When I was speaking with Pastor Ben on the phone I read to him a portion of a letter that had been sent to my grandparents after Johnny’s death in 1969. It was from Ruth Conner, a member of his congregation from nearly 50 years ago. It was a condolence letter to my grandparents, Ruth and John (he went by “Gib” because of his middle name, Gilbert), because their son had just died at the age of 28. The Morgan Park Presbyterian Church had been my grandparents’ home congregation for many years while raising their son. Even though they had moved away some time earlier, their church family responded with compassion when Johnny died.
Ruth Conner wrote, “I want to do something to mark Johnny’s memory, and rather than send flowers or some perishable thing, I should like to give a memorial to his name to the church. We are just furnishing our fireside room with silver appointments and I have been busy purchasing items and having them engraved..I will probably purchase a small silver bowl to be used to take up sunshine fund money when circle meetings are held in the Fireside Room, and give it to church in memory of Johnny Tharp. Is this idea OK with you, or would you rather a check to the Memorial Fund to be used as needed? I’ll await your decision as to how the memorial is to be given. Lovingly, Ruth Conner”
I asked Pastor Ben if they had a storage area somewhere in the church that was the repository for things of the distant past? Every church I’ve served has some dank, dusty space with engraved items that are long since forgotten. I wondered if my grandparents had agreed to Ruth’s lovely suggestion and, if so, was it possible that there would be a silver bowl tucked into obscurity in the building that hosted his spiritual family? If so, I thought it would be very meaningful to hold it out to the congregation in the sermon I was going to preach the following week in their worship service.
I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for Johnny. He was my mother’s brother, born when she was seven years old. Her older sister, Marguerite, was 11. Johnny was a healthy child until he was born. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck thus depriving him of oxygen. At the time he was delivered he had a diagnosis of severe cerebral palsy. He would require life-long care for a greatly diminished life expectancy. His birth marked a seismic shift for my mother‘s family.
An important place for me to visit during the summer of my Roots exploration was Morgan Park, Illinois. This is a neighborhood on the very south end of Chicago. My grandparents moved away from Hyde Park when my mother was about four years old. They moved to Morgan Park, a nice suburb with appealing neighborhoods and a quieter life than Chicago offered. Knowing that we would be there over a weekend I looked up the contact information for the church where my mother was married, Morgan Park Presbyterian Church. It is still a vital congregation serving their community! So I had the audacity to email the pastor, asking if I might be given the privilege of preaching in the very sanctuary where my mother grew up as a girl and where my parents were married. Pastor Ben was excited to have me come. I love courageous pastors who are open to the movement of the Spirit! I imagined my sermon would be a message of gratitude for the support their forebears had offered to my mother. It gave her a firm footing in her Christian faith, the gift that kept on giving to the six of us kids. But my conversation with the pastor changed my intended preaching direction. He said he was grateful that I could preach for him on that particular Sunday because the following week they were hosting a Vacation Bible School for neighborhood children. That would give him extra time to prepare. Hearing of their continued commitment to nurturing the spiritual life of kids, I realized that I wanted to talk to this congregation about their past support of a family with a special needs child whose name was Johnny.
My husband, two sisters, one niece and two great nieces went with me to the worship service. We brought with us various documents and items related to the life of our grandparents’ family in their church. We had the certificate of enrollment for Johnny in the Cradle Roll Program. Johnny was born in 1940 and this was a popular way for congregations to welcome children, aged newborn through four years old, into the life of a supportive church family. Johnny’s certificate assured the Tharps that their brothers and sisters in Christ would tend to his spiritual needs faithfully!
