Podcast Transcript: Johnny’s Legacy – Interview with Laurie Stallings Vanderpool
Johnny Stallings with father, legendary football coach Gene Stallings
In Episode 12, Jacklyn spoke with Laurie Stallings Vanderpool about her brother, Johnny Stallings, and his legacy in the US, Haiti, and around the world. Johnny passed away in 2008. June 11th would have been Johnny’s 57th birthday. Laurie shares stories about Johnny, lessons she learned from him, and his impact on the special needs community.
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[00:00-04:27] Having a Child with Special Needs in the 1960s
[04:27-11:04] Living with Johnny – Sharing in His Joy
[11:04-16:23] Johnny Story – Getting in Trouble with “Pops”
[16:23-23:44] How Children with Special Needs are Viewed in Haiti and the Creation of Johnny’s Kids
[23:44-31:33] Transforming How People See Those with Special Needs
[31:33-45:05] Lessons on Faith with Johnny Stallings
[45:05-49:56] Johnny’s Legacy in the Special Needs Community
[00:00] JVB: Hello, everybody. And welcome back to another LiveBeyond podcast. My name is Jacklyn Vanderpool Barnett. And today is such a special day. Today would have been my uncle Johnny’s 57th birthday. So, I wanted to take the time today to meet up with my mom, Laurie Vanderpool, and just talk about Johnny and the incredible legacy that he has left not only in the United States, but also in Haiti. So, Mom, thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:29] LSV: Oh, thank you, Jacklyn. I’m so glad to be here. It is a special day. You know, when Johnny was born in 1962, I was three years old. And so, my very earliest memories have been wrapped up in the life of Johnny and, oh, the delight, the joy, the happiness, and the struggles that the Lord has given us through his life has been remarkable. And like you said, he touched hundreds. He touched thousands of, of lives and his impact is still going on. And I’m very grateful for his legacy.
[01:05] JVB: Absolutely. Well, tell us about Johnny.
[01:09] LSV: Well, Johnny was an extraordinarily blessed little boy. Johnny was born, as I said, in 1962, already with two older sisters, and then a little later in his life, two younger sisters came along. When Johnny was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Daddy was actually an assistant football coach at the University of Alabama at that time, and those were not easy days, as, as I did not really understand. But Mother and Daddy have recalled, and retold the story so many times that, that that was the time when, when children born with, with disabilities, and Johnny was born with Down Syndrome. The children were typically not accepted, and it was not looked on with favor for the child to be raised in the family. So the advice that Mother and Daddy received from almost everyone across the board was that they should put him in a home, that that they could have him in a home where he would be well cared for, and that they would visit him with the thought that that they would see him less and less, and that that he would just be able to live out his days of a life that they expected to be short. But that it would have very little impact on their life. However, my grandmother, Mother’s mother, the grandmother that we called Mamie, Bertha Jack was the, was the voice who said, “Oh, no, this is your child. He is your gift. He is yours to love and yours to raise,” and, and Mother and Daddy took that wisdom and they knew so deeply in their hearts, and I know it’s because they were inspired by God, to, to raise Johnny is their own, to let him fit into our family just as perfectly as we four daughters have, and they raised him with all of the, the love and tenderness and kindness and care and discipline that that they raised the four daughters with. So as a result, Johnny had a delightful life. Daddy had a marvelously successful career, and the attitude toward children with special needs has been changed immensely. And I believe it’s because God gave Daddy a platform that he used very well. Daddy was in a very visible position throughout his career as the head football coach at Texas A&M, as an assistant with Dallas Cowboys, as a head football coach in the NFL with the, with the Cardinals, with the Phoenix Cardinals, and then back as the head football coach at the University of Alabama, winning national championships and going to many Super Bowls and winning Super Bowls. And, and always having Johnny there in a very visible position, giving lots of encouragement, to, to other families, especially to other parents, to be able to to raise their children with happy, successful, influential and rewarding lives.
[04:27] JVB: So, you’ve told us a lot about the attitude that people in society and just kind of the American culture had towards children born with special needs back in the early 1960s. But what was it like to grow up with Johnny? What was that – What was what did your family dynamic look like?
