Wednesday, September 18, 2013

No easy life

Kenneth with his mother, Frances, early 1990s
(Fourth in a series)
     It's a tedious process, Kenneth Harvey maneuvering his wheelchair in and out of his customized van, maneuvering himself into the driver's seat. 
      What is noticeable when you meet the former Logansport, La., High School star athlete, paralyzed 49 years ago after a football-field mishap, is that his feet now point toward each other.
      He's not one to complain. He does note that it makes his switch from wheelchair to driver's seat more difficult. He can't turn as easily.
      This day in early September, he has on well-worn brown boots, and he's comfortable in them. Beats the bulky, heavy steel braces and "big 'ol shoes" doctors had him use after an earlier surgery to try to straighten his feet. (Another surgery now, with Kenneth in his 60s, they felt would be of uncertain success.)
       "My Lord, every time I put 'em on, it took forever," he said. "I said, 'No more.' "
       So the boots are fine.
       His hands are a little unsteady, but after he was first injured in November 1964 and after a month in a coma, he had no use of them. Gradually some feeling came back into his arms and hands, and his movements were spastic, but with work he gained control.
       When he returned to Logansport after a four-month hospital stay in Shreveport, his parents arranged for a set of parallel bars to be placed in their home. It was on those bars that he put to use the dedication and effort that helped make him an athlete of note.
        "He never gave up, he learned to support himself," former Logansport head football coach Johnny Haynes said. "He worked, and worked, and worked. He got to the point where he could manipulate his arms. He had to drag his legs along -- he could not stand on his own -- but he's learned to drive that van with hand controls."
Kenneth working on the parallel bars, which helped
him gain control of his arms and hands
        And he can dress, shave, and feed himself. Again, it takes effort through the shakiness. The day we had lunch, he had red beans and rice, drank sweet tea, and took care of his banana pudding in little time.
        The biggest problem he's had over the years, he says, is kidney stones -- five of them. He lists the years of each occurrence (the last one was 1995), and that he finally passed them, "but it liked to have killed me." When doctors tell him that there's more in there potentially and he'll need to try to pass them or face surgery, he says, "I know that."
         Kidney stones, he adds, "they say are more painful than a woman having a baby." I tell him my wife -- and women everywhere -- might argue that one.
         But his feet have cut into his exercise routine.
         Life "is fine, I guess," he replies to a question. "Getting a little older. Can't do nothing like what I used to could. I used to have those parallel bars I worked on when my feet weren't turned so. ..." 
        More on those parallel bars below.
        Frances Liles was 10 days short of being 15 but looked older when she married R.V. Harvey. After five years, Kenneth Wayne Harvey was born, but when he was two months old, Frances decided the marriage wasn't working and ended it.
        Kenneth never had a real relationship with his father, and rarely saw him again, even when he made contact early in Kenneth's senior year at Logansport High.
        Frances and Kenneth went back to her home to live with her parents, E.W. Liles, on farm land near Stanley, La., (close to Logansport); she took a beautician's course in Mansfield -- 20 miles away --  and eventually got a nice-paying job there.
        When Kenneth was 5, Lamar Williams entered their lives, and married Frances. Lamar was his given name; everyone called him Hank ... yes, Hank Williams.
         He was a schoolbus driver who transported the Logansport kids; he worked for Logansport Motors Inc. but owned the bus. He had, said longtime Logansport resident Mary McCasland Thompson, "a wonderful sense of humor."
Kenneth and Lamar "Hank" Williams, 1966
         Frances and Hank "were the most upbeat people," said John Russell, vice-president and branch manager of Community Bank in Logansport.
         Said Walter Shinkus, Kenneth's Logansport High football teammate, an All-State tackle: "They were nice old country folks. ... Everybody helped everyone else in those days around here."
         Kenneth, said former Logansport coach and DeSoto Parish schools superintendent Doug McLaren, "came from a fine family, and he reflected that. Always a 'yes sir, no sir' type kid. No trouble of any kind."
         Don't know how well he sang, but Hank was a perfect fit.
