Thursday, August 07, 2008

Remembering Johnny: A Tribute to John Mark Stallings

Johnny Stallings, 46, beloved son of Gene and Ruth Ann Stallings died earlier this week. What’s special about Johnny is that he was born with Downs syndrome. And what’s so special about his family is that they're a high profile clan, Gene being a professional football coach, now retired.

Photo courtesy Dallas Morning News

Coach Stallings was with the Dallas Cowboys when I crossed paths with the family in the early 80's. I saw them at church, filing into a pew in the auditorium: four lovely daughters and Johnny smack in the middle.

It was dear Johnny who touched people’s hearts. He certainly touched mine. I felt an immediate connection with him because then I was teaching special needs students at Irving High School. Not that Johnny would have reason to remember me. That boy had lots of fans.

When Johnny was born in 1962, few resources were available for a family with a special needs child. Having produced a handicapped child seemed grounds for embarrassment. At first, the Stallingses didn't know of one other family with a handicapped child. It was a very dark chapter for Johnny's parents. I will care for the girls, I will care for Johnny, but I will never again be happy, Ruth Ann had told Gene.

But what a difference a few years makes. It was Johnny's older sisters who led the way, spending hours with him daily after school, working with him. The day Johnny took his first steps was a turning point when his parents started to see Johnny through his sisters' eyes . Eventually Ruth Ann would come to say, I thank God every day for sending us Johnny.

Here are my own favorite memories of Johnny:
One Sunday night during children’s Bible class, I was sitting in the back and Johnny came up, sat down beside me and wanted to show off his new class ring. Now there's a typical graduating senior for you.

I remember the little birthday party the Stallingses threw for Johnny one Sunday evening in the fellowship hall. It must have been his 25th and just a small group of his favorite church pals were there. Ruth Ann was beaming, leading the bunch singing Happy Birthday. Gene was off on the sidelines looking on, obviously touched by the poignant scene.

One Thanksgiving weekend in the early 90's, I was spending the evening with dear friends in Abilene, Bill and Ann. It happens that their daughter-in-law is Anna Lee, Johnny's oldest sister. That evening Johnny called to talk and it was so fun overhearing Anna Lee telling Johnny how she had seen him on TV in the commercial he and his dad had done for The United Way. Oh Johnny, now you're a move star, she said.

For the rest of the story, you would enjoy Another Season: A Coach’s Story of Raising an Exceptional Son. When it first came out, I spotted it at some friends' house when they invited me over for dinner. I don't remember the dinner menu, who else was there or what we (they) talked about. But I do remember devouring the book that evening, then going out and grabbing a copy for myself and one for a friend who had a Downs syndrome baby. It's such an uplifting story.

A special salute to the Stallings family for their example, for showing how to adjust to having a special child in the family. And a tribute to Johnny for just being himself, a guy for loved people for who they are.

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