[04:48] LSV: You know, that’s a great question. Having a brother like Johnny meant that the household was always happy. We were always joyful. There was always something to celebrate. We were so very, very proud of Johnny. I found my role with Johnny was that I’ve always felt that I was his defender. I was extraordinarily sensitive to other people’s perceptions of Johnny. In fact, I use Johnny as my touchstone for the way I judged my friends, and especially boyfriends, and anyone who would come around the house. And if they treated Johnny well, if they weren’t afraid to be around him, if, if they enjoyed him and saw the humor and the delight in him that, that we saw, then they were a friend that I wanted to hang out with. They were a boy that, that was worthy of coming around. And, and I honestly think that’s one of the reasons why David, [my] husband David, was so accepted in our family at such an early age. John- David was 12 years old when he met Johnny for the first time and always treated Johnny with such love and delight. And when David would come to pick me up for a date later, obviously a little later than 12 years old, but when he got his driver’s license and, and came to pick me up, he would always arrive early and, and usually take Johnny for a spin in the Jeep before, while I was still getting ready for a date. So that was, that was just something that really tempered our, our home. We found our greatest joys in Johnny successes. In fact, I still count it as one of my biggest accomplishments in life was helping Johnny learn how to walk. And people had told us that, that Johnny may not ever learn how to walk. Mother and Daddy had been told from the time Johnny was born to just accept him for the time that we had with him because he wouldn’t live to be very long. He wouldn’t live to be one, and he passed his first birthday and the doctor said, “Well, you know, you won’t have him much longer. He won’t live to be two.” Johnny also had a very severe congenital heart defect and, which is fairly common with children with Down syndrome. In fact, there is a wonderful procedure that, ironically, was developed in Birmingham, Alabama, the surgeons there. But it was developed after Johnny was too old to, to be able to have the surgery, and sometimes this, this heart defect is spontaneously repaired. But Johnny’s never did. And so, he his life expectancy from the, from the beginning was, was too short to be even able to conceive, in the doctor’s eyes, conceive of. So, Mother and Daddy raised us with that understanding that we might not have Johnny much longer, and that sounds like, almost sounds like a curse. For a way to, to have your home, have the attitude in your home. But it was just the converse of that. It was actually an enormous blessing, because, as a result, we took advantage of every single day. Everything that Johnny did was just a, was a heroic step, was a, was a delight. So, Anna Lee and I, Anna Lee was four years older than Johnny, and I was three years older, we took it upon ourselves to teach Johnny how walk, and we would toddle him around the house and around and around and around. And Johnny was about three years old when he learned to take his first steps. And I still remember when Daddy came home from work that night. How Anna Lee and I just cheered and we said, “Oh, Daddy, you’ve got to come see Johnny!” and we toddled him in like Daddy was so accustomed to seeing, Anna Lee on one side and me on the other side, and then we dropped his hands and Johnny took his first little steps all by himself. And Daddy got down on his knees, and he cried, and Mama cried, and we all just cheered and cheered. And that memory has carried me through so much of my life because I knew that I had accomplished something that was, in our minds, extraordinary. And Johnny was a hero, and Johnny had done something that, that we all took for granted. And it was not easy for him. And yet he conquered, and he was able to do it. So, we always looked at Johnny as one who, who rose above who, you know, in my words, who lived beyond his expectations, who was able to, to do things that, that the doctor said he would never be able to do. And yet he did it with, not only the best humor in the world, but he did everything with a flare and with joy and made, made people so happy to, to be around him. So, our home was always happy. It was always a place where, you know, where there was joy and delight and lots of hugs and lots of kisses, and our family is very affectionate. And, and that’s typical with, with children with Down syndrome. They’re very affectionate people. And so, our family, as a result, is just extraordinary, really touching and loving and affectionate. And, I have to give so much of the credit of this to Mother because she always set the tone as, as a happy, joyful, laughing place and, and as a result, every day was a sweet, you know, there was a sweet place.
[11:04] JVB: I strongly feel that the Lord used Johnny to teach our family some, just really sweet lessons. And it was always in just such a kind and gentle and mostly funny way. And so, I would love for you to share some of those stories and experiences that you had with Johnny because they were always just so special to us.