We have letters that indicate that the integration of a special needs child into the family was challenging. My mother, Katie, and her sister, Marguerite, were in the care of their grandmother for some time while my grandmother recovered from Johnny’s birth. Marguerite wrote a letter to her mother while waiting for the family to be reunited at home: “Dear mom, so the baby is a boy eh, that’s fine. Were all fine here and I hope you are…Lots of Love, Marge” This was only the beginning of the extended family helping out with the care of my grandparents’ family as the focus shifted in the direction of Johnny and his medical needs. Three of my great grandparents were alive and living in the Chicago area. In various letters they spoke of their concern for Johnny to get the best treatment possible. My grandfather‘s mother had been widowed 10 years earlier and, since she had a special needs daughter, her heart was particularly attuned to Johnny’s challenges.
Letters from my grandmother’s parents, who lived in the Chicago Loop, convey a tenderness they felt toward this little boy whose life changed so severely at the moment of birth. At one point they sold some real estate so that they could help pay for the best medical attention possible. My great grandmother’s wording is funny because she doesn’t want to be intrusive but assures her daughter that they are grateful to be able to offer financial assistance.
Some of the letters we still have are from doctors stretching from Maryland to California. My grandparents sought out the best answers from the most skilled professionals of their day. Johnny was referred to as “a spastic.“ There were countless doctors’ appointments with follow up home visit from nurses who did physical and cognitive exercises with this precious crippled boy. Johnny had a fairly sharp mind although it was difficult to fully discern his intellectual capabilities. The only control he had was the movement of his eyes. So he would look up to answer yes and look down to answer no. He also had very expressive feet that kicked energetically when he was excited.
Johnny was a beautiful boy. There are poignant photographs that show my grandparents looking down at their golden-haired son. They adored him! He was named after my grandfather – John Gilbert Tharp, Jr. His severe Cerebral Palsy deprived his body of a normal growth pattern. My grandparents were committed to caring for him in their home as long as possible. This became increasingly burdensome for my grandmother. As he grew into early adolescence, he became too lanky and heavy for my grandmother to move him on her own. Providentially my grandparents received an inheritance from two of my grandmother’s aunts who were college educated and had never married. They doled out their money to their nieces giving extra allotments to the two nieces who had special needs children. This unexpected income allowed my grandparents to find the best possible home for Johnny. It also allowed my grandfather to retire from the physically demanding career of working in the steel mills in Indiana. The decision to put Johnny in a care facility was a very difficult one that they delayed for as long as possible. When they finally did admit him to a reputable home in Illinois, my grandmother went to bed for two months, exhausted and brokenhearted.
I knew Johnny from the early part of my childhood. Since we are a military family we moved around a lot. But we always tried to go to Michigan in the summer to be on the lakefront. The Lake Michigan property was bought by my grandfather‘s father, Edgar, in the 1890’s. It was and still is sacred land for our family. We would inevitably visit Johnny at his residential home on the way. We picked up a milkshake for him at McDonald’s on our way in because that was a real treat and something that he could eat. He lit up when he saw my mother and she loved him dearly. Both of Johnny’s sisters became social workers due, in no small part, to their firsthand experience dealing with the needs of a person with severe impairments. Johnny was a favorite among the staff members and became a beloved part of his new community. We are best able to understand this through the letters that came to my grandparents at the time of his death. Johnny died on New Year’s day in 1969. He was a few months shy of his 29th birthday. I read through a stack of condolence cards that expressed deep faith in a God who created and loved Johnny. Many of the cards came from members of Morgan Park Presbyterian Church where members had pledged to care for this child. My grandparents had since moved out of the area to North Carolina but the friendships were deep.
