John Lonberg

Riverside disabled access activist John Lonberg, pictured in 2007, died Dec. 27 at age 75. Lonberg’s 1997 lawsuit against Riverside led the city to fix nearly 200 curbs and sidewalks.

John Lonberg, a retired English teacher and paraplegic who fought to increase access for the disabled, has died, relatives and friends said. He was 75.

A Riverside resident for most of his life, Mr. Lonberg in 1997 sued the city for noncompliance with federal standards for disabled access, leading it to improve nearly 200 curbs and sidewalks. Also that year, Mr. Lonberg ran unsuccessfully for Riverside’s Ward 6 City Council seat.

Mr. Lonberg died Dec. 27, his wife, Lynne Lonberg said Wednesday, Jan. 2. He had been ailing and was bedridden for the past several years, but his exact cause of death is not known, she said.

Raised in Riverside‘s La Sierra area, Mr. Lonberg taught English to fourth- and sixth-graders in Rialto for more than three decades and was active in state and national teachers‘ unions, Lynne Lonberg said. A towering figure at 6 feet 8 inches tall, Lonberg served briefly as an Army medic and was honorably discharged, his wife said.

A rare physical condition led to his paralysis in 1983, when he was struck in the chest during an altercation and a weak blood vessel burst in his spine. The incident left Mr. Lonberg with no movement or sensation below his chest. Some thought his disability stemmed from an auto accident, because he would tell people he had been ‘hit by a drunk’, Lynne Lonberg said.

It took him some time to adjust to being paraplegic and using a wheelchair, she said. After they married in 1989, she encouraged him to get back out into the world, and when he did he turned his energies to activism for the disabled.

Mr. Lonberg became well known in the disability rights community and worked with various groups, including Californians for Disability Rights, said Ruthee Goldkorn, a Moreno Valley resident who considered him a mentor.

‘In the city of Riverside, John was a force to be reckoned with’, Goldkorn said. He spent over a decade arguing, asking, demanding that he be able to get off his own street, and have a curb cut on his own street to walk his dog.

Mr. Lonberg did not prevail in all aspects of his 1997 lawsuit against Riverside, but it resulted in the city making curbs and sidewalks more accessible in close to 200 locations. In a 2011 interview, Riverside City Attorney Greg Priamos said that, in general, the city had made ‘a very significant effort at improving accessibility’ and had installed about 5,000 wheelchair ramps citywide since 2001.

Lynne Lonberg said her husband was devoted to his family and had an interesting history. An adopted child, Mr. Lonberg as an adult found and reunited with his biological mother and siblings, and later reconnected with a daughter from an earlier marriage, whom he had not seen in nearly 30 years.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Lonberg is survived by daughters Gaydene Emmrich of Yorba Linda and Laurie Lehmann of Michigan, 10 grandchildren and a great-grandson.

By Alicia Robinson, Staff Writer