Promises to Keep
09/29/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
He was only 15, and his mother lay dying. He was the eldest of seven boys, born to a hard, poor life in the rural foothills of Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains. His mother, Judy O'Kelley, was 33, petite, raven-haired, a woman so devoted to her brood of boys that during her last illness she had skipped buying medication to put food on the table. He leaned close as she spoke in a whisper from her hospital bed.
"Take care of the boys," she said.
"I will, Mama."
Terry O'Kelley, now 18, worked hard to keep his promise after his mother was gone. He quit school to work in a chicken hatchery. He kept trying—even after his hard-drinking father ran off, and after his grandfather took them in and then died, and when creditors began hounding him, and when the four youngest boys were dispatched to a foster home. "I just wanted my brothers back together," he says. "That's all I want now. It's what Mama wanted."
And now his hometown, Gainesville, Ga. (pop. 15,200), may be writing a happy ending to the heartbreak saga. A local fund-raising drive has caught on nationwide, and after three years of work, worry and never-say-die effort, Terry is close to reuniting his brothers under a single roof again.
Terry's mother was just 16 in 1966 when she married Thomas Wayne O'Kelley, a scrawny farm boy who bounced from one job to the next. Along came Terry, Tommy, Charles, David, Jeffery, Michael and Jason. They lived in seedy trailer parks, sometimes spending winter nights in the backseats of cars, huddled against each other for warmth. Terry counts 35 addresses. "I was never able to make friends or learn too much because we were always moving," he says.
Their truck-driver father was often nowhere to be found, and Judy's relatives wanted him jailed for deserting the family. Judy, figuring a part-time father was better than none at all, wouldn't go along with that.
She was a good mother, showering affection on the boys, preaching a gospel of compassion and of no smoking or drinking. "Never make fun of anyone less fortunate," she would say, though the boys sometimes found it hard to imagine that such a person existed. One day, Judy's cousin Ann Dillard popped in to find the boys crying from hunger, with nothing to eat but sugar water. "Judy said, 'Ain't got nothing to feed 'em, and I don't know where Wayne's at,' " recalls Dillard. "I said, 'Leave him, Judy. You'll be better off on welfare.' But she believed you married for life. I reckon she loved him."
"She did," says Terry. "She loved him too much. I seen too many tears come out of her eyes."
Judy had severe headaches and, in June 1983, wound up in a Gainesville hospital, her blood pressure rocketing off the charts. A few days later, soon after Terry made his promise, she slipped into a coma and died.
After the funeral their father took off, and the boys were farmed out to kinfolk. Embittered, some of the kids rebelled at the rules, skipped school. It fell to Terry to keep them in line, and he did his best, bearing in mind his mother's advice not to spare the rod. "He tells you twice," says Jeff, 13. "The third time, you get the hand."
At length, the boys moved in with a gruff grandfather they all idolized. Cecil "Paw-Paw" O'Kelley bunked them in a trailer on his tiny farm. They worked his smelly chicken houses cheerfully, but other children taunted them about the odor pervading their clothes and, when there was no money for shoes, about their bare feet. When a bully tangled with one baby brother, Terry settled the score with his fists. He was suspended from school six times for fighting. "It was for taking up for my brothers," he explains.
To support the boys, Terry began working 70 hours a week on the night shift at a poultry plant, nodding off in class by day. After a while he quit school. "I just couldn't do both," he says. Then Tommy, the second oldest, left school to chip in. Last year, just as they hit a happy routine, Paw-Paw died of a heart attack. He left his estate, such as it was, to the boys—and their father—but made the mistake of naming Wayne O'Kelley executor. According to Terry's attorney, Edward Clary, Wayne moved in briefly, paid a few bills and squandered the remaining assets. Clary contends that the elder O'Kelley ran through $15,000 earmarked for poultry stock, sold off what he could, bought a fancy Buick and began bouncing checks. With the money gone, he took off again, but not before coming to blows with Terry. "He was drunk," says Terry. "I let him have it, laid him flat on the ground."
Two weeks ago, Wayne was indicted by a Hall County grand jury for abandoning his children, looting the estate, writing bad checks and forging Terry's name on checks to a liquor store. No trial date has been set. "I just got tired of being in a fight all the time and left," shrugs the father, a wiry little man of 36, who sat shivering in the chilly county jail. "I'm not saying I don't love Terry, but trouble's trouble." Scoffed District Attorney Bruce Udolf: "Even animals don't steal from their children."