The minister, William Graham, sent a note on church stationary: “Dear Friends, There comes with this note our expressions of gratefulness for the Tharp family who knew always the presence of God’s blessings. Although we cannot always interpret the ways of life, God brings the best of life to the surface. We share with you these moments… William Graham.” My mother‘s cousin, Charles Seymour, wrote a beautiful letter that is practically a Sunday school lesson: “…You should never condemn yourselves for Johnny’s apparent condition during the past years. The truth is revealed in ST. JOHN 9 (1-3): ‘And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.’ Actually, your Johnny always was perfect and always will be perfect. With love, Chic”
The faith of my grandparents’ community was deep and abiding. No one railed at God for saddling the Tharp family with a special needs child. Rather, they had seen God‘s glory through Johnny’s happy personality and the kind treatment of so many individuals over the course of his life. Just as Jesus taught that disability is not a result of sin, it was obvious that God was glorified through the life of this handicapped child. Even the caregivers were deeply impacted by his death. One of them wrote this note to my grandparents: “Dear Mr. & Mrs. Tharp, I just came back to work after my night off and Mrs. Kerley told me the sad news about our Johnny. My heart aches for you…It is hard to understand…why Johnny should be taken when he had so much love and some of our little ones haven’t even had a post card in the 3 1/2 years I have been night watch on A.Inf #1. We had so much to talk about in your letters and cards. I’ve often wanted to write you but never got up the nerve. Do you remember writing John about Mr Tharp’s coconut birthday cake a couple years ago. Johnny would almost kick the sides out of his bed he would get so excited whenever I’d mention it to him. He never forgot it. Or if you were coming to see him or called that time. I could go on and on about the many ways you made him happy. He was very sensitive you know and even though he couldn’t talk much he told you a world of things with his pretty blue eyes and those feet…Well I have 40 other little ones needing my attention but I just had to write. All our prayers are with you and may God bless you for being such wonderful parents. I only wish we had more like you. Sincerely, Maxine Arold.”
Particularly bittersweet was the note written to them from one of Johnny’s house mates. My grandparents became beloved mother and father to many of the children there and visited as often as they were able. They sent gifts to Johnny and sometimes to some of the other children. This young man must have been on the receiving end of their care because he proposed, in his own special language, that he would happily become their son now that Johnny had died: “Dear Mr. and Mrs. J.B.Tharp,….That it is to bad to here about him that he pass away New Year Day. When you come I would like to know if I could take his place. The sun of anlgel the Star go bright I now he is in heaven you can see his face I hear mama calling him don’t worry he right besight you. Mrs Tharp I to find out if I could call you Mother and Mr. Tharp if I could call you Father when will you be out this summer. I got your Christmas Present you send me and was very glad to get it. You know that Jueus love him just as much as Johnny Jueus will alway love Johnny and that is all for now. Fred Jensen”
I remember my mother getting the phone call from her parents that Johnny had died. She wept with them. I would have been nine years old. My grandparents decided to bury him in Taylor Cemetery, just a couple of miles from the beloved farmhouse where my grandfather spent his summers and, one generation later, my mother did too. He rests under the shade of a tree in the good company now of his parents, sisters and other family members. The letters, photos and other documents enabled me to get to know and love Johnny and grieve the loss of an uncle who might have added his own children (my cousins) to the family tree.
I thanked the membership at Morgan Park Presbyterian Church for their commitment to the spiritual nurture of children. Specifically, I was grateful for one little special needs boy named Johnny Tharp who was on their Cradle Roll 78 years ago. My family and I had a wonderful time talking with people after the service, getting caught up with “family” we had never known. As we packed up the memorabilia we had brought, Pastor Ben emerged from the church basement with a shiny bowl in his hands. He held it out to us joyfully. He had dug around in their dusty repository of old and forgotten items and found an inscribed silver bowl: In loving memory of John Tharp. We were incredulous! And moved. Many links to our past are intangible. But every so often an unexpected gift surfaces that reminds us of the concreteness of human existence. The pastor insisted we take it with us–they had plenty of other lovely memorial items in their dark closet if they needed any! We held it gingerly and looked at the beautiful cursive writing of our uncle’s name. Accepting the gift, we took it to our family cottage on the shores of Lake Michigan where it was part of the reception table set out for 18 young adults and children who are his grand nieces and nephews. Somehow it felt to me like Johnny had finally come home.
(The artwork depicting Johnny was done by my nephew, Daniel. I keep it hanging in my kitchen and love it!)