Lad Handelman, who died this week, is remembered for all he did
A pioneering abalone diver.
A Cal Dive and Oceaneering co-founder.
A supporter of the Boys and Girls club.
A founder of a spinal injury support group called Outlook, an Offshore Energy Hall of Famer, an NOGI diving award winner, a Harvard grad, as well as a husband, father and beloved member of the community.
Lad Handelman was all of these things and more.
He died from cardiac arrest Monday in his Santa Barbara home.
Mr. Handelman was recognized as a pioneer in commercial diving and offshore gas and oilfield industry.
He grew up on the streets of New York City without the presence of his parents, so the Boys Club helped him and ultimately changed his life, according to his wife, Linda Seals.
“He was extremely generous with his time, and his whole life seemed to revolve around helping people,” Ms. Seals told the News-Press.
She said her husband did everything from helping people find jobs to sponsoring people for their citizenship, “helping them find their way in the world.”
As the founder and CEO of two large international organizations, Oceaneering International Inc. and Cal Dive International Inc.; founder of two hospital-based hyperbaric contract services companies, Clinical Hyperbaric Technologies Inc. and Oxycare Inc.; and co-founder of the Marine Mammal Consulting Group, Mr. Handelman spent more than 25 years as an environmental leader.
“He started a company that became the largest independent diving company in the world,” Ms. Seals said. “Not bad for a street kid from New York.”
She added he maintained safety as his top priority in all of his diving operations and that if it cost a million dollars to stop an operation for unsafe conditions, Mr. Handelman would do it and wouldn’t care a bit about the money.
The successful businessman suffered a broken neck while snow skiing in 1985 and became a quadrapalegic.
“When he broke his neck, there was no support group for people in wheelchairs,” Ms. Seals said. “So he did what Lad always does and started one. He continued to run it all these years to let people know, ‘You may be in a wheelchair, but that shouldn’t stop you.’ ”
She shared an exchange between herself and a coworker who told her, “I saw you with your husband — you never told me he was disabled.”
Ms. Seals’s response was, “Oh, he’s not disabled; he just can’t walk.”
No one knows the age Mr. Handelman died, because according to his wife, he never told anyone his birth date. She said he had about 12 different birth dates he told nurses, from Dec. 2, 1962 to April 2, 1986.
“He said, ‘Ask me my Social Security, but I do not give out my birthday. But I’m having a party in 2050, and I’m inviting you to attend,’” Ms. Seals said. “He really didn’t let birth date, age, broken neck … He didn’t let anything stop him or get in the way. The glass was not just full; it was full and overflowing, always.”
Mr. Handelman served on the board of directors of the United Boys and Girls Clubs, the board of directors of the Historical Diving Society, the Santa Barbara City College Marine Technology Advisory Committee, served as a lifetime member of the Association of Diving Contractors and a member of Western States Petroleum Association.
“Lad did an awful lot in the community,” his wife continued. “He had so many projects. He was so involved with so many things.”
His hard work paid off, as he was inducted into the Offshore Energy Hall of Fame as an Industry Pioneer and the Association of Diving Contractors Hall of Fame. He also won the Historical Diver Magazine Pioneer Award and was featured in Time Magazine where he talked about how he built his company.
He graduated high school in Mount Vernon, according to his wife, and started his company afterward.
“Evidently the board felt that he needed a little bit of polishing, and that maybe wearing the shirt and cowboy boots to all the meetings around the world might not be most appropriate, so they sent him to Harvard,” Ms. Seals said.
From there, he graduated from the Harvard Business School’s prestigious Advanced Management Program. He even was a member of the Harvard undergraduate football team for a short period, before they discovered he wasn’t qualified.
Ms. Seals said her husband was also very much a patriot. He would bring Boys and Girls Club kids up to their home on TV Hill in Santa Barbara, telling them, “If you’re willing to work hard in America, you can do anything, anything you want. There is no limit.”
“People have said, ‘That must be difficult living with a quadrapalegic, even with help,’ but I don’t feel that way,” Ms. Seals said. “I feel like I was the lucky one, not him.
“He inspired me every day, and my life became richer because of him.”
Mr. Handelman was also a great friend of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.
“He was just a shining example of what it means to be a good citizen,” Greg Gorga, the museum executive director, told the News-Press. “He was a tough businessman with a very soft heart inside. This was certainly a loss to the museum and to the community.”
He added that when it’s safe to do so, the museum plans on holding a memorial for Mr. Handelman.
There are no funeral services planned for Mr. Handelman at this time due to COVID-19, but Ms. Seals said family members are planning a celebration of life in the spring.
Mr. Handelman is preceded in death by his brother, Gene Handelman of Oklahoma, who died just a month ago on Sept. 22.
He is survived by his wife, Linda Seals, and his children: James Handelman of Henderson, Nev., Laurie Handelman of Chico and her husband Bob, and Roy Handelman of Santa Barbara.