By JOHN FORTMEYER
PORTLAND — Ken Calwell has had a career of high accomplishment in the business world, but he barely mentioned it when he addressed the Portland Good Friday Breakfast April 14.
Instead of focusing on his more than 30 years of leadership in major restaurant and food companies, Calwell focused on a much, much smaller time frame — the split-second incident that changed his life dramatically in 1991.
“It was not my bad accident,” he said, referring to the mishap on a Kansas highway that brought him near death decades ago. “It was God’s great plan.”
Indeed, Calwell e-pressed only deep gratitude to God as he told his story to the approximately 850 people attending the breakfast at the Oregon Convention Center.
“God didn’t just save me from something, He saved me for something,” said Calwell. “To me, what joy is, is knowing why you’re here … and knowing God is with you every step of the way. When you’re so thankful for what He’s done in your life, you can’t help but share it.”
Raised in Kansas in a Christian home, Calwell said he was taught by his parents to set goals and then work hard to achieve them. One way he sought to fulfill that was by becoming a long-distance runner and triathlon competitor.
The accident happened while Calwell, then 28, was on a training bicycle ride in Kansas for the U.S. National Triathlon Championships. The driver of a passing car moving 55 m.p.h. fell asleep at the wheel, with the car striking Calwell and causing multiple fractures throughout his body. So numerous were his skin punctures and evulsions that he lost nearly two-thirds of his blood on the pavement. Stabilizing Calwell required nine hours of surgery, including 400 stitches and staples.
Because of his faith, Calwell knew that if he died that night in the hospital, “I’d be in Heaven with Jesus.” While his physical injuries were so extreme that all he could do was pray, he found it brought him a wonderful assurance that God was in charge, even though his doctors privately felt great anxiety over his condition.
“I had more peace than anyone else in the hospital that night,” he said.
But the doctors eventually opened up to him about their concerns. Calwell was told that he would not run again, that he was likely to lose his left leg, that he wouldn’t regain the use of his right arm, that he had a potentially severe head injury and that he was at high risk for blood clots, infection or a pulmonary embolism.
“That list will put you on your knees to pray,” Calwell said. “For me, it put me on my back.”
Facing such huge challenges, Calwell focused on the promises outlined in Philippians 4: 6 and 7, that God remains near and that His amazing peace is at hand to overcome anxiety.
But that didn’t guarantee an easy recovery. Determined to not only save his leg but also to eventually walk on it, Calwell nearly passed out from pain the first time he tried to stand.
“I was literally praying to God for every step,” he said.
But about three months after the accident, doctors found that new bone was generating in his leg. Calwell was making such progress that doctors asked him to visit other patients to encourage them.
Calwell said true success in life is through significantly serving God by reaching out to others.
“He wants people loved. We’re here to do that. The world kind of feels like that intensive care room.”
Within a year, Calwell walked a full 5K (5,000-meter) race route. Fourteen months after the accident, his limp right arm started responding. The miraculous full recovery continued, such that five years after the accident, Calwell was selected to carry the torch on one leg of the U.S. Olympics torch relay.
He also eventually met his wife in church and they had a son, who at age 23 won his own triathlon, to Calwell’s obvious pride.
Calwell is an MBA graduate of Indiana University.. His early career included stints at Pillsbury and PepsiCo, then as top marketier for Domino’s Pizza and then Wendy’s/Arby’s Corp. before several years leading the Papa Murphy’s pizza chain. He resigned from that company three months ago to pursue other interests.
The Portland Good Friday Breakfast was launched 11 years ago by the Portland-based ministry Open Arms International. Co-founders David and Rachel Gallagher saw a need for an event in Portland to highlight the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wanted to reach out to the metro area with an evangelical message of God’s love. As a gift to the community, the breakfast is deliberately not a fundraiser for Open Arms, a humanitarian and development non-profit agency dedicated to raising children in Africa.
“Our mission is transforming Africa one life at a time,” Gallagher said in brief remarks before Calwell spoke. “But on this Friday, it’s a bet that lives can be transformed in Portland, Oregon.”
Calwell agreed, reminding all that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross shows that “God loves everybody in this room very, very much … His actions back this up.”