A Special Christmas Gift
I could do without gifts for the holidays, in fact I’d prefer it. That said, I did get one very special item from my mother-in-law this year. It’s a jacket that my late father-in-law, Larry, wore proudly. There’s a story behind it that tells a lot about an important chapter in my life, and something in which many of you have generously shared.
I joined the Board of Directors for Special Olympics Wisconsin this past fall. My involvement with the organization has a deeply personal connection, but it didn’t start that way.
It started with small deeds, encouraged by Milwaukee area staffers with SOWI. They often have local news types come out to act as MC for the opening ceremonies. As such, I would welcome people to softball, swimming, bowling, volleyball, what-have-you. I would thank the sponsors, announce a few of the athletes and coaches, and then stick around for some high-fives. No big deal. I still do this at events as often as I can.
My relationship with Special Olympics grew over the years. The athletes and their families are so welcoming, so thankful, and so inspiring that I found myself wanting to be around them. What’s more, I began to truly understand the difference SOWI can make in the lives of people with mental challenges, like my Uncle Roger.
Well, he’s my uncle by marriage, anyway. My wife’s uncle, who’s now in his mid-fifties, was born with Down Syndrome. By the time I knew him, Special Olympics had become an important part of his life, and he has competed for the better part of 30 years.
Roger was born at a time when children with Down Syndrome were routinely institutionalized. They certainly were not expected to live any sort of decent life. Roger’s family went another way. They raised him with love, and with high expectations, but it was a tough. My mother in-law told me, “When (Roger) was young and growing up he never had friends to play with and never had a friend over to his house or played any kind of sports.”
That changed when Roger turned 18, and began competing in Special Olympics. Turns out he was a decent athlete, but an even better teammate. He had many friends, and was finally in a place where he and his family could celebrate him. That jacket comes from the World Games in Connecticut, where Roger won the gold medal in golf.
When I first started coming around dating my would-be wife… Uncle Rog made me nervous. It wasn’t him. It was me. I was worried I’d say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing. I remember telling Larry I was unsure how to act around him.
Larry told me something that stuck with me forever. It guides me to this day as I interact with our athletes at Special Olympics. “You don’t have to ACT any way,” he explained. “Just be yourself, and Roger is going to be himself.”
Simple, but wise. You know, that’s a pretty good formula for living life, no matter who you’re around.
Sadly, Uncle Roger outlived his brother. We lost my father-in-law to cancer a few years ago. Roger claims he’s retired from Special Olympics now. So this all takes on new meaning to me. Somebody has to carry the torch (pun absolutely intended) for this family. It’s a family that has benefited immeasurably from the spirit of Special Olympics. With your help and support, I hope to continue that legacy, and help provide that experience for generations of athletes to come.