by Stephanie Lawson
Jean King was an extraordinary woman.
The daughter of big band leader Fred Waring was a noted microbiologist who contracted tuberculosis of the bone in 1976 through her work as a researcher. Confined to a wheelchair, she founded Independence Dogs to help herself and others in her plight. Through that work, training and placing dogs to help the disabled, she touched hundreds of lives. Through her close friendships she touched many more.
I met Jean in May, 2003. It was a trying time. Pennsylvania Equestrian's cover story – a big one – had fallen through just days before the paper was to go to press. In scrambling to find a story good enough for page one, I contacted the Nokota horse rescue group in Chester County, which put me in touch with Jean.
At age 72, Jean had adopted a wild Nokota horse that had mistakenly been included in a load shipped east from North Dakota. Unwanted and impossible to reload back on the truck, he was deposited in the barn of Jean's friend, Betty Lester. Though Jean was a relatively inexperienced horsewoman, she had adopted the completely unhandled three-year-old, and over 18 months had forged a bond that allowed her not only to control his every movement from her wheelchair but also to ride him, solo.
I stopped to interview Jean on my way to a final practice ride on the best horse I had ever owned. I had bought him as a yearling and for six years had tried to shepherd him, state to state and trainer to trainer, into the able partner I had hoped for throughout my adult amateur life. While we had experienced moderate success, he was a long way from the champion he would become. My latest trainer was moving, with about a week's notice, to Kentucky, and having experienced long distance ownership, I knew I did not want to have a horse in Kentucky. Just days before I had received an offer, lower than others I had turned down but still many times more than anyone had ever paid me for a horse. Though it was the last thing I wanted to do, I had accepted it. The Devon Horse Show was to be our last show, and I would not be buying another show horse. Instead I would get through the last horse show, probably, of my life and come to terms with the fact that many long-held goals and dreams were going to remain forever out of reach.
I walked into Betty Lester's barn to find Betty, Jean and two friends –– joking and laughing, and, all in their early 70's, still playing with their horses. They were delightful. I interviewed Jean and Betty, watched Jean put Cloud through his paces, listened to her explain that Cloud, the most unlikely of horses, had come to her at a time when she really needed him, and he had put the life back in her.
I began to feel that fate had brought me to meet Jean and Betty at just this moment. Here was Jean King, 72, in a wheelchair, the amateur owner of only her second horse, enjoying the greatest equine relationship of her life. Here was living proof that, simply, you can never say never. I felt, if not fine, at least some peace, willing to trust that perhaps, sometime, there would be another chance for my dreams.
And that, her friends tell me, is the effect Jean had on everyone.
That was the only time I ever met Jean. Yet in a way, we are forever linked. The article I wrote about her touched people as nothing I have ever written, before or since, has. Readers called for months and emailed it to friends around the country. Once I picked up a call and heard only sobs from a woman who eventually composed herself and told me how much the story meant to her. It won first prize in the Personality Profile division of the American Horse Publications award contest in 2004. And someone, I still don't know who, suggested it for inclusion in Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II, which will be released nationally March 6.
I was able to let Jean know that her story would be reaching and inspiring a much wider audience before she died, surrounded by her closest friends, October 12. Those friends kept me apprised of her illness and final struggle. She had been on death's doorstep in late summer, but rallied to continue on several more months. She had, she told Betty, more to do.
"I think she didn't want to go until the point when her friends saw that it was obscene to ask her to stay," Betty told me recently. Betty, Jean's companion Lora, and other friends gather every Wednesday afternoon at Bally Vae Farm in New London, Cloud's new home, for a tea party. Everyone drinks tea – the women, Cloud, Jean's assistance dog Kurt, the farm's black lab, Dallas. Though they no longer pour tea for Jean, the women still consider her part of the group. "We remember Jean, she's here with us now, and we give Cloud love, " Betty