[11:34] LSV: Oh, Jacklyn, isn’t that the truth? We have so many great Johnny stories, and most of the people who know me well have, have heard many of these stories because we like to tell them over and over. And I’m so grateful for the, for the impact that Johnny had on all three of my children and that he had on all the grandchildren in our family, Mothers and Daddy’s grandchildren all the, my nieces and nephews. And you know, we live by a very strong moral code in the Stallings family, where truth is always told and where there’s lots and lots of discipline, and we didn’t get away with anything, we really rarely got by with anything in our lives. So, one of my favorite stories is I was married, I had children, and yet if Daddy said that we weren’t supposed to do something, that would still, you know, would still send a little shiver down my back. You know, that absolute obedience to Daddy. But we were at the ranch and we were riding around in the golf carts and Daddy said, “Don’t go through the woods because we’ve had a lot of rain.” And so, he said, “You’ll just get that golf cart’s stuck if you do. So. all day long, Johnny and I had been tooling around doing different things, and it was late in the afternoon, and I thought, “Oh, you know what? It’s dried up enough. I can, I can take the road through the woods and get back to the cabin.” So, Johnny and I drove through, and, lo and behold, I got the golf cart’s stuck. And I said, “Johnny, you know, you stay here. I’ll go. I’ll go get Momma and the sisters and we’ll push us out.” So, we did. You know, we were able to just pop the golf cart out. But I said, “Johnny, don’t tell Daddy, you know. Please don’t tell him. And he goes, “Oh, no, no, no. I won’t tell Pops.” Johnny always called Daddy “Pops.” He said, “I won’t tell Pops.” And I said, “Oh, please don’t tell Daddy.” So, all the rest of the afternoon, I’d say, “Johnny, no, please don’t tell.” “No, no, no, no. I won’t tell Pops. Won’t tell Pops.” Well, that night at dinner, we all gather around the table. We say the prayer. Soon as the prayers over, Johnny looks up at Daddy and says, “Pops, Laurie has something to tell you.”
[13:42] JVB: He didn’t tell!
[13:45] LSV: He did not tell Pops.
[13:46] JVB: He did not tell.
[13:48] He made sure that I told it because I was not supposed to get away with something like that. So, you know, that was just, you know, of course, Daddy thought it was hilarious. We all thought it was hilarious. But I have, you know, Johnny was so well disciplined, and that’s one thing that, that Mother and Daddy really, not only did a good job with, but I think they do such a good job in sharing with other families that it’s difficult to want to discipline your child with special needs. It’s so much easier to give them free rein and, and let them get away with it with different, you know, bad behaviors. But Mother and Daddy raised Johnny with such a firm hand of discipline, just like they did the four of us girls, that as a result, Johnny was so very self-confident. He knew that that he could go to the White House, which he did, and, and know exactly how to behave. Mother and Daddy could have him anywhere in public and didn’t ever have to worry about his behavior because he knew how to sit at a table well and have lovely table manners. He knew how to, how to walk into any public setting, and he had that that level of self-confidence that comes from discipline. So, so my hat is off to Mother and Daddy for the, for the extraordinary ways that that they built Johnny up through, through giving him that, that level of discipline. And I think that’s pretty extraordinary.
[15:29] JVB: You know, I agree. I do think it is so incredible. Johnny was always so well behaved. He was always included. He always made himself be included. He joined in on everything. He never forgot someone’s name. If someone that he met from three years ago just briefly walked up, he would remember their name. He was so intentional with everybody that he met, and he was just such an incredible joy to be around. But you’ve talked a little bit about the attitude back in the early 1960s of children born with special needs and what to do with them. And now I kind of want to shift a little bit and talk about what the attitude is in Third-World countries like Haiti, about children with special needs and how culturally they view them.