         "I mean to tell you," Kenneth said as we talked, "he was like a real dad."
         For the rest of their lives, Frances -- Kenneth always called her "Bubbie" -- and Hank continued to support Logansport High in its activities and looked after Kenneth.
         When he was injured, and in the hospital in Shreveport for four months, they rarely left his side, only when relieved by his coaches and other people from Logansport.
         Haynes, McLaren and the school band director also took over Hank's bus route for those months -- as their regular duties permitted -- so that Hank could remain on the payroll.
         Hank died at age 58 of a heart attack, and Frances then took over the bus route. Kenneth lived with her for more than 30 years until she passed away in 2003, and he says now, "I miss her in a lot of ways."
          But while Frances and Hank were Kenneth's big supporters, they were not his biggest fan. Terry was.
          They lost a baby in '53. The next year Frances and Hank gave Kenneth, 7, a  baby brother -- born with muscular dystrophy. Terry Williams was a kid who never walked, the kid who had Kenneth's heart always, and everyone else's.
           You want to see Kenneth animated, watch him talk about Terry.
           "Oh, my goodness," he says. "He had a mind like you wouldn't believe. They sent a teacher to the house ... (starting) in 1960 because he couldn't walk. Three days a week, Katie Poag ... then later, it was Mrs. [Elizabeth] McCasland, and they'd work with him."
            He'd sit in those women's lap and read and learn, and Kenneth said that in 1965, they "gave him over a dozen tests, and he passed at a third-grade level ... with straight A's." And he says it with pride.
      More importantly, it was Terry who gave Kenneth inspiration. When Kenneth came home, stuck in a hospital bed brought in, unable to move much at all, it was Terry -- by now in a wheelchair ("we used to carry him everywhere," said Kenneth) -- whose voice he kept hearing.
Terry Williams: The kid who captured
everyone's heart
      John Russell recalled Kenneth telling him how Terry motivated him in his recovery.
      "Terry would say, 'Are you going to just sit there? You've got to get up and do something,' " Russell said. "Kenneth will tell you that Terry pushed him."
       "He was the greatest physical therapy I ever had," Kenneth told The Shreveport Times' Vickie Welborn in 2009. "He was always challenging me." 
        Kenneth tells of the adventures and fun they had, despite their handicaps, Terry taking spins on a tricycle and a wagon they couldn't pull too fast for fear of his falling out.
        And then there were the days when Terry goaded Kenneth about his work on the parallel bars. He had walked up and down the bars five times "because I was used to doing that. He [Terry] said, 'Do a flip.' I said, "Are you crazy? I'm not doing that.' "
        Terry: "C'mon, chicken, do a flip."
         "I didn't do it that day," Kenneth continued, "but I knew what was going to be. Next day, he's back and he says, 'Turn a flip.' "
          And so Kenneth tried it. "I got back as far as I could," he recalled. "Didn't want to push very hard; I didn't want my heels to hit the ground. I got halfway over ... but because I hadn't pushed enough, I got stuck. ... I'm looking up at him and saying I'm supposed to be looking down at you. ... I had to get help [to get off the bars].
        "When we got through, he and I could've died laughing."
         Sadly, Terry would live only a couple more years, dying at age 13 in 1967. His big brother obviously has fond memories. 
         (Next: The town that loves him)         


  1. From Cynthia Aillet Murry: What a touching story. I have become a fan of Kenneth's, too.

  2. From Bobbie Childress: This series is awesome. Kenneth is one of the greatest inspirations any town could have. A hero in his own right. Grew up with him in Bethel Community and Bethel Church. He reminds me of the show "Walking Tall." Even though his feet don't support him upright, he does walk tall in my book. Love him like a brother. And by the way, I still attend church with him.

  3. From Maxie Hays: Nico, what an inspiration. I love this story. I lived in Mansfield four years and I never heard Kenneth Harvey's name mentioned. We even played Logansport in football. I never heard of him until you started this blog. I don't remember Doug McLaren ever mentioning his name to me. Kenneth and his little brother were very special to each other. How awesome. Brings tears. Can hardly wait for the next part.

  4. From Lanelle Fletcher Ragusa: What a story ... one minute you are smiling and swelling with joy; next minute tears are streaming.