Somewhere in the disaster of Gary Ahearn's body and the blighted confusion of his mind, there is a mysterious, tranquil place where he seems to remember all the music he has ever heard—every note. One day six years ago the music made its way from that hidden place and gloriously and unexpectedly came out through his fingers. The 41-year-old Ahearn, retarded since birth, sat down at an organ for the first time and played, from distant memory, Liszt's Liebesträume.

To this day Doris Walker, Ahearn's friend and teacher, doesn't know where his music came from. "He said a Mrs. Evans played the music and he remembered," she says. Whoever Mrs. Evans was—and no one is certain—the music she gave Gary Ahearn provided him with an unexpected means of escape from the maze that was his legacy.

"He has terrible problems with movement," says Walker. "His toes point out and he moves with great difficulty. He broke one arm and then another and had a cast on his leg for a while. When he came to us, his teeth were all crooked, and he couldn't pronounce consonants. So we found a dental surgeon who corrected that."

Raised by his mother, a publicist for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans—perhaps the Mrs. Evans who first played him music—Ahearn was orphaned and institutionalized in L.A., where his musical ability was discovered by a workshop teacher who contacted Walker. Now Ahearn, classified as severely handicapped, tours the country with the Hi Hopes, a musical group formed by Walker. He sings and plays at least seven instruments, including the organ, piano, guitar and accordion. The Hi Hopes, every one of them retarded, and every one a superb musician, were put together in 1972 as a way of bringing meaning and joy into their lives.

Walker, 63, is executive director of Hope University-Unico National College in Anaheim, Calif., which she founded in 1980. This fall it moved from two small rooms squeezed between a dry cleaner and a hairdressing salon to a 22-room former elementary school. It has 37 students ranging in age from 18 to 41. "They were supposed to be people who couldn't do much of anything," says Walker. "We peeled the layers and found all that talent. It's a matter of blossoming."

Walker came to her calling in midlife, after her husband, Elden, a hosiery-plant manager, was transferred to Anaheim from Portland, Ore., and she took a job as office manager in a high school. "All of the children who didn't fit the pattern and were getting into trouble were being sent into my office, and I found myself working with them," she says. "The ones with learning disablities—I talked to them and they sparked my interest."

In 1969, at the age of 45, she earned her credentials in special education and became a music teacher. She followed that with a master's degree in 1978, then founded Hope College, which was adopted in 1983 by Unico National clubs, an Italian-American service organization. Classes meet four times a week and include arts and crafts, computer skills and dance, as well as spelling and reading. The requirement for admission, says Walker, is completion of a public school program and "an overwhelming interest in one of the arts."

In the world outside Hope College, the retarded or the autistic who excel in some area of endeavor are sometimes called idiots savants, a description Walker finds offensive. "I'm dealing with people who have an IQ much lower than mine," she says, "but they can do many things musically that I can't." The things that Gary Ahearn can do musically are a mystery to Walker. "Gary doesn't sight-read," she says. "It's all in his head. He can play the classics, like Chopin and Rachmaninoff—I think his favorite is the Warsaw Concerto—from memory, and the way he plays a piece depends on the way he feels, not the way it was written."

Walker's students are trained to succeed. "We try never to have an activity they won't succeed in," she says. "Should they fail, however, we teach them how to deal with it so they're not threatened. They need little pats, and we give them a lot of praise."

Walker travels with her students to each of their 180 performances a year, arranging programs and acting as stage director. She also explains who the Hi Hopes are, which sometimes comes as a surprise to their audiences. But she no longer accompanies the group on the piano, as she did until last spring. "They're way out of my league," she admits. If they are, it's because Doris Walker helped put them there.

  • Contributors:
  • Barbara Manning.