Boston Marathon principal sponsor John Hancock Financial this morning unveiled a sculpture of Rick and Dick Hoyt in front of Center School in Hopkinton, Massachusetts near the start line of the world famous marathon. The life-sized statue was commissioned by John Hancock and sculpted by Texas artist Mike Tabor.
The piece is titled, “YES YOU CAN!” and represents Team Hoyt’s goal of helping those who are physically disabled become active members of the community. Next Monday April 15th the Hoyts will compete in their 31st Boston Marathon.
These days the Hoyts have a world-wide following, and are an inspiration to countless thousands. But I can remember when the Hoyts got started racing. Back then it was a personal matter, two people with shared DNA and a common love for a sport. They weren’t thinking of what their passion for running might exemplify or represent beyond themselves. That’s the best kind of inspiration, the unintended kind.
In the late 1970s the WACKY 102 Five-Mile Road Race in Springfield, Massachusetts offered a television set as its first-place prize. That TV and the promise of a good time — in the race and after — was enough to draw athletes like Greg Meyer, Randy Thomas, and Bobby Hodge. Even 1976 10,000 meter Olympian Garry Bjorklund was on hand from Minnesota.
The first mile was a gentle downhill, as I recall, and as I hit the split in just under 5:00 I remember coming up on a man pushing a younger man in a wheelchair. My first thought was, “damn, that guy is fast”, rather than “isn’t that an inspiration.” Needless to say, it was Dick and Rick Hoyt just being part of the New England road racing scene, before fame came calling.
But we have to also remember that not very long before that race and those good times the idea of a boy with cerebral palsy joining in a mainstream anything was unheard of, and certainly unseen. Believe me, I know.
I ONCE KNEW A FAMILY
I once knew a family in St. Louis, six children in a portrait hung gilded above a couch in a fine brick house along a grassy suburban way. Each child glowed, golden of hair, brilliant in smile, three girls and three boys, arranged by age, all in a row, hair brushed neatly beneath a mother’s persuading hand. Like a poster promising a future as bright as their smiles, the painting reflected America at the crest of her century, when the high banking sun banished every shadow, every worry, save the abstract of the Communist nuclear threat.
But for all its gilded perfection this painting of the family I once knew in St. Louis hung incomplete above the chenille-covered couch in the fine brick house along the grassy suburban way. Absent its frame was a family member who never felt the reflected wonder of the artist’s brush, whose smile never gleamed, whose hair never fell neatly beneath the stroke of his mother’s careful hand. The child missing from the painting above the chenille-covered couch was, in fact, incapable of standing in a row beside his golden sisters and brothers, and what abundant smiles he offered shared no reference with those of his idealized siblings.
This oldest brother of those perfectly captured smiles in the painting hung so proudly above the chenille-covered couch was born with severe cerebral palsy in the early 1940s, a time when that affliction was yet to be fully understood. His name was Billie, and though first-born he didn’t make it onto the painting above the chenille-covered couch beside the perfect smiles all in array. Children who weren’t perfect weren’t memorialized in art at that time. Instead, they were often placed in institutions, which had been the advice of doctors, for “he would never be able to look out for himself”. Nor, the doctors concluded, would he in all likelihood survive to the age of twenty.
But his parents, this couple of hard-working American people, took their own counsel rather than that of their doctor’s.
“I’ll earn the money,” declared his father.
“And I will stay home and care for him,” replied his wife.
“And we will never look back and question our decision,” they agreed.
In all, six more children would come into the family I once knew in St. Louis, all with perfect smiles, if imperfect souls. And together they lived as families do, at times happily, at times troubled within their fine brick house along the grassy suburban way, which is where I first met them in the spring of 1970 when I came to call upon their second daughter.
In the fashion of the day I wore my hair long and my attitude short in Whitman-like communion with a generation that saw conformity as symptomatic of society’s ills. I rarely found common ground with the parents of this family I once knew in St. Louis, nor could they reconcile me.
It was a time when long hair was a flag flying the colors of generational change, an intrusion into a family in search of normative success, a family which had known hard times, and now wanted for their children more than what long, challenging hair implied.
A first sighting of Billie produced shock as he sat queerly upon the chenille-covered couch in the fine brick house along the grassy suburban way. You tried not to stare, but it was difficult not to. Like a Picasso painting come to life, Billie slouched, draped in a plain white tee- shirt and bundled below in a diaper. His over-sized head rested awkwardly atop his twisted, emaciated body, though his face often broke into a smile canted in a Cubist-drawn way.
“Billie Bender” is what his brothers called him in their cruel adolescence. Billie never spoke a word, never walked a step. At the family table my soon-to-be mother-in-law would spoon feed Billie by hand, wiping his face while speaking to him as if he was fully responsible for all his actions.
“Billie, stop it,” she would admonish whenever food would fall helplessly from his mouth, even as an impish smile would betray itself across his off-kilter face. “Now eat your peas!”
Unfortunately, no one realized at the time that trapped within that disfigured, wasted body, was most likely the semblance of an unfettered mind. But though gaunt and macabre, Billie’s innate sweetness began to reveal itself the more I visited. It got to the point that whenever I’d come to the fine brick house on the grassy suburban way he would make his guttural “come say hello” greeting until I’d come over to the chenille-covered couch and rub his burr head, causing him to break into that lopsided, Wheat Chex grin of his.
Over time I came to care for Billie, and he for me, though at first our bonding was based on my disengagement from his parents. Whenever his father would drive me from the family room with another insensitive or prejudicial utterance, I would drift into Billie’s company.
With him I found an easy camaraderie, just a couple of outsiders hanging out. And all he ever requested was no sports on TV. Whenever a game would come on he would bang his malformed foot on the ground and let out a throaty disconsolate grunt until the channel was changed. I only wish he had lived long enough to have seen the Jerry Springer Show. He would have loved seeing so many others twisted by fate.
Not too long after I entered this family I once knew in St. Louis, I moved to another city far away to begin life anew without their second daughter. In the ensuing years I managed to see Billie on rare visits until his death in 1984. With the love and attention of his parents, Billie lived more than twice the years predicted by his doctors, finally succumbing to the strain which his sclerotic spine placed on his all-too-weak heart.
Only the immediate family attended Billie’s burial. His mother read over his grave. The news of his passing was at first kept from me, because I was in Los Angeles covering the 1984 Olympics, and my ex-wife didn’t want to inhibit my working trip. Though later I was told that the family I once knew, whose parents so disapproved of me, in the end they wished that maybe I had been there, too, for I had been Billie’s one true friend, and he had been mine.
Time has a way of separating us from our own past, and I no longer see the family I once knew in St. Louis. Their second daughter is re-married now, properly. Her father died several years ago, my ex-mother-in-law joined him late in 2012 at the age of 93. Yet despite what personal differences we might have had long ago, their care for Billie became the defining aspect by which I would always most remember this family I once knew in St. Louis.
No, the promise of those gleaming smiles first captured by the artist over 50 years ago never fully materialized, for “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth”, as Pablo Picasso once said. Notwithstanding, I still see them as they were in their gilded frame, but now, rather than six, there are seven, all in a row, each smile its own, six gleaming, one not, each captured as when the perfect six were first hung in a gilded frame above the chenille-covered couch in the fine brick house along their grassy suburban way: a family finally and fully complete.
Go get ‘em next Monday, Dick and Rick. I know Billie will be pulling for you.