Nine years after a harrowing car accident left Joe Bellantoni blind, he will mark a milestone when he receives his MIT Executive MBA degree next week.
It’s just the latest accomplishment in a journey from a near-death experience to a life that now includes leading a charity and running marathons.
Beside him in all these endeavors is his wife, Denise Bellantoni. The two met as teenagers in a New Jersey suburb in the early 1980s. As a high schooler, Bellantoni was already business-savvy. His intellect and drive later propelled him through the ranks to become chief financial officer of the Crystal Springs Golf Resort, while his wife stayed home with their two sons and worked part time.
At the age of 45, Bellantoni was unaware he had diabetes, until he passed out behind the wheel of his Jeep on a New Jersey highway in July 2007. At 60 miles per hour, he lost control of his car as it slid under a lumber truck in front of him, then popped back out.
“The top of my car was sheared off … and somehow my seat reclined, otherwise I would have been [decapitated],” said Bellantoni, who does not remember that day. He broke his neck and all of his ribs on his left side, crushed his face, bit off his tongue, punctured his lung, and severed his arm and pinky finger.
After he was taken by helicopter to the hospital, the family’s older son Michael, a sophomore in college, was told to say his goodbyes. Their younger son, Matthew, a sophomore in high school, was away at Boy Scout camp.
Although his injuries were severe, Bellantoni recovered. When he left intensive care earlier than expected, and then left a rehabilitation facility earlier than expected, he was blind, but undaunted. Doctors could not give a reason for the blindness.
Just eight weeks after his accident he returned to work, and Denise Bellantoni took over where her husband’s eyesight left off. Bellantoni taught her to use a computer, and with her help, he resumed his job as if he had never been away. Upon his return to work, he traveled, completed acquisitions, including a reverse acquisition, and did many debt and equity transactions, all with his wife serving as his eyes.
“I was a fast learner, and I did it. I was his assistant for nine months … pro bono,” she said.
But Bellantoni, who overcame diabetes to the astonishment of his doctors, was bored. In 2009, he picked up running. He started training for his first race, the New York City marathon in less than nine weeks, and burned out his first treadmill at home. He discovered Achilles International, which provides volunteer runners to help people with disabilities and visual impairments navigate road races and other athletic events.
In 2009, he ran the New York City Marathon with five Achilles guides. Since then, Bellantoni has run more than 25 marathons, including three ultramarathons, eight triathlons, and competed in one Ironman triathlon. Not one to sit around, his wife laced up her running shoes, shed 40 pounds, and joined him in more than 100 races.
On April 15, 2013, Bellantoni was competing in the Boston Marathon with an Achilles International guide he had run with only once previously. Denise Bellantoni took advantage of VIP tickets and sat in the finish line bleachers. Around 11 a.m., Achilles International asked her to volunteer at its tent, and she agreed. She checked her watch not long before 3 p.m. Because Bellantoni always trained on a treadmill, she said, “You can set a watch to him.” Just as she remarked to someone that her husband was probably about done with the race, an explosion went off at the finish line. Initially, she thought it was a cannon in honor of Patriots’ Day, but when a second boom sounded seconds later, she knew something was wrong.
Denise Bellantoni had no way to reach her husband. Cell phone service providers were flooded with traffic that day as people tried to connect with one another and the circuits were overwhelmed, while the suspects in the bombings remained on the run.
“I was watching the news, and shaking really hard. … It was very disturbing, and there was no sign of Joe,” she said. Three people were killed and hundreds more were injured in the bombings, and MIT Police Officer Sean Collier was shot and killed by the bombers while they were on the run days later.
Bellantoni and his guide had been less than a mile away when the bombs exploded. They were diverted from the finish line.
“All of a sudden they stopped the race, and I thought maybe a car had hit somebody,” said Bellantoni, who did not hear the explosions. “Then, word started going around, and I started panicking because I knew Denise was at the finish line.”
Bellantoni credited his guide for inadvertently saving him. His original guide had canceled at the last minute, and the second guide had to make several unexpected stops during the last few miles. The delays kept them from being at the finish line when the bombs exploded.
“He’s like a cat with nine lives. He’s here for a reason,” Denise Bellantoni said.
Ignoring the limits
In 2010, the Bellantonis founded Blind Ambition Coalition, a nonprofit foundation where blind and disabled people meet up to snow tube, hike, sail, cook, go to movies, and do other activities including triathlon clinics at the Crystal Springs Resort with Achilles International athletes to enhance their quality of life. Denise Bellantoni was inspired to start the organization after she met with a local blindness foundation and asked for guidance on what activities blind people could do.
“They told me, ‘We have books on tape,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, and?’” she said.
The couple got their sons involved, and today they all help coordinate activities, including barbecues at their home.
In 2014 Bellantoni returned to Boston to run the marathon again and ran next to a student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He was inspired to apply to the MIT Executive MBA program, a 20-month, executive schedule MBA degree program, especially because of his interest in entrepreneurship. EMBAs, who typically have significant work experience, remain in their jobs while attending school for 26 weekends and four week-long modules.
A CFO for more than 20 years, Bellantoni is now vice president of strategic planning and corporate development at Crystal Springs Golf Resort. In his new position, and with his new degree, he will do more special projects and consulting.
“That’s all from my EMBA. When I come to class, I look for things to bring back to work. About 80 percent of my assignments have been work-related,” Bellantoni said.
Each time Bellantoni attends a weekend session at MIT Sloan, his wife accompanies him to classes. She guides him around campus and types up notes for him. Classmates and faculty have been impressed with how far Denise Bellantoni has come in assisting her husband, who uses accessibility programs to read documents to him on his computer.
“I have not seen a stronger bond between two partners,” said Vladimir Konopelko EMBA ’16. “Denise is Joe’s eyes and assistant, and she spends just as much time at MIT as him, just in a different capacity.”
Konopelko lived with the couple during the winter of 2014-2015, and, after Denise Bellantoni installed a white board in the kitchen, the three of them worked on Data, Models, and Decisions problems for hours together. Bellantoni worked extra-long hours.
“It was hard. It was a psychological challenge going back to school, and then going back to school not seeing,” Bellantoni said.
“Joe does not look at his blindness as a curse or something to dwell on, but rather yet another hurdle [to overcome],” Konopelko said.
MIT Sloan Professor Nelson Repenning, who teaches System Dynamics, was similarly awed by the pair’s dedication.
“Joe was a fabulous student by any measure, and his performance was made even more impressive by the fact that he did not have access to the large number of visuals we use in the courses I teach,” Repenning said. “It is a testament to Joe and Denise’s hard work and collaboration that he was able to get through the course so successfully. We should probably be giving a degree to Denise as well!”
“Denise has done a remarkable job in getting me through this whole thing,” Bellantoni said.
He also credited his EMBA classmates, as well as MIT staff members for assisting him in and out of class. “Everybody has been very supportive. I’ve worked with some great teams, and it’s been a good experience,” he said.