[16:23] LSV: You know, that’s a great question. Things have, have gratefully changed in a dramatic way here in the United States, but you also have to remember, the United States has a Christian culture. And so once the families had that, had the mindset that these children had, had the possibility of productive lives, had the possibility of, of contributing and, and adding to the joy of the family, then it was a fairly easy step to take. In fact, one of the, the roles that I have felt and that the four sisters have all felt was, was our place was to let people know that those with special needs are a, a marvelous positive addition to the family. We’re better off. We’re happier. We’re more contented. We have more fulfilling lives because we had someone with special needs in our family. And it’s just undoes me that that is one of the main reasons that that parents give to allow themselves to have an abortion, when they find out that they have, that they’re carrying a child with special needs because they think that it will have a bad effect on their families. They say, “Oh, I can’t do this to my other children. I don’t want to saddle them with the burden of a child with special needs,” when in fact the exact opposite is true. It’s, that is such a lie to, to say that it’s a burden to the family. It is actually a blessing to the family, and that’s coming from someone who is a sibling. So, I really do think that I have that, that voice to be able to say that. And it’s terribly, terribly harmful to families, to mothers and daddies, to parents when they’re told that they’re carrying a child with special needs to be given the, the advice to abort the child because it will have adverse effects on the family. They need to hear the truth. They need to hear that this is a, that this is a gift, that this is a blessing, that this is something that we would not have chosen to change for a single moment, even though there were, there was suffering, even though there were, there were barriers and, and heartaches that we had to endure. That overwhelming joy is what, what far outroad everything else. However, the effect in a country like Haiti, that is not a Christian country, the attitudes are very, very different. When they see a child with special needs, they think not only about the physical burden that that they will have because of having to care for someone, but they think that it’s actually a curse to have someone with special needs in their family or in their village. They think that it’s someone to, to be ignored, to deride, to be taken advantage of, to, to be an object of derision. So, it’s a, it’s a completely different a task that we have there in Haiti from the task that was presented in the early 1960s to Mother and Daddy. They were able to speak to a Christian culture? We’re, we’re speaking to a non-Christian culture. So, I think that’s important to to see that difference. And the reason we started the Johnny’s Kids Program in Haiti was to help bring about this transformation. You know, Johnny, obviously, never married and never had children of his own. But he considered his nieces and nephews to be his own children, and this was one of the ways that we carried on the legacy of Johnny was there in Haiti and in different places where we’re working. They have our special needs programs called Johnny’s Kids and I just love it. For the longest time I just referred to these, to the children and to the folks, that we had in our At-Risk program, and I would just call them our, our special loved ones. And when we came up with the name of Johnny’s Kids, it just is obviously so right. So, it gives our sweet nod to Johnny, and, and I think that, but it’s something that’s just appropriate and good.
[21:23] JVB: I completely agree. And, you know, there was such a strong push made by Gigi and Pops and obviously by Johnny’s life in the United States to change that narrative of how children with special needs are viewed. But in Haiti, you know, it’s just, I just remember, you know, walking to Annette’s house and Annette is probably in her forties and has been completely neglected her entire life. She is a dwarf and has serious mental and physical needs and things like that. And just to see the way that the community, you know, the lack of education, they didn’t know. But then also just the way that they just kind of neglected her. You know, that they leave her in this closet, they put a rock in front of the door so she can’t get out, and to drive up and to just hear her screams coming from inside the house, and to go in and see her covered with feces and, you know, just covered in dirt, not knowing the last time that she had food or water. Just knowing that that is the norm in Haiti and seeing so many children born with special needs tied up and left in a, you know, in a hut that’s hot, and not having food or water, and knowing that that needs to change, and having the opportunity to be raised with someone like Johnny and say, like, we’ve seen the delight, we have seen the joy. We have seen the challenges and the struggles, but also the immense love and just joy of getting to have him in our family and knowing that we can share that with people in Haiti as well, and to get to continue that legacy, that that Johnny has had and that through his birth that it’s not just affecting people in the United States but Haiti, and, Lord willing, that that will continue going out throughout other countries as well.
