I could not tell you what Jeff Erlanger's day job was, or even if he had one. I could not tell you much about his family, or what he liked to do for fun.
But I did know one side of Jeff, and that was the man who cared deeply about making the city of Madison a fair place for everyone. He served on several city committees, including the Commission on People with Disabilities and the Economic Development Commission.
I knew Jeff as the architect of the city's first summit on housing for the disabled. It was an idea he had promoted for more than a year, and he was thrilled when the city finally held the conference at Monona Terrace in April.
All Jeff wanted was for developers to think about people with disabilities when they build houses -- to make sure the doorways are wide enough for wheelchairs, eliminate steps at the entrance, put a bathroom on the first floor. Simple ideas that are, as ever, made more complicated by politics and state laws.
Jeff, a lifelong quadriplegic who used a wheelchair, focused much of his activism on improving the lives of people with disabilities. But Jeff was the kind of person who immediately dispelled any notion that you might have about treating the disabled with paternalism or pity. He was intelligent, funny and often politically savvy. He was the kind of person who, even if he hadn't been disabled himself, would have been at the table arguing for people's rights anyway.
Even early in his life, Jeff Erlanger was someone who impressed people with his wit and vitality. His appearance at age 10 on Fred Rogers' TV show, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, when host and guest burst out into a spirited rendition of "It's You I Like," was fondly remembered on the occasion of Rogers' death of stomach cancer in 2003.
Jeff, too, died suddenly, and too soon, in his mid-30s. He had been in the hospital for several weeks, after choking on some food. He died Sunday night, June 10, surrounded by his family. In a message sent early Monday morning, Erlanger's family informed relatives and friends about his passing:
As in life, Jeff gave generously at death. Recipients were found for several of his organs and in the midst of this tragedy we are blessed in the knowledge that others will be helped, as he wanted.
We will always remember Jeff as the person who showed us the true meaning of a life well lived.
Funeral services are tentatively planned for Thursday, at 9:45 a.m. at Temple Beth El on 2702 Arbor Drive.