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The Triumph of Weldon Jackson Jr.

updated 05/20/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/20/1985 01:00AM

In a time abounding with tales of missing, abused and starving children, every victory deserves to be celebrated. One of these is the story of Weldon Jackson Jr., who, though he is only 5 years old, already has borne an unfair share of life's misfortunes. Deaf from birth, he has suffered an interminable litany of other ailments, including a heart defect that required surgery at 2 months, a severe neurological problem, chronic lung disease and profoundly delayed development. Born in South Korea to unwed parents, he never knew his mother. His father, a black GI, was transferred to Fort Hood, Texas and took Weldon with him. He placed the boy in the hospital there, but later, after the elder Jackson's discharge from the service, he abandoned his son. Meanwhile, Army doctors had prevailed on Alice Tutor, now 71, the owner of a nearby nursing home serving disabled veterans, to care for Weldon during what they thought would be his last days. Unable to move, eat or cry, he was being kept alive by a feeding tube attached to his belly. The doctors said Weldon would never improve. If Alice Tutor had believed them, the story would end here.

Love from an eyedropper and an old vet

"When we got him home, all I could think of was how we could make him better," Alice Tutor says. "We exercised him, raised his little head, his arms, his legs." Though doctors said he could not be fed because his swallowing was impaired, she began trying anyway when he was 2 years old, using an eyedropper to drip milk on his tongue. She and her secretary took turns feeding him this way every two hours. Even so, it was six months before Weldon was able to use a bottle. Gradually he began responding to sights and touch, and in time he became a favorite of the nursing home staff and patients. One veteran, George Tidwell, who had been an orphan himself, became inseparable from Weldon. Once, when the child was sick, Alice Tutor watched as Tidwell sat beside Weldon's bed with tears in his eyes and promised: "Little fellow, you'll never want for anything. Uncle George will take care of you." Last December George Tidwell died. At his funeral Weldon, dressed up in a suit and bow tie, sat in the front row, and when the flag that had draped Tidwell's coffin was folded and offered to him, Weldon was able to reach out his hands and take it.

Alice Tutor realized that ultimately, as Weldon grew stronger, a permanent home for the boy would have to be found, but that did not lessen her pain when the day of parting arrived six weeks ago. "I can hardly stand it," she said as she hugged Weldon and fought back her tears. "I love him more than anyone will ever know. It is like giving up one of my own."

A simple, ordered life

Accompanied by a Texas caseworker, Weldon was flown to Kentucky, where an extraordinary family awaited him. Natives of Detroit who long ago wearied of city life, Jerry Tucker, a carpenter, and his wife, Sandy, had built a 14-bedroom house on 4½ acres outside Liberty with trees they cleared from their own land. Their dream was to fill the rooms with children, and they have done so. In addition to their own two daughters and a revolving cast of foster children, the Tuckers have been adopting youngsters, many of them handicapped, through most of their 22-year marriage. (Weldon is their 14th adoptee.) Once practicing Mennonites, they left the local church partly because its prohibition of modern conveniences interfered with their efforts to raise a large family, but they have retained the simple, ordered life-style and dress of their Mennonite neighbors.

Even with government help for the handicapped and foster children, their life is hard. They manage by growing some of their own food, buying clothes in half-ton, $35 bundles and hand-sewing dresses for the girls. Each child is responsible for chores (the boys chop wood, the girls help with child care, cooking and laundry). Neighbors frequently come to their aid with toys, furniture, food and donations. Sandy's bartered services as a midwife have brought the family a year's supply of milk, two years of horseshoeing, watermelons, geese, a stove, a cow and a pet skunk. "Our work is difficult," says Sandy, "but it's a joy to do. When you go to bed at the end of a day, you feel like a mountain climber who's reached the top."

'When the newness wears off, he will be one of the family'

The Tuckers' adoption of Weldon was held up for several days because of Alice Tutor's objections: She didn't see why he was being placed so far away, in a family with so many other handicapped children who need attention. The Tuckers understood and respectfully disagreed. "Every child who comes into our home is special," says Sandy. "When the newness wears off, he will be one of the family. The biggest thing now is communicating with Weldon. I think he is very bright and will be a near-normal boy someday." One problem is that Sandy can't hold Weldon as much as he'd like. "I think he's a little spoiled," she says. "I can't compete with the nursing home, with 45 people who had nothing else to do. He needs to look to the other children for attention now. He reminds me of a little old man in lots of ways." In the arms of the Tuckers' oldest daughter, Becky, 14, the day after his arrival (above), Weldon seemed to be making the transition admirably. And in the back and forth between Alice Tutor and the Tuckers over what is best for Weldon, it is easy to miss the point: that these people care enough to struggle for a boy who once was left for dead, that anyone cared at all.

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