But Terry was head of the house long before the law caught up with his father, and it was a struggle. The boys rose at 5:30 a.m., Terry and Tommy to work, Charles to fix breakfast on the wood stove for the four little brothers and get them off to school. "Sometimes, we didn't have enough money for breakfast, so I'd just drive 'em straight to school," says Terry. "They got a free lunch." After school, the younger brothers did their homework, fed their goat, Billy, four horses and three dogs. At night, Jason and Michael "cried themselves to sleep a lot because they missed our father," Terry says. Terry and Tommy tried to make it all right. They tucked the youngsters in, often climbing in bed to hug them until the crying stopped. To cheer them up, Terry took the brothers swimming at a nearby lake—free entertainment. To keep his mind off their plight, he worked nonstop, earning a promotion to supervisor. "I just tried not to think about things," he says. If his father ever came around, he greeted Terry with a sneer. "There's the 'working boy,' " he'd say.
Together, the two eldest boys brought home $500 a week, but it was never enough. Last winter, after the utility company shut off the power, the boys had to sleep in a van, running the engine to keep warm. Terry woke up to more bills—tombstones for his mother and grandfather, payments on the pickup, the mortgage on the dilapidated trailer they called home. Debts came to $33,000 in all, and Terry lay awake nights worrying.
In April the family's request for food stamps was turned down—the boys' combined take-home pay was too much to qualify—and Terry had to concede that he could no longer afford to keep them all together. "I can't swing it," he told his brothers. "I just need some time to get us back on our feet. We'll be back together soon. I promise."
Overnight, they wound up at an emergency aid hearing in juvenile court. "I just need help for a little while," pleaded Terry. Each boy said how much he loved the others and wanted to stay together. Judge Richard Story tried to inject some humor. "I feel like I'm sitting in a Walt Disney movie," he said, "and any minute Julie Andrews will come waltzing down the aisle and save the day." In Andrews' absence, the judge placed the four youngest in temporary foster care.
Only David, 15, balked: "I want to be with the big guys!" Terry put his arm around him and walked him outside. "I need you to take care of the little guys," he said softly.
Although he'd done more than could be expected of any 18-year-old, Terry felt like a failure. When the separation dragged on, he began fighting county bureaucrats to get his brothers back. "What I can't stand is taking them to that foster home," he says. "I could take care of them if they'd let me."
That was when Jack Hodge, 30, a poultry distributor and civic booster, came to the rescue. He cajoled creditors to forgive or reduce Terry's debts and launched a fund drive at Gainesville's First Presbyterian Church, raising $57,000 so far. After the local newspaper covered the boys' story, about 500 letters (some with checks) began rolling in. Along with his wife, Martha, 27, a travel agent, Hodge hauled donated furniture, a TV and clothes into the O'Kelley trailer.
Last August, while no one was home, the trailer was gutted by fire, and it seemed the O'Kelley boys were back where they started. But then local builders came to their rescue and, with donated materials and labor, began to build the boys a new four-bedroom house. Ten days ago, 25 volunteer carpenters nearly fell over each other, pounding and hammering away as the three older boys turned out to bask in the goodwill. "Everybody wants to do something. It's tickled us to death," says developer Johnny Law-son, 34, point man for the project.
Meanwhile, Hodge has moved the three older boys into his ranch-style home. "I'm not running for office," he says. "And I'm not a Holy Roller. I've raised my share of hell. But I believe it's a Christian duty to help people if you can." He's pressing authorities to reunite the O'Kelleys when their new home is completed two months from now and, naturally, the boys are rooting for Jack. Terry is busy studying for a high school equivalency diploma and contemplating college. Charles, 16, an A student at East Hall High, wants to be a doctor or lawyer. Tommy, 17, the red-haired comic of the O'Kelley bunch, isn't sure: "What's wrong with chickens?" he asks.
After welfare officials scratched a recent weekend camping trip for all seven boys as too dangerous, Terry piled Tommy and Charles into "the Pickle," as he calls his green '74 Chevy, and roared down a windy, two-lane blacktop to visit their little brothers. The sun was dying behind pine forests as the trio detoured into a graveyard, where they bowed their heads over a vase of weathered silk roses left by the boys on Mother's Day. "I wish she was still alive," said Terry.
Twenty miles down the road, in Braselton, the younger boys were on furlough from the foster home to spend the weekend with their maternal grandparents, Hubert and Eva Gunter. As Terry wheeled the Pickle into the yard, David, Jeff, 13, Michael, 11, Jason, 8, ran up. "What you doin' boys?" Terry said, grinning. He fished in his pockets and handed over $27 to buy hamburgers. Tommy playfully wrestled with Jason until the half-pint collapsed giggling. Later, back at the Hodges, benefactors Jack and Martha were happily dazed by the teenage invasion. "We were going to start a family of our own," says Jack, "but we haven't had time to think about it lately."
Older than his years, Terry has already thought about the time when he will have children of his own. "My kids will never go through what I did," he reflects, "or I won't have any. People keep telling me to 'live an 18-year-old life,' whatever that is. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I don't think I can." Still, he's more confident, now, about the future. "Six months ago, we didn't have a friend in the world. Now we have more friends than you can shake a stick at. Whatever happens now is going to be great."