I recently became involved in The Nora Project, teaching children empathy for peers who have disabilities and based in a Chicago suburb just miles from where I was raised. I have been reflecting on my childhood influences that once steered me to invent special education technologies and now attract me to this project. The block where I was raised happened to be home to many people who lived with disabilities. My dad, who played the role of neighborhood Santa Claus, helped one such person to secure a nice job at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. In this holiday season, I offer my story. It is a story of empathy, making a difference, and helping others to make the world a better place.
There were five people with disabilities living on my block in suburban Glencoe, Illinois when I was a little boy. Even then, as a child, I knew this was unique. Tommy was my age, had cerebral palsy, and occasionally attended our local elementary school. Doug, a few years younger, had Downs Syndrome and loudly barked out signals while wearing an over-sized helmet as he quarterbacked his one-man imaginary football game in his driveway at the end of the block. Mrs. Berlin across the street was known to have mental illness and was famous for the time when she sat naked on the roof until the firemen rescued her to safety. Our next-door neighbors on one side had a young child with significant disabilities, institutionalized and out of sight. Our next-door neighbors on the other side included Marla, a young adult with Downs. You simply could not avoid disability awareness on my block.
Then there was Marla’s friend, Geebee. He was a lot older than me, the oldest child in a family that included one of my brother’s close friends, Pete. Geebee would frequently visit Marla next door, arriving with his lunch box held in an arm-forward, raised-hand grip that belied his developmental delays. People would say that Geebee had the mind of a child. His name was articulated in a diminutive and endearing inflection: Geebee. Only now, many years later, have I learned his real name consisted of the initials G-P. Perhaps it stood for Graham Patrick or Gavin Phillip. All I recall hearing was Geebee, the man with disabilities whose name was as endearing as his posture while holding his lunch box. Geebee was to receive a big gift from our local Santa Claus.
Santa Claus started showing up at my house every year on Christmas Eve when I was about four years old. I’m talking about the REAL Santa. He had a long, white beard, a perfect red outfit with shiny black boots, and he bellowed, “Ho, Ho, Ho” as he bounded into our kitchen door, larger than life, with a big sack of toys flung over his shoulder.
By the time I was eight I had come to realize that Santa was actually my dad. Every year on Christmas Eve, he would invent a dramatic tale about a broken-down vehicle in his trucking company that needed an immediate and distant rescue. He’d leave the house, surreptitiously slip into his costume, and reappear as Santa. Word was that he served as Santa for other households as well, but we never really discussed this much. He just loved to give. I think I took this for granted as a child growing up. I figured that this is what all dads did. They helped their co-workers and they helped kids. My father didn’t limit this giving spirit to the holiday season. He and my mother were always giving, especially to those they saw as less fortunate. In this spirit, they also encouraged me to be kind to all of those with disabilities on our block.
Just as my father’s trucking business provided the ruse for his Santa Claus role, so did his prior business create the opening for the gift he gave to Geebee. He had previously worked with my grandfather in their family-owned furniture company. They sold European-framed furnishings from a showroom in Chicago’s near north side, not too far from Wrigley Field. One of my dad’s customers was Jack Brickhouse, the legendary Chicago Cubs broadcaster who was famous for calling out “Hey – Hey, Ernie!” each time Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, hit one of his 512 home runs. My father successfully approached Jack Brickhouse with a proposal to hire Geebee as his personal assistant. I was so proud. My dad had initiated the arrangement. Jack Brickhouse had taken the leap of faith. And Geebee had a job! Back then, this was a big deal.
I saw Geebee working at Wrigley a few times while attending Cubbies games and, each time, it really touched me. If memory serves me right, Jack Brickhouse sat in a raised press box on the first base line. The ballpark had metal, fenced-in staircases that connected the lower deck concessions to press boxes that were suspended beneath the upper deck. Every now and then, I’d see Geebee proudly carrying food and drinks up those exposed stairs, holding them in his particular arm-forward, raised-hand grip. I pointed him out to my friends, bragging about my dad, Jack Brickhouse, and Geebee. I think it was the circle of empathy that touched me the most.
As an adult, I have dedicated many years to inventing technologies for people who have disabilities. I co-founded IntelliTools in 1990 where I led our R&D projects, worked with school districts, started users’ groups, helped to author the federal special education act (IDEA), and served in leadership positions with related non-profits. Perhaps my childhood experiences recounted in this story helped to steer me.
This is why I so love The Nora Project. Not all dads will do what mine did, but this project can intentionally help young people to develop empathy for and friendships with their classmates who have disabilities. I invite you to get involved with The Nora Project to help others become inspired to live with empathy and compassion. It seems that we live in a time when such values are more important than ever before.
The Nora Project helps elementary educators and their students learn about the value of empathy and inclusion. Our award-winning program allows students to explore disability, adaptation, and friendship in exciting and innovative ways. I volunteer on the Leadership Council, contributing to growth management, strategic direction, and organizational development. https://www.thenoraproject.ngo/