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Sister's love lives on; a party joke falls flat

By ERNEST HOOPE
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 15, 2003

Jack and Alice Richardson had finished their meal at a local cafeteria and walked up to pay the bill. As he waited in line, Jack realized he left his two young daughters -- Cathy, 4, and Laurie, 3 -- at the table.

Cathy ambled over to another table where an elderly couple sat, grabbed the woman's biscuit and took a bite.

Jack turned to Alice and said, "Do something."

Alice shot back, "You do something."

But before they could decide who would end the moment of embarrassment, Laurie took the biscuit from Cathy, put her arm around her older sister and told the couple, "You'll have to excuse my sister. She doesn't know any better because she's retarded."

Struck by Laurie's love and candor, both the man and woman got up and gave Laurie a big hug. Afterward, Laurie asked her father, "Why did that nice man and nice woman hug me so nicely?"

That was some 40 years ago, when we didn't use the word "special" to describe children with learning, physical and emotional disabilities. Now providers of a scholarship program for special education teachers, Jack and Alice know all too well what the word special means.

At the fourth annual Richardson Society Showcase Sunday night, Jack and Alice awarded four scholarships to University of South Florida students. Two went to teachers pursuing a master's degrees in special education and two went to teachers pursuing doctorates in the field. The four scholarships are part of 41 awarded by the Richardsons since 1986.

The Lutz couple is inspired in part by snapshots from the relationship between Laurie and Cathy. Jack says the restaurant story explains the essence of Laurie. She did special things for her sister -- who was diagnosed with autism as a tot -- and for others, but never saw greatness in her actions.

"I believe you could write a book about it," Jack told the gathering at the USF Embassy Suites.

This book doesn't have your typical happy ending. Laurie's love for Cathy sparked the realization that special students needed devoted teachers, so she enrolled at USF with plans to become a special ed teacher. Her dream was never realized. In 1985, Laurie died in a car accident days before she was to graduate with a 4.0 grade point average.

The Richardsons drew strength from their sorrow and, using the money Laurie saved from piano lessons and playing music for two churches, created the Laurie Ann Richardson Scholarship. That initial scholarship has grown from one $500 award to four $4,000 awards. The doctorate degrees are given in the name of Cathy Lynne Richardson, who is now 42 and living at home with her parents.

This year's winners were Michelle Duda, Erica McCray, Amy Boylen and Marian Carter-Rice.

The showcase not only gives the Richardsons a chance to tell their poignant story, but also allows past winners to detail their inspirations. Overall, it was an evening that helped me realize these children, their parents and the teachers who accept the challenge of educating them are truly special.

* * *

Last week state representative Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, joked that Democrats had an unfair advantage in a basketball game between the two parties because the Democrats had "all the blacks."

Any time you perpetuate a stereotype, there is a danger, because people could be inclined to accept other stereotypes with more negative perspectives. And you could argue the Legislature isn't the place for levity.

In this case, I sensed no malice, and quite frankly, jokes about the supposed athletic supremacy of blacks have become acceptable comedic fodder. Don't you remember the movie White Men Can't Jump?

Democrats may have simply seen the statement as a chance to win a small political victory, but they might be better off choosing their battles. They risk being labeled overly sensitive and that could weaken their influence when they challenge issues of true importance.

Of course, to Brummer and the rest of my Republican friends, I simply say: you wouldn't be making that joke if your party had some black lawmakers in Tallahassee. And I bet they could do more for your party than just win the annual basketball game.

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