Toms River, N.J., and moved with his family to Plainfield at the age of 4.

Born with a severe form of spina bifida, Lanzim’s spinal cord was partially damaged in infancy when tissue that should have protected the spinal column did not form properly, leaving nerves exposed. It resulted in permanent paralysis in his legs, nerve damage that impaired his fine motor skills and other health issues.

The malformation also caused compression in his neck, making it difficult for Lanzim to breathe or swallow. He frequently caught pneumonia because liquids he drank sometimes went into his lungs, and his vocal cords were paralyzed until he underwent a surgery at 6 months of age to alleviate the compression.

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For two years after the surgery, Lanzim wore a tracheostomy tube to assist his breathing while his trachea and vocal cords healed. His mother, Kathy Lanzim, a special education teacher who had worked at a school for the deaf in New Jersey, taught him sign language to communicate.

“His favorite sign language was cookie, apple juice and I love you,” said Hoadley, his older sister.

Lanzim’s love of social interaction was evident early in life, Hoadley said. His smile was infectious and he was easy to draw a laugh from, which Hoadley said sounded more like a gurgle when he had the tracheostomy tube.

Lanzim’s younger sister, Rebecca Lanzim, called him her best childhood friend and her “partner in crime” on missions to sneak the sugar jar from the kitchen counter or to persuade their mother to let them keep wild turtles they found outside as pets.

Lanzim defied the predictions of doctors who told his parents that he would never be able to speak or read beyond a few simple words. Lanzim began talking shortly after the tracheostomy was removed and worked with speech therapists for several years to improve his delivery.

And he could read quite well, even if reading wasn’t his favorite activity, his mother said.

“He confounded all the experts,” his father said. “They said he would never read more than ‘and’ and ‘the’. … He was the best speller in the house, next to his mother.”

Lanzim attended school at Plainfield Elementary and Lebanon High School. His parents said they wanted him to be at the same school as other children in the neighborhood. He used a power wheelchair and was accompanied by his service dog, Desiree, who was trained to pick up fallen objects, turn on lights, open doors or go for help when needed.

Sara Reed was friends with Lanzim starting after she transferred to Lebanon High in ninth grade. Lanzim was one of the first students to welcome her to the school, and Reed always appreciated him for helping her feel more comfortable in a new environment.

“I remember being shocked when he reached out to me later and told me how much of an impact it was that I was willing to stop in the hallway and talk to him,” Reed said. “That had never crossed my mind.”

“I think he was just so happy to be part of something bigger, to be that bright light (for others),” she added.

After finishing high school, Lanzim worked as a front desk receptionist at the CCBA. “He lived for meeting people and being around people,” his father said.

The CCBA was also where he discovered power wheelchair soccer, a sport designed and developed for wheelchair users. The game is typically played indoors on a basketball court, and participants use specially designed wheelchairs to maneuver and strike the oversize ball.

“He was a great power soccer player, and his enthusiasm for the game was unmatched,” said Kim Estes, who co-founded the Upper Valley Wheelers with her daughter, Samantha Estes. “He always wanted to practice and never said no to anything.”

Formed in 2012, the Upper Valley Wheelers currently has six players, including Samantha. They hold weekly practices at the CCBA and play games with other teams in Burlington or in Manchester.

“He really had a passion for it,” Samantha said. “He even followed the other teams on Facebook and talked to the other players and developed relationships with them.”

For Lanzim, power wheelchair soccer was his first real experience of being on a team. Though he played recreational T-ball when he was younger, he was more of “an honorary member” because he was unable to play most aspects of the game, including fielding and running the bases, Kathy Lanzim said.

“But out on that (soccer) court, he was independent,” she said. “He was free. He just loved it.”

Lanzim, despite his physical challenges, never allowed them to dampen his exuberance for life, his mother said. He rarely showed frustration about his health or disability, and when he did it was only for a moment.

“He was just an accepting person and he accepted himself as who he was and for what he could do,” she said.

Barbara Fischer, a retired therapeutic horseback riding instructor, became friends with Lanzim while instructing him in adaptive riding. He began riding lessons at the age of 8 to help build his upper body strength.

“He was just so compassionate,” Fischer said. “Even when he was a little boy, he would always be concerned about you. He wasn’t self-absorbed, (even though) he had plenty to be self-absorbed about. He was always upbeat and positive.”

She described their relationship as “one of the most special friendships I’ve had in my whole life.”

Lanzim loved to fish, whether it was catching perch in Goose Pond or deep sea fishing with his family off the New Jersey or New Hampshire coasts.

“So long as he was catching them,” his father said. “Size and quality didn’t matter; it was quantity that he cared about.”

“He used to sit there and call, ‘Here fishy, fishy, fishy,’ and you would know when one was on the line because he would yell out, ‘Hold the phone!’ ” Rebecca said. “I don’t know where he came up with that, but he would get a huge smile on his face when he said it.”

He also loved riding roller coasters, bowling and watching professional wrestling. And he was a huge fan of Mariah Carey, much to the dismay of his sisters.

“I made a deal with Jessica that she would take him to anything Mariah Carey-related and I would take him to anything wrestling-related, because I cannot stand Mariah Carey,” Rebecca said.

Every Fourth of July, his birthday, Lanzim rode in Plainfield’s Independence Day parade. He would ride past the crowds, his wheelchair adorned in patriotic flair and decor and wave at everyone “like he was the mayor of Plainfield,” Hoadley said.

“He never missed a parade, rain or shine,” she said.

This was supposed to be a landmark year for Lanzim. He was preparing to move into his first apartment, having been approved for a placement in Visions Housing, a supported housing program for adults with developmental disabilities, in Hanover.

“He was so excited and looking forward to moving to Visions and becoming even more independent,” Kathy Lanzim said.

After their son’s death, Kathy and Craig Lanzim read comments on his Facebook and obituary pages from people thanking him for his displays of kindness and support.

“He touched way more lives than we had realized,” his father said.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.