Thursday, September 19, 2013

The town that loves Mr. Kenneth

       (Fifth in a series)
       Kenneth Harvey has lived alone in the Logansport (La.) Seniors Apartments for a decade, since his mother passed away. Gaynell Straus -- Aunt Gay -- is the person who looks after his well-being.
       She is his mother's younger sister. She was 13 when Kenneth was born, and says, "I was a built-in babysitter. I felt like Kenneth was half mine."
        She attends to his needs, makes sure he's OK financially, that things are in order at his specially designed apartment for handicapped, and that he gets enough to eat.
Kenneth with his mother, grandmother and
Aunt Gay, mid-1980s
        The Logansport community always has been supportive of the former star athlete, paralyzed in a football mishap in 1964. Fund-raising drives -- organized by then-Logansport High principal W.H. Jackson -- and a benefit show with a country/western star (Jimmy Jay) shortly after the accident and with help from benevolent funds at Kenneth's church and other churches through the years, financial help has been steady.
         There are, to this day, people who regularly send Kenneth money, in addition to what insurance was available and what Medicare/Medicaid provides.
         Aunt Gay, like everyone else, loves Kenneth's attitude toward life despite his physical limitations.
        "I've never seen him mad or angry or impatient," she says. "If I make a suggestion, and he might not agree, he won't say anything. If I say, 'You didn't like that, did you?' he will reply, "No, m'am.' But he's never mad."
        One of her suggestions made several years ago -- that Kenneth go out, in his wheelchair and van and get a hot meal at a restaurant every day he can -- leads to an interesting angle.
        The apartments are located on U.S. Highway 84 headed east toward Mansfield, no more than a mile from the intersection with Louisiana Highway 5 that goes north toward Shreveport. Almost directly across from the apartments is the Logansport Truck Stop, with the Sabine River Restaurant is attached in the back.
         On good-weather days, Kenneth will guide his wheelchair out of the apartment complex over to the restaurant. It's a trip of maybe 200 yards. It's easier than loading himself into the van, driving, and unloading himself.
          Yes, he goes across the highway.
           "Sometimes," he concedes, "the trucks stop for me."
          When he's telling this story, the three people listening -- I'm one -- look at each other and think, "OK."
           "Sure, we worry about him," says Aunt Gay. "But he's been doing this a long time. If it's his time, the Lord will decide."
            It's the same sentiment an older man -- who confirms the story -- shares at the restaurant when I go to visit and ask about Kenneth.
            There are five people in the restaurant when I go in. When I mention Kenneth, they all have something to say.
            "He's here every other day," says a young, petite waitress. "Sits at No. 14 (she points to the table on her right). Drinks sweet tea, orders a meal and has strawberry pie. Always wears a hat with some funny saying on it, different hats on different days.
           "And when I ask him how he's doing, he always answers, 'I'm mean as ever.' "
           That, of course, is a laugh.
           Another older man then says, "He's always in a good mood."
           As I leave the truck stop, I ask the woman at the cash register about his visits.
            "Everybody loves Mr. Kenneth," she says.
           After his accident and his long rehabilitation, when he regained some use of his arms and hands and learned to drive the van with hand controls, Kenneth finished his high school credits, earning a GED by taking some courses at a rehab facility in Shreveport.
            When he was awarded the diploma from Caddo Parish, it read "Fair Park High School." He tells this story, still with some amazement. "Don't know why," he says.
           "I told them I wanted it to say Logansport High School; that's where I'm from." It was quickly changed.
          His college athletic dreams shattered, he tried some college courses. But his memory loss and impaired vision -- he was 20/20 before the accident -- made it difficult to read and to concentrate, and caused him stress. It didn't work.
      For eight years, 1985-93, Kenneth moved to Longview, Texas, where Aunt Gay and her husband had moved. He worked in the garden supplies store they owned and lived in apartments close to them, where his maternal grandmother also lived.
      It also brought him close to a friend, who actually was a distant relative.
Linda Gamble, with Kenneth on his "Day" in 2009
 (Ben Daily photo)
      Linda Gamble is a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee who was a girls basketball superstar before the girls game really took off. Just a couple years younger than Kenneth, she shattered records at Central High of Grand Cane -- close to Logansport -- and then played at Ouachita Baptist. She was a U.S. international player in the late 1960s and early 1970s; by the 1980s, she was the girls coach at Pine Tree High in Longview.
        She was happy to reconnect with Kenneth and made him part of her program.
        "He was a regular at our ballgames; we did enjoy having him being around our team," said Gamble, who would escort Kenneth to her team's games -- which mostly were in the aftrernoon -- and also arranged for him to speak at team sports banquets and church groups in the area.
        "Oh, I enjoyed that," said Kenneth. "She had basketball talent. She was a tremendous player, you know. She just didn't have the [playing] talent [to be a big winner as a coach."
        Lin remains a good friend.
        "He's a fine, fine guy," she said a couple of weeks ago. "It's amazing to me the attitude he's always had with all that's happened to him. He's a joy to be around. He radiates that positive side; he was always so positive, he wouldn't let you see anything but the bright side of life."
       When the Logansport Seniors Apartments were built and opened in 1993, the timing was right for Kenneth to return home, to live with his mother. For a time, he worked at the DeSoto Parish Library branch.
        Which segues into our Sept. 5 visit at the new DeSoto Parish Library branch, a sparkling $2.3 million building -- paid in full, no debt, thanks to money from the Haynesville Shale. It is located on Highway 5 just up from the U.S. 84 intersection, on the right side going north.
         The library staff, cheerful and helpful, proud of the building and eager to show it off, took us on a tour while we waited for Kenneth to arrive. It is spacious, with plenty of conventional books and audio books, six computers (all in use when we were there), a neat children's area, a history/research room, several roomy meeting areas and a couple of comfortable patio areas. 
         It was Kenneth's first visit to the branch and he had a little trouble finding it. When he finally arrived and we entered, the library staff -- Teri, Patricia, Angela, Joshua, among others --  came over to say hello to the familiar guy in the wheelchair and welcome him to their new home.
         They reminded him of when he worked in the old branch -- downtown.
         "Oh, yeah, I remember," he said. Then he sheepishly added, "I haven't been here before. I didn't know where it was exactly."
         One woman, Sue, knew Kenneth -- "I live in his apartment complex," she explained -- and asked what was happening. Told he was being interviewed, she inquired about how to receive the article(s). Her e-mail address was recorded.
         "He's just a great person," she said. "I wasn't here [in Logansport] when he was hurt, but I've heard about it."
         Later, the branch manager -- Linda -- greeted Kenneth enthusiastically and told the visiting writer that it was her brother-in-law's station wagon that carried the injured football player to Shreveport that night in 1964.                                  
          A couple of hours later, when we went to eat at the not-so-new but popular restaurant across the street, the greetings had the same enthusiasm. "Kenneth, darling, we haven't seen you in a while," our waitress said. 
           "He's always welcome in here," she then told the two guys with him. "We love to see him."           
          (Next: A grand day in Logansport)


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