[23:44] LSV: But Jacklyn, you described it so well. And the only thing that I’d like to add to that which is an, a horrendous aspect of it, is that in the voodoo culture, often times, men think that if they want to get lucky, if they need some luck in something that they did, that, or in an endeavor that they’ve got or they’re needing to, to get lucky to get some money or something like that, they will find a girl with special needs and have sex with her because somehow you’ll get luck if you have sex with a, a special needs girl. So once again, just a horrible blight that comes from the father of lies on. And Satan is the father of lies, and he is the father of the voodoo culture, and he’s the one who passes down something so cruel and horrendous as that. So it’s a, it’s an enormous task that we’ve got, that we have in front of us, not only to model the fact that that we love, that we care for these people, but to change the entire community perception of these children. So there a couple of things that we have to go into it with the understanding. We have to recognize, number one, that, that God is the Master. We’re His servants. He is the one who, who gives the jobs to be done. And for some reason, He uses men to do His work. It just always amazes me. I would love to think that I could just pray for these different individuals and an angel would just come down or a mystical blessing would come down, and the children would be, would be liked and they would be clothed and they would be fed and they would be given schooling. And, and instead of that mystical blessing, God uses a person to go and to perform those tasks for Him, that He literally says, “That is your job. I’ve put My Spirit inside of you. Now you be the one to go out and get this done.” So, the purpose of our Johnny’s Kids program is not only to improve the lives of those with special needs, but it’s to bring about this mind transformation in the community. We want to build up the church. We want to, to get the people there, that that they will receive the love of God in themselves, that they will receive the, the gift of the Holy Spirit so that the Holy Spirit inside them allows them to look out at thers. And they’ll say, “You know what? This is a defenseless person that I need to be caring for. This is a weak person that needs my care.” And those with the spirit of God are able to go in and make those changes. And then, we affect the entire attitude in the village, or we affect attitudes of the entire village, and that, that those with special needs or different disabilities are now not only loved, they’re defended, they’re protected. They’re given a school to go to. They’re admired, they’re enjoyed, and even become into place where they’re honored. And what a, what a transformation to go from a person who is hidden away in a closet with pigs and they’re, to being honored. And I loved the example of, of two of our boys in Johnny’s Kids program there in Thomazeau who don’t have the use of their legs. They’ve got a little deformed bodies, but we’ve got them, we’ve got them in our Johnny’s Kids program, and now we mainstreamed them into our school. And they’re both doing very well in school. And not only are they so much enjoyed, we find the children sort of, that the more typical children are wrestling with each other to be the ones who get to carry either Pierre Richard or Chenielo on their backs when they’re going over to the to the cafeteria to have lunch. It’s just, it’s just a complete transformation of the way that the children are looked at, and that’s, that to me is a success. Not just that they’re that they’re clothed and cared for, and not just that they’re getting to go to school, but that they’re now in a place of honor and respect.
[28:39] JVB: Well, in the story, I’ve told this before on the podcast, but I love it so much. I think I had to go into another room and just cry, because it just you know, we’ve seen it. You know, we have seen the darkness and, you know, I just think of the woman, Rosemarite who lives up in Cabin Boef, who had severe special needs, and how many times she came to our maternal health program because she was just raped over and over and over again because these men believed the lie that getting luck meant raping a defenseless woman. You know, just the, the rage, you know, that to know that that was the reality for, for people born with special needs just absolutely fills me with rage. And so, to know that that was a reality. But then one summer, during our summer camp, we were main streaming all of our Johnny’s kids into our summer camp activities. And we would say, Okay, you know, let’s have a, a Haitian partner, you know, a student with one of our Johnny’s Kids. And so you brought little Lancy Belle and Daphne up to the front, and you said, “Who wants to be Lancy Belle’s partner?” And I saw about 10 girls just jump up and run towards Lancy and fight over being her partner. And then the same thing happened for Daphne. And just to see that inclusion that they wanted it, you know, it wasn’t this, “Oh, well, we feel like we have to,” or, “Maybe Mama Laurie will notice me if I…” just this absolute joy and desire to be their partner to be with them just broke my heart in the most wonderful way. And so then, of course, I had to follow them throughout the day. And I mean every station, they were sweet and caring and looking out for them, making sure that they had everything that they needed. And just to see that kind of transformation just blows my mind because I know that these kids are the future generation of Haiti. I thought, “They’re going to get to be part of the ones who change that narrative for Haiti as a whole as to how you children born with special needs.” And so, I love that, that, again, I’ve said this so many times that the legacy that Johnny has left, and in the last 10 years since he’s died has been amazing. It’s just been absolutely amazing. And so, I would love to talk more about some, some of these stories and experiences that we’ve seen that has changed that narrative in the ways that his legacy has impacted people.
