First Posted: 1/13/2013
One way to begin a story is, of course, at the beginning. This is one of those stories. Except the beginning to this one is not easily determined. There are several actually. And they tend to keep changing.
I thought the beginning was several months ago when Fred Lokuta and I renewed our friendship at the gym where we both work out, me usually running by brains out on an elliptical apparatus trying to keep my heart healthy and Fred pumping iron trying to win yet another weight lifting title, which he has since accomplished.
It was a time when I was contemplating retirement and doing a lot of praying over it. Fred was an answer to my prayers. Don't do it, he said, point blank. Don't retire. You have too much to offer.
His own zest for life at 51 years old (I'm 63) proved infectious and seeing him that first time marked the beginning of a renewal of my own enthusiasm. I have an old friend who says angels are real people who are used by God for a specific purpose. They show up in your life, she says, lay a gift at your feet and don't even know they did it. That was Fred.
But even this is not the beginning. The beginning with Fred goes back some 35 years. That's when he was a high school wrestler and I a local sportswriter. Wrestlers always fascinated me because their goal was to be as strong as they could be and at the same time as light as they could be. A kid like Fred, who wrestled at 105 pounds, would starve himself to remain at that weight. He talks about how his dad would be waiting after weigh-ins with a giant hoagie which Fred would practically inhale.
Fred won the district championship his senior year but came down with the flu and could not wrestle in regionals. That's a sports story I wrote and never forgot.
I also never forgot Fred's dad, also Fred, who was mayor of Dupont in the ‘80s. He was one of the classiest men I ever met and he and his wife, Joan, a beautiful couple. I wept when Fred died in 2005. He was only 68. He and Joan had married young – she was only 17. They were a year away from their 50th wedding anniversary.
Fred, the son, has spent 28 years working with people with intellectual disabilities. He was recently named Deputy Secretary of the Office of Developmental Programming in Harrisburg and for more than five years before that served as director of the White Haven Center. A few weeks before Christmas he invited me to Hazleton High School on Dec. 28 to attend a special performance of 12/24 for the White Haven Center patients. I promised I would attend, mostly for Fred, but also for Rich Kossuth, the man behind 12/24.
12/24, as in Christmas Eve, is a musical performance in the style of Trans Siberian Orchestra. I've seen it before and it's breathtaking. This also brings me to another beginning. Rich Kossuth operates a successful business on South Main Street in Pittston. It's called Rock Street Music. When it opened in 1985, some of the neighbors were on edge because of all the long-haired young men hanging around. I wrote a column about not judging a book by its cover. In 2010, 25 years later, Rich Kossuth was named Greater Pittston Person of the Year.
And this leads to yet another beginning. Rock Street Music is located in a building that once housed the business Fidelity T.V. in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. My wife's dad ran that business. Mary Kay grew up in the apartment upstairs. She was still living there as a 21-year-old nurse when her dad died of a heart attack right in the store. He was 44. Interestingly, Rich Kossuth's dad, who also owned a store in Pittston, died young too, at only 26.
So with all this swimming in my head, I made it my business to get to Hazleton High School on Dec. 28. It was not easy. It was a busy Friday at the paper, holiday traffic was horrendous, and I always think Hazleton is closer than it is, so I barely allowed enough time. But I'm really glad I went.
The performance was better than expected. The reaction of the White Haven patients, many sitting in wheelchairs as they have most of their lives, was even more heartwarming than Fred had promised. And observing the parents of the patients along with the White Haven Center staff care for these unfortunate people is a lesson in humility that lasts a long, long time.
Then comes perhaps the true beginning: the village of White Haven where the center is located. White Haven is my late dad's home town. There are dozens of Ackermans buried in a cemetery not far from the center, including an Edward Ackerman, my dad's brother who was killed in World War II.