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When Joe Bellantoni told his wife, Denise, that he might like to go back to business school to get an executive MBA, she stared at him, incredulous, and asked, “Why?”
After all, Mr Bellantoni already had a successful career as the chief financial officer of Crystal Springs Resort, a complex in northern New Jersey with six golf courses, luxury hotels and top-rated restaurants; the couple had a son in college and one in graduate school; and, thanks to Mr Bellantoni’s newfound penchant for fitness, he was running a marathon a month.
But she had a bigger concern about the prospect of her husband’s return to business school: Mr Bellantoni is blind. “It was going to be a big challenge,” says Ms Bellantoni. “Joe had never gone to school without sight.”
On a July morning in 2007, Mr Bellantoni, then 45, passed out while driving his car on a highway. His Jeep slid under a lumber truck in front of him; when it vaulted back out, the top of the car was sheared off. Mr Bellantoni, who had fainted because of undiagnosed Type 1 diabetes, broke his neck and all of his ribs on his left side, punctured his lung, severed his arm and little finger.
When he emerged from his coma, he could no longer see. His doctors could not explain it. “Joe never cried. He never went into a depression,” says Ms Bellantoni. “We knew that we needed to move forward.”
Suffice to say that the same spirit and undaunted optimism propelled Mr Bellantoni through business school. Next month, he will receive his EMBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management with his wife by his side, just as she was throughout his programme. For the past 20 months, Ms Bellantoni has driven her husband to the school’s Cambridge campus every two to three weeks; accompanied him to classes, attended his study groups and typed up his homework assignments. “[The programme] was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” says Mr Bellantoni. “Denise did a remarkable job getting me through it.”
The Bellantonis’ mutual admiration is evident but they are not overly sentimental. They are good humoured and Mr Bellantoni is quick to crack jokes. “They are amazingly dedicated to each other,” says Maria Gonzalez, a business school classmate who worked closely with the couple on a team project. “They are extensions of each other. Denise is Joe’s eyes.”
When Mr Bellantoni returned to his job just two months after his accident, Ms Bellantoni went with him. He taught her to use a computer and how to create sophisticated spreadsheets. They went on business trips to complete due diligence for acquisitions and worked on complex debt and equity transactions. She was his assistant for nearly a year.
The job was satisfying for Mr Bellantoni, but he was restless. He decided to take up running. In 2009, he ran his first race, the New York City Marathon, with a guide from Achilles International, an organisation that provides volunteers to help people with disabilities navigate road races. Mr Bellantoni ran the Boston Marathon in 2013. His guide developed cramps during the race, which slowed them down and kept them from crossing the finish line where two bombs went off in the late afternoon. Ms Bellantoni was volunteering at the finish line but was unharmed. He ran the Boston race again in 2014 and met a student from MIT Sloan. After their conversation, Mr Bellantoni was intent on applying.
The school provided various forms of support for Mr Bellantoni. The student disabilities services translated his course material into file format so he could use text-to-speech software, and he was provided with a teaching assistant for his class on system dynamics.
But his greatest assistance was Ms Bellantoni. “We have a running joke that MIT should probably be giving a degree to Denise, too,” says Nelson Repenning, who teaches system dynamics. He admits he was sceptical that Mr Bellantoni would be able to grasp the material in his course, which is visually oriented. “I don’t know how he pulled it off.”
Mr Bellantoni plans to put his new knowledge and degree to work. Earlier this year, he was named head of strategic planning and corporate development at Crystal Springs. He and Ms Bellantoni will continue to expand their foundation, Blind Ambition Coalition, a social and athletic network for blind people. They are also developing a navigational cane to help blind people get around more easily.
For Mr Bellantoni, the programme at MIT was worth it. Ms Bellantoni also came around. After giving her husband a playful punch in the arm, she adds: “He owes me big time.”