UC Davis Student to Hit High Note With Walk at Graduation

Michael O'Hearn
In celebration of the education that has helped him return to playing music, Michael O’Hearn plans to leave his wheelchair behind as he crosses the stage at UC Davis’ fall commencement. (Joe Proudman/UC Davis)

Michael O’Hearn will be hitting a high note when he walks across the stage at fall commencement on Saturday, Dec. 15.

The 62-year-old music major will play the trumpet with the commencement band one more time. And then he’ll leave his wheelchair behind as he celebrates the education that helped him achieve a long-abandoned dream to become a professional musician.

To walk at graduation, O’Hearn has been working with a physical therapist from the student health center. “I want to show what I’ve earned,” said the Davis man. “I want to be able to represent my improvements and the things I can do.”

An end to a promising start

When he finished high school in Sacramento, O’Hearn was already an award-winning trumpeter. He took up music studies at American River College and was bound for a career in music.

But then, like a baseball player adjusts his batting stance, O’Hearn made some changes to how he played the trumpet. It hindered instead of helping him, and he was more than discouraged.

He put down the trumpet, left college and for decades took jobs as a salesman and restaurant worker. “I didn’t have a formative goal,” he said. “I lost what I wanted to do in my life. I didn’t feel I was really alive because I wasn’t a musician.”

In his mid-30s, the rare degenerative disease andrenoleukodystrophy crept into his life. When problems with his gait increased, he started using a cane and then a walker. He’s been using a wheelchair since 2002.

Reconsidering his dream

Michael O'Hearn
Photo credit: Joe Proudman

But the condition that eventually kept him from working also afforded him time to return to education and reconsider his dream. He earned associate degrees in music and social sciences, respectively in 2008 and 2014, from Sacramento City College. While taking classes, he moved to Davis to find an affordable apartment with special accommodations.

O’Hearn’s older brother had attended UC Davis, but it wasn’t something he’d even dared to consider for himself. That is, until he was befriended — and encouraged to think otherwise — by some student drivers for the university’s bus service that operates in the city.

He applied as a transfer student and asked, “Will you look at my life and see if I belong?”

"Yes" was the answer, so O’Hearn started his studies in 2014.

Playing his heart out

While at UC Davis, he has performed with the university’s concert band, symphony, jazz band and other combos. He has played on the stage of the university’s Mondavi Center — one of the premier performing arts centers in Northern California, at the university’s annual Picnic Day and at basketball games with the spirited California Aggie Marching Band.

O’Hearn started the Jazz Society of UC Davis, a student club, and, on the way to a 3.528 grade point average, researched how barbershop quartet provided a foundational experience for jazz great Louis Armstrong.

Jazz standards are what O’Hearn loves to play. “Jazz is about the contributions of many people,” he said.

Five years ago, he established the New Harmony Jazz Band, a semi-professional group in Davis that he continues to manage and play in. “That changed my life,” O’Hearn said. “Being in a band is incredible, and the bridge to that was UC Davis.”

— Julia Ann Easley, UC Davis News and Media Relations