— Scenes — 5 min read
Gary Justice was born December 2, 1962. The doctors had warned the expectant mother of the risks. With that in her mind, she went through labour, held Gary for the first time, and then put him up for adoption.
Gary, 6 lbs 4 oz, had been born without legs.
The 1960s were a time of societal transformation and upheaval, but that wave had not washed over Bentonville, the small mining town 14 hours drive north of the big city.
In Bentonville, as in most of the world, people with disabilities were cared for, educated in, and lived to some extent totally separate lives from "normal" people. They sometimes would live in institutionalized facilities, or at minimum attend a school for the disabled and mentally ill, and certainly would not be granted the freedom to dream.
But dream Gary did. Placed after adoption with an elderly barren couple, Gary flourished. After learning to roll as an infant, he progressed to a "walk" that to others appeared like he was more closely related to the chimpanzees than to his mild mannered adoptive parents, Chuck & Belinda.
When the adoptive agency came to do their annual assessment, it was the Wednesday after Gary blew out 5 birthday candles on his alien green jello-ed marshmallow cake. Sitting down with Chuck & Belinda, the agent declared that they brought good news! Chuck & Belinda did not seem convinced. The agent continued saying that, "the new technology age that had put man in space was now going to give legs to your cripple".
"We don't call him cripple, his name is Gary", Chuck growled.
The prosthetics in those days were made of brittle fiberglass with a hard nylon strap harness and left Gary with blisters, then callouses, all over his hips. His back soon was purple from the heavy battery they would strap to his torso that would slosh back and forth like a backpack filled with lead.
The rambunctious Gary who days before had been rumbling around the bungalow and white picket fenced yard on Gloria Drive, could barely stand even with the help of his two canes Chuck had carved in his workshop. Holding cabled remotes in each hand, he would try and lift one leg to take a step, and almost fall over. Move a foot forward to take new ground, and Gary would nearly face plant the trim lawn.
After a week of servitude, the rambunctious Gary returned. That box of innovative shackles no longer occupied the South West corned of the living room. Chuck had taken it back to the hospital.
In August of that year, Belinda walked with him to St. Agatha Catholic School to register. The principal asked, "Why are you here?"
"Well, to register Gary to school.", Belinda replied.
"But the school for him is on the other side of town, isn't it?"
"I know we're not Catholic but we live three blocks away. I'd love for Gary to be able to walk to school", chimed Belinda.
"He doesn't have legs. He can't walk. He should attend that school for cripples by the port. The other students would not be able to learn well with him here", the principal replied slightly perturbed at the suggestion.
"Yes, he can walk. He walked here today. He should attend this school."
"Ma'am, I wouldn't call that walking and I'm not sure you could say enough Hail Mary's to make that happen", the principal muttered as he stood up and showed them to the door.
Yet, on September 5th of that year, Gary walked in to St. Agatha to start Grade 1. The indignant principal seemed to have had a change of heart after Chuck came to the follow-up meeting.
It's with this attitude of quiet perseverance, of "Never say can't, Yes I can", that Gary was raised in by Chuck and Belinda. Over the course of his time in Bentonville, Gary learned how to ride a bike, how to water ski, and in Grade 9 how to run a mile around the track for insubordination.
In Grade 12, he won the county debate competition, arguing persuasively for the thesis, "Be it resolved that it is to the benefit of broader society and to the charges themselves, that cripples and lunatics remain institutionalized". Perhaps it was for the irony alone that the judges were smitten with his arguments.
Gary decided to pursue a career in radio broadcasting with WKVR Lower Buthaven County Networks, and later motivational speaking across the state. Travelling the world, he would speak to students, business professionals, and hospitals to share his autobiography of hope and overcoming his unique obstacles in life with the attitude of "Never say can't, Yes I can".
"I'm Gary Justice, I was born without legs", Gary would start his talks. Riding his custom bicycle and using other props, he would share stories from his life and showcase how he adapted different activities to fit his abilities.
John leaned forward, legs crossed, his eyes focused on the speaker. It was a school assembly. John sat with his Grade 3 class mesmerized by the man with the slight accent. Perched on a pillow on the stage or teetering around walking with his arms, John was captured by the good news of "Never say can't, Yes I can".
When he came home, he talked all night about "the speaker who walked with his hands". That weekend, still talking about it, John's mother encouraged him to write it down and maybe he could give a speech to his Sunday School class about it.
"On Tuesday, I saw a man who could walk with his hands. His name was Jerry Gustiss", John scrawled on the stack of lined paper his mother had set in front of him.
John wrote and wrote, and soon had no less than a baker's dozen sheets in a messy pile on the kitchen table.
John's mother called ahead to his Sunday School teacher and asked if little Johnny could do a short speech of something he learned this week. His teacher, Nancy, obliged, partly because her Sunday School teacher stipend was up for review with John's father on the church finance board.
That Sunday, John got up to speak with his crinkled stack of paper and told the story of "Jerry Gustiss" with great enthusiasm. John told about the adoption, the prosthetics, being turned away by the principal, his radio and speaking career and many other stories. John finished as Gary had, emphasizing that with the attitude of "Never say can't, Yes I can", you can accomplish anything.
Everyone clapped politely as John took his seat and the teacher Nancy moved on to teach the story of Noah's Ark for the third time this year as they munched on animal crackers.
Little did John know but that speech and those 45 minutes of shared experience with a man named Gary Justice was a pivotal moment in his life.
That speech was an inflection point in John's life. It was one of his first solo presentations, and one that instilled an identity of a presenter and led to him pursuing clubs and roles that would put him on stage. He
Inflection point in John's life that carried on that trajectory until he came to know the Lord personally in university.
Why now does the story of Gary sound so hollow?
One could posit it is because the boy who grew up on Gloria Street, claimed the glory of a successful life for himself and his attitude of "Never say can't, Yes I can", instead of pointing away from himself upwards to a merciful God who had extended grace to a baby crippled by toxic medication, guided an abandoned baby to be adopted as a son by loving parents, and surrounded by encouraging peers and mentors who helped him grow into a confident man with a career.
To rely solely on "Never say can't, Yes I can", disregards the grace of God at work.
To hold up as a banner and rallying cry "Never say can't, Yes I can" points the finger of guilt, shame, and lethargy on the people who did not rise from similar circumstances like Gary. Did they not believe enough?
"Never say can't, Yes I can" is a great way to end a speech, but a graceless way to lead and teach others to lead a life.
Jesus presents a better way.