Lost Gifts Ė Yet Hope Remained

By John C. Westervelt

The summer after his freshman year of college in 1975, Bill McKown worked as a Ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. As the summer wound down, Bill headed for California with a fellow Ranger for a short holiday before school began. Near Fresno, a vegetable truck pulled onto the highway at the same time that another truck was alongside the scoutsí car. A seatbelt, before there were shoulder straps, couldnít stop Billís head from jamming against the dashboard on the passengerís side.

It was early evening when Billís mother picked up the phone in Great Bend, Kansas. A California doctor said, "Mrs. McKown, please sit down. Your son Bill is paralyzed with a broken neck." In shock and disbelief, Martha could only wait for her husband, who was several hours away on a sailing excursion. She called her mother in Oklahoma to come stay with the two younger boys. The next morning, Billís dad left on the first flight to Fresno.

A Baptist minister in Fresno happened by the emergency room to find that a boy from Kansas had just been admitted. Later at a church prayer meeting, Tom and Molly Avent agreed to ask Billís parents when they arrived to stay in their home for a few days after which another couple would take a turn. Tom and Molly bonded so closely with George and Martha McKown in their need that the McKowns remained as guests until their departure three weeks later.

George was one of my closest high school friends and my college roommate. When I heard the news, I asked God, "Are the gifts You gave to Your special child now lost?"

At the hospital, Bill was held rigid in a striker frame. While Bill was facing down, Martha would lie on the floor to talk to him. When stabilized after three weeks, Bill was placed in an air ambulance jet for the flight to Denver. Though his limp body was strapped to a stretcher, Bill could clearly hear the Denver air traffic controller waving off all aircraft so the mercy flight could land. As soon as the aircraft came to a stop, an ambulance pulled alongside to take the quadriplegic to Craig Hospital.

Bill had been a gifted young man, serving as President of his freshman, sophomore, and junior classes at Great Bend High School. Billís gift for art had been nurtured with lessons since the third grade. During his senior year, he sculpted a bigger than life panther that still stands under glass in the high school hallway. At Kansas University, Bill was developing a promising art career.

A few years later I received a report of Billís serving as chairman of the central Kansas Boy Scout Eagle Award banquet where he asked former President Gerald Ford to speak. The older leaders told Bill he shouldnít expect a former President to come to the middle of Kansas. Bill, knowing that President Ford was an Eagle Scout, asked anyway, and Ford came. After speaking to the group of scouts, President Ford returned the honorarium to the local scouting organization.

When the Olympic torch was being carried across our land, those from central Kansas chose Bill to carry the torch. His dad, an engineer, built a holder to attach the burning torch to the wheelchair.

Four years ago I visited the McKowns on a fourth of July weekend. As president of the Jaycees, Bill roamed all twenty acres of the community park in his wheelchair, encouraging the younger Jaycees, who were sponsors of the patriotic celebration. This was the day I learned that toughness is strength of mind rather than strength of body.

With mandatory retirement at age forty from the Jaycees, Bill increased his activities in Kiwanis. In a few years Bill provided outstanding leadership as club president.

Bill recently received the Boy Scouts of America 25-year Veteran Scouter Award. For seventeen years Bill has served on the National Philmont Scout Ranch committee.

Twenty-four years have passed since the tragic day of the accident when I asked God about Billís lost gifts. God helped Bill to accept the accident and charted a different course for His special child.

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