New book tells inspiring story of Bob Cleary; signing Oct. 2

Photo Caption: The cover of “Breaking Through: The Story of Bob Cleary,” the late principal of Bergan High School who overcame obstacles after injuries from an accident left him quadriplegic.

By: By Tom Dermody

The remarkable story of Bob Cleary — who showed courage, faith, and imagination in overcoming obstacles after an accident left him a quadriplegic at age 18, eventually becoming a nationally honored teacher and principal at Bergan High School in Peoria — has been told in a new biography penned by one who was by his side for 13 years of that journey.

“Some time after Bob’s death in 1987, I decided that one day I would write the story of his inspirational life,” said Ann Cleary Ribando in the preface to “Breaking Through: The Story of Bob Cleary.” It is a loving tribute from Bob’s wife, who taught with him at Bergan and later served for 15 years as principal of St. Thomas School in Peoria Heights.

While the primary audience is extended family and friends, this highly readable, 75-page paperback will also inspire those not fortunate enough to have met Bob.

The public is invited to a book signing on Wednesday, Oct. 2, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Peoria Notre Dame High School.

It seems a good bet the signing will draw a crowd, for Bob’s family is large and well-known. Raised on a farm three miles southwest of Gridley, he was the eighth of 10 talented children of Michael and Clarys Cleary. Two of his sisters — Catherine and Audrey — are members of the Benedictine community of St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island.

Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, now a sainthood candidate, was a first cousin of Bob’s mother and a frequent visitor to the Cleary family farm.

And then there are the many with memories of Bob from Bergan, where he taught in the English department from 1972 to 1983, and then served as principal for four years until his death at age 48.

“Bob Cleary redefined our understanding of ‘limitation,'” writes Ribando. “His faith and determination, coupled with the loving support of a strong family, framed his positive approach to the continued challenges of life as a quadriplegic.”

Readers will feel that determination and better understand the scope of the obstacles in Ribando’s tightly edited account of a life that dramatically changed after a diving accident at an Indiana pond one night in the summer of 1956.

The accident broke Bob’s body, but not his spirit. With help from family, he would learn to feed himself with a special tool. He also found a passion for painting — the brush handle gripped in his teeth — and writing.

He found his vocation when his pastor at St. Mary Parish, El Paso, offered Bob a part-time job as a CCD teacher for high school youth. He soon would become one of the first high-level quadriplegics to attend classes at the University of Illinois, graduating with honors.

Ribando does not hide the constant challenges — from bedsores to surgeries to a car accident that broke both his legs in 1976, leaving readers to ponder the fairness of life. She writes that Bob lived in a time when disabled people were mostly “invisible” because accessibility to many buildings was so limited.

But mostly this is a tale of triumph, of “Breaking Through” — a title suggested by Ribando’s husband, Curt, whose “loving support” the author cites for making the project possible.

Some of that triumph is reflected in recognitions — a National Outstanding Teacher Award, a posthumous reception into the Peoria Area Soccer Coaches Association Hall of Fame for launching what would become Peoria Notre Dame’s nationally recognized soccer program, the creation of the Robert J. Cleary Challenge Award, and the naming of the school’s computer center in his honor.

But it is the triumph of the spirit that will remain with readers, as it does with those who knew Bob. He is recalled for his humor, his listening skills, and his influence on those around him.

“The memory of Bob is indelibly etched in all the hearts and minds of all those he touched,” writes Ribando. Thanks to her efforts, that memory is enhanced and shared.

“Breaking Through” is offered at a cost of $13.95 plus tax. It will be available at Lagron-Miller in Peoria, I Know You Like a Book in Peoria Heights, or by contacting Ribando at (309) 692-6525 or

Proceeds beyond printing costs will be donated to the Peoria Notre Dame Livingston Fund for Teachers.

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