IN March 2014, I wrote a column which began: "Every now and again, amidst all the stresses and strains, something happens to make it all worthwhile."

It was inspired by a diminutive but remarkable man called Paul Conway, whose funeral takes place on Teesside tomorrow.

The something that happened to make it all worthwhile four years ago was Paul sending me one of the most uplifting letters I'd received in my time as editor of The Northern Echo. He'd wanted to give me an update on how he was doing since winning the Remarkable Achievement Award at our Local Heroes night the previous December.

The award was in recognition of Paul's fightback from a stroke and the new sense of direction he'd found from riding horses competitively. And what a truly remarkable achievement it was.

A talented athlete, who'd trained with Steve Cram in his younger days, Paul had been preparing to represent Great Britain in the marathon at the Over- 40s World Championships in Australia in 2003 when a stroke left him paralysed down one side of his body.

His life was shattered. He spent nearly a year in hospital and ended up in a specialist unit in Newcastle, initially spending up to 50 per cent of his time in a wheelchair.

Paul struggled to find a sense of purpose until consultant psychologist, Dr Paula Heath, who'd become a friend and supporter, took him to the Riding for the Disabled Association's Unicorn Centre in Hemlington, Middlesbrough.

He hadn’t sat on a horse before but he loved it, sensing straight away that it was good for improving his core strength and balance. Ten months later, he won an award, presented by Clare Balding, for being the RDA's most improved rider, and that was quickly followed by the Local Heroes honour.

It was clearly a struggle for Paul to write his letter, but this is what he said back in 2004:

“I do so much with my award you gave me. I visit the disabled children and adults and tell them never to give in to disability. I tell them about riding therapy and show them my award. I got a new hat with the prize money you gave me. What was left, I gave to the centre so children can have therapy if they can’t afford it.

“I told you all at The Northern Echo that I would make you proud that you gave me the award. I’ve just gained a first place rosette in dressage so I kept my word, didn’t I?

“Sorry for my spelling but I am still having lessons to learn to read and write again but they tell me I’m doing OK. Kind regards.”

Paul suffered a heart attack in May and needed cardiac surgery. His first thought upon leaving hospital was to get a letter signed by the doctors to say he could go back to riding his beloved horse, Alfie at the Unicorn Centre. Sadly, Paul's health deteriorated, he suffered another stroke and, this time, didn't wake up.

"The centre was so special to Paul," said Dr Heath. "It helped him enormously, not just physically but mentally too. He was surrounded by lovely people who cared for him and gave him a new sense of purpose. He might have only been five feet four but he had a massive personality."

They will miss that massive personality at the Unicorn Centre but Paul will continue to have a role there even after his death. The centre, opened in 1998, is entirely self-funded, and costs £250,000 a year to run, with the help of 100 volunteers. In this, its 20th anniversary year, the team are striving to raise nearly £50,000 to buy an equine simulator to enhance the facilities which benefit 232 riders every week.

Paul's inspirational story will continue to be highlighted whenever bids for grants are made. He was also a registered organ donor so his legacy will also live on in others.

Nominations will soon be opened for the latest Local Heroes Awards, which will this year be sponsored by Cummins Engines to mark the company's centenary. The ceremony will take place at Wynyard Hall on December 6 and Paul will be among those remembered in the "Gone But Not Forgotten" section.

His funeral takes place at midday at St Joseph's RC Church in his home village of Norton, near Stockton-on-Tees, and donations in lieu of flowers are to be made to the Unicorn Centre. That's precisely what Paul would have wished - just as he wanted his Local Heroes prize-money to help others to benefit from riding horses.

Paul Conway, Local Hero, RIP.