The food cart rolled through the Halloween crowd at the Wagon Wheel tavern in Suncrest.
Hungry partiers reached for the chopped veggies and the dip, lifted the lid from the serving tray - and screamed. There was Ric Villalobos’ head, staring back.
His friends were more startled than surprised. Villalobos’ clever Halloween costumes have become legend in Suncrest since the year he began designing them around his wheelchair.
One October, he was a gurney. Another year, an electric chair. Once he welded a frame for an elaborate rickshaw. Then there was the cardboard outhouse with his legs - pants around ankles - showing beneath the door.
Villalobos has been working the wheelchair into his life since a deep dive into a swimming pool 17 years ago left him paralyzed from his armpits down.
Ingenuity had long brewed quietly inside the 43-year-old North Spokane man. Since the injury, it has spewed like a geyser.
When life forced this do-it-yourself, outdoorsy guy to pull his toddler onto his lap to reach the Kool-Aid, it also forced him to stretch for solutions to scores of new problems.
Could he get around a doctor’s advice to give up hunting? Must he abandon his dream of fishing at a lake house of his own? Would he ever teach his son to play baseball?
“Being creative and being in a chair really go hand in hand,” he said.
Before Villalobos was injured, he’d job-hopped from construction to trucking to stocking warehouses. He’d even studied to be a funeral director.
From his bed at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, at age 26, career plans took on new urgency. He and his wife, Nancy, had to support two young children - Ryan and Angela, then 3 and 1.
A guidance counselor tried to steer him to computer programming. He choked at the thought of sitting at a screen and chose rehabilitation counseling instead.
The choice landed him in an environment that evokes sweet memories of his grandmother’s house, where wood, glue, iron, paint and all the magic of hobbyists filled whole rooms. His grandma could take a soup can, snip here, snip there, and create an intricate work of metallic art.
At St. Luke’s, where Villalobos has returned as an employee, his piles of iron consist mostly of wheelchair parts, and his inspiration is heartbroken patients who are just discovering they can no longer reach the Kool-Aid.
His job title is Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. He added the role of craftsman on his own.
Villalobos the Counselor befriended Brad Skramstad, a Kalispel man who fell 20 feet into a concrete pit at a plywood mill two years ago. He broke his neck, elbow and hip.
It wasn’t long before the men were comparing hunting stories and flipping through Skramstad’s scrapbook, admiring photographs of elk, deer, bear and antelope.
Villalobos the Craftsman emerged, making a custom gun turret and shoulder rest that held a rifle butt in place. At the shooting range, he taught Skramstad to pull the trigger with his thumb.
Last fall, Skramstad got a wild turkey in the Flathead Valley. He just missed a shot at an elk.
“The first time I was able to pull a trigger again, that meant a lot to me,” said Skramstad, 42. “It just felt good again.”
Villalobos lit the same fire in Bob McCracken.
The 60-year-old Newport man, who has hunted since he was 11, had a stroke two days before Thanksgiving. He lost the use of his right leg and arm.
“You can get pretty well down when this happens to you,” said McCracken, who installed air conditioners for a living. “He just brought me up. I’m looking forward to hunting, maybe fishing. Instead of looking at four walls, getting out and doing something again.”
Joe Kofmehl, Villalobos’ brother-in-law, laughs about one of his favorite innovations: a deer carrier made from an old wheelchair. “Who’d think of that?” he asked.
Many of the counselor’s creations are recycled wheelchairs. “They were pieces St. Luke’s was throwing away,” co-worker Nancy Webster said. “He said, ‘No, no! Keep those. I’ll be able to use them somehow.’ His mind’s just always going.”
Villalobos’ brainstorms aren’t limited to work. He helped redesign wheelchair seating sections at the Spokane Opera House - scattering the open spots throughout the room so people could sit with their families.
“Just because we’re in wheelchairs doesn’t mean we all like each other,” he said.
When his son, Ryan, was growing up, Villalobos did more than teach him to play ball. He helped coach the team.
At home, he drew lines in the dirt with a stick, showing Ryan where to place his feet. He chased balls in his chair.
At practice, when Villalobos couldn’t demonstrate moves, he’d find the kids who could catch the best, hit the farthest, or run the fastest, and use them as examples.
“I was there, teaching my son,” he said. “I thought I’d never be able to do that.”
Ryan, now 19, laughs when talking about his dad’s various innovations. They made growing up in the Villalobos household a kick, he said.
Not long ago, Ryan found himself in the back yard, cutting branches off an apple tree at his father’s request. “I thought, ‘What do you want that for?”’
Turns out they were for the rustic trophy room his dad decorated. Curtain rods.
Villalobos finally got his house at Deer Lake, too, on a precious 50 feet of beach. Last summer, he designed wide sidewalks for his chair and built a ramp that lets him board his pontoon boat.
He still fishes, still hunts. He’s serving his second year as president of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council.
What’s next? Part of the fun is never knowing.
“I’m sure he’s got other ideas planned for next spring that we don’t know about yet,” Ryan said. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
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