[31:33] LSV: Well, you know, even, even those of us in the Church, we still struggle with the understanding of how we need to love other people. In fact, I think that’s so strong in the Church right now, to, for us to get the concept of how much God loves us. And that is true. That is necessary. That is rock foundation that we’ve got to stand on every day. And yet, we are responsible for the way we respond to that love, for the way we love God back. And the truth is that we love God as much as we love other people. And we say that we love God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind. And I love to ask the Haitians, “How much do you love God?” And I hold in my hands and show a little bit and they say, “No more, more, more! All the way to the sky, all the way to the sky, I love God.” And I say, “Okay. How much do you love your neighbor? How much do you love…” and I pick out somebody who’s considered unlovable, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I love him a little bit.” Well, the truth is a little bit means that’s how much you love God, that that vertical love for God and the horizontal love for man is exactly even. It is, it is an even cross. And so, we have got to know that the way we express our love, and I even like to use the way, the word, the way we prove our love for God. You know, God proved His love for us in that He sent Jesus who died for us. He sent His only Son. That was His proof for how much He loves us. Well, we get to prove our love to God, not by just telling Him, not by just going for a night of praise, not by just singing or worshiping or, or praying. We get to prove our love for God in the way we love and the way we treat other people, and especially those who are considered by some people to be unlovely or unlovable or less lovable. That is our proof text of how much we love Him. So, to get that understanding, I think that’s something that we Americans need to, to get out of ourselves. You know, to stop just knowing how much God loves us and thinking that, that we can express it to Him in, in our own personal private ways. We need to get this message out to Haiti, to countries all over the world, and even here in the United States. You know, Johnny taught us so much about faith and just absolutely depending upon the Lord, knowing the nearness of God and knowing His presence. And so, one of the stories that, that I think you want me to tell and, and that folks have come down to Haiti have heard me tell, Johnny, tell the story about how much Johnny loved SeaWorld. And when Daddy was coaching at the University of Alabama, one of one of the bowl games that he was in was in Orlando. So, they took out the family to SeaWorld. And none of us had, had been to SeaWorld before, and, and we saw the different shows, and we ended up at, at the Shamu show and got to see, you know, the big killer whales. And Johnny just loved it. He was absolutely enthralled with Shamu. And so, after the show, people were, you know, coming up, trying to talk to Daddy and, and one of the cute boys who was, who was one of the whale trainers came up and he was, you know, just, I’m sure wanting to have a conversation with Daddy, but started talking with Johnny. And I was telling Johnny about different things that he did as a whale trainer. And Johnny was getting him to show him how to do some of the signals. And, and this boy named Billy stepped back and looked at Johnny, and said, “Johnny, do you want to be a whale trainer?” And Johnny said, “Me? A whale trainer?” and Billy the real whale trainer said, “Yeah, yeah, you could. You could be a whale trainer.” Well Johnny believed it 100% and got so excited, and, and so he started telling everyone that he was the whale trainer now. You have to understand that as Daddy had different jobs at different places, Daddy would always be, when he was the head coach, we named Johnny the head trainer, so he, Johnny was known far and wide for the different football facilities that that he would go into and that he would ice down the player’s legs and they would let him, you know, rub them with the ice bags and, and rub some ointment on their, on their ankles or doing different things like that. We always had T shirts made for Johnny that that said Head Trainer. And he would walk in with so much pride and so much dignity. And, and he just loved his job. Well, he found something a whole lot better than being a football trainer. He wanted to be a whale trainer, so we had so much fun telling this story to everybody, and, and one of my younger sister, Jackie’s and her husband John’s good friend Gene Schulle heard the story about it, and he said, “Well, well, I could help Johnny out with this.” So, on a very regular basis, Gene Schulle would call Johnny on the telephone, and Gene would pretend to be Billy. And Gene would say, “Hey, Johnny. This is Billy, calling from SeaWorld.” And they would talk on the phone and Johnny would ask Billy questions and Billy – Gene Schulle Billy – would tell him all about what Shamu had done that week and, and the hoops that Shamu was jumping through and how high he could jump and how many fish he had eaten that day. And oh, Johnny loved it. You know, Johnny was absolutely convinced that, you know, that he was also a whale trainer. Well, a few months later, Johnny got really sick, very, very sick. And in fact, we all thought that he was dying. We had him there in the ICU in the hospital, and, and we were all sitting around on his bed, all four sisters and Mama and holding them and touching him in every way that we could. And we were singing to him. And Daddy was standing at the foot of the bed and we sang and sang and sang, and his little oxygen saturation was just so low. And we knew that his heart wasn’t going to survive. So, we prayed and prayed and sang and sang, and Jackie thought, “You know what? It’s time for Billy the whale trainer to call Johnny.” So Jackie went into the other room in, in the hospital. And she said, “I’m gonna be calling to this room,” and the switchboard worked it out. And we held up the phone to Johnny’s ear and Jackie goes, “Johnny, this is Billy calling from SeaWorld.” And Johnny’s eyes fluttered a little bit. And she said, “Johnny, come on, we need you. Shamu needs you. Shamu is gonna have a baby. We’re getting name him Baby Johnny. Come on, Johnny. SeaWorld needs you. You’re a whale trainer. You’ve got to get well.” So, Johnny, by the grace of God, got a little stronger, got a little stronger, and every day would say, “Come on, Johnny, you’re a whale trainer. You got to get well, we got to get you back to Sea World.” So, miraculously, about three months later, Johnny’s strong enough, Daddy, call SeaWorld and he says, “I’m bringing Johnny down to SeaWorld,” and gives the whole story of how Johnny thinks he’s a whale trainer. And there’s a whale trainer named Billy who calls him. And this is the one in San Antonio. We all got in a motorhome, Mother and Daddy and Johnny and the four daughters, and we drove down there and they literally rolled out the red carpet for us, took us backstage, and Johnny got to rub, rub Shamu. There was a baby whale that had been born. The SeaWorld cast was so great. They said, “Come see baby Johnny.” They all said, “We know Billy,” you know, they just did the whole thing, treated Johnny, just like, you know, that he really was a whale trainer. And it was so meaningful to us because it had been an important part of his recovery. Mama cried. We all cried. It was just a very, very special day. Well, we all had so much fun that the four daughters decided we were going to take Johnny to SeaWorld every year. That this is going to be just our special trip with him. We were going to ditch Mama and Daddy. They couldn’t come along. It was just gonna be the four daughters and Johnny. So, annually we went back to SeaWorld and we would always call ahead and say, you know, “Johnny Stallings has come and, you know, can we, can we go backstage?” and they always said yes, you know, and just sort of work out the details. Well, I was living in Tennessee and one of the sisters called and said, “Hey, we can go this weekend. Can you fly in?” And so, we sort of threw the trip together at the last minute, and I flew in and met them in San Antonio. And we’re driving out to SeaWorld, and Johnny goes, “Am I going to get to feed Shamu?” And the four sisters looked at each other, we said, “Did you call? I didn’t call,” you know, nobody had called ahead. And so we said, “Oh, Johnny, you know what? I don’t think we’re going to this time. We’re just going to, we’re gone go see the dolphin show. We’re going to you know, we’ll see Shamu, but no, we’re not gonna, we’re not gonna feed Shamu this time.” And Johnny goes, “I need to feed Shamu. I’m a whale trainer.” And we said, “Johnny, you know what? I don’t think we can’t this time. Shamu is not doing too well, you know. No, no, no, He can’t, he has a cough. No, can’t go, can’t go feed Shamu.” And Johnny said, “I’m a whale trainer. I need to feed Shamu.” And we said, “No. Not this time, Johnny.” His hand went up in the air in a fist, and he closed his eyes and said, “Oh, Lord, let me feed Shamu.” The four all just looked at each other like, “Oh, no! What are we going to do?” We’ve never seen Johnny do something like that, call on the Lord to let Him fix something. We’ve never known the Lord to disappoint Johnny in any fashion, and we’re certainly not about to disappoint him, but what would we do? So, we, we drive in to SeaWorld, we’ve got him in a wheelchair. We take him straight to the little gift shop. We way overcompensate. We buy him a hat. We buy him the necklace. We buy him a little towel to go over his, over his lap. We’re just buying him every little thing we can. There’s a little, you know, pet Shamu. You know, we’re going through the whole place, and, and we said, “Okay, we’re going to the show, but we’re just going to see the show, and then we’re going to the to the dolphin show.” So we go up there. We see the show. Johnny’s, you know, from the very top in the wheelchair section, giving his signals, you know, trying to, you know, because he’s a whale trainer. Show ends, everybody leaves. And, and Johnny said, “Come on, let’s go feed Shamu.” And we said, “No, Johnny, we can’t. We’re going to the dolphin show.” And he was stubborn. He said, “I am a whale trainer. I’ve gotta feed Shamu.” Well, one of the whale trainer boys comes in, just to pick up the fish buckets. And, Martha Kate, my baby sister said, “I’m gonna run down and just ask this boy if he’ll come up and talk to Johnny.” So, she goes running down the stadium. She explains to him, “My little brother Johnny’s upstairs. He thinks he’s a whale trainer. He thinks he knows someone named Billy. You know, would you just come talk to him?” And this cute boy says, “Of course I will.” He comes bounding up steps. And he goes, “Johnny, I’ve heard about you.” Johnny goes, “Yep. I’m a whale trainer.” And Johnny goes, “You know Billy?” And he goes, “Yeah, I know Billy.” So they talk whale trainer business for a little while. And this boy steps back and he goes, “Johnny. You want to go feed Shamu?” And Johnny said, “Yeah, I’m a whale trainer.” Well, the four sisters just look at each other like, “Oh, thank you, Lord.” So we push Johnny, you know, down the, down the ramps and go to the back. Hands down, the best day we’ve ever had. Johnny got to rub Shamu for as long as he wanted. Got to clean his tongue, got to feed him. Got to be backstage doing everything he wanted to do. And I’ve just thought of that hand going up in the air. “Oh Lord, let me feed Shamu.” You know, Johnny knew what he was. He was a whale trainer in his own mind. And it has given me the faith, the confidence to know the Lord listens to me. The Lord listened to Johnny. The Lord listens to me, and He answers our prayers in the sweetest, sweetest of ways. So, Johnny the Whale Trainer is one of my favorite stories to tell about him. And it just shows the, the favor that he had.
[45:05] JVB: I know that we could probably sit around and talk about Johnny for days, weeks, if not months on end, and to share about the incredible life that he had, the impact that he had on so many people, but especially on us, in the joy of getting to have him as an uncle, and just the incredible values that he instilled in us. But I think, you know, just having that joy of saying, “I’m gonna look past myself and look to others, and know that people, even if they look different, sound different, act different, walk different, that they’re so valued by the Lord.” And they have so much to offer, and to not trying quiet that, not to quiet the unknown just because they’re different from us. And so, I just think that the life that Johnny lived, we had no idea the impact that it would have. But he is. He’s transforming nations, and he’s, he has that impact. And so, it’s just been such a joy to continue that legacy and carry that into Haiti and see our kids that are in our Johnny’s Kids program and say, “You’re going to get to have that impact on others, and we’re gonna do everything we can to open that door to have as many people experience that impact as possible.
[46:32] LSV: Isn’t that the truth? That’s such a good way to say it. You know, in Tuscaloosa, at the University of Alabama, there’s the RISE school, which is for children with special needs from, from birth until, until they’re mainstreamed into school in first grade, there’s now a RISE Dallas and RISE Houston and, and RISE schools in many places throughout the United States. And that’s such a legacy that the Stallings family has. And there’s the Stalling’s Award, which is given to an NCAA Division-1 football coach every year. But at the same time that that award is given, there’s a Johnny Award, which is given to individuals or business owners who have chosen to, to lead their lives and lead their businesses in ways that are inclusive of those with special needs. So, the one that just got it this year was the Howdy ice cream store in Highland Park, Dallas, that, that is set up just for children with special needs to serve the homemade ice cream that, that they create there, that they make there in their shop. So many, many different people and different ways that that people have done just exactly what you said. They have looked at others and said, “Yes, you’re different. I want to be around you. I want to include you, and I want to join in with you and the good things that you’re doing,” and that’s a legacy that, that each one of us can have that will allow those with special needs to, to have the impact at that Johnny had. Johnny was just one of many who are now having this, this sort of impact on, on the lives of folks throughout the world. So, I am grateful, grateful to the Lord for the way that He has allowed us to, to start off on this platform and then go to the higher places and live beyond even the life that Johnny had.
[48:39] JVB: Absolutely. Well, the Lord has been so incredibly kind. And we are excited and expectant to see the things that He is going to do in Haiti with Johnny’s Kids, and, Lord willing, in even more nations with expansion. But, Mom, thank you so much for joining us today. This was so fun, crying and laughing and remembering and just getting to celebrate his sweet, sweet life today and what would be 57 years. And so, it’s just such a joy. So, thank you for joining me. Everybody, thank you so much for tuning in today. I hope you enjoyed hearing about Johnny and the legacy that he had. If you are interested in learning more about LiveBeyond, you go online to livebeyond.org. You can even learn a little bit more about our Johnny’s Kids program and maybe get involved. If you are interested in coming down to Haiti to work in our Johnny’s Kids program, all of our 2019 and 2020 mission dates are listed online. And if you feel like it’s been put on your heart today to maybe sponsor some of Johnny’s Kids, you can go online to livebeyond.org and click that donate button. Thank you so much for joining me today, and don’t forget to go out and LiveBeyond.
Learn about the Johnny’s Kids program here.
To find out more about how you can get involved with the Johnny’s Kids program, read this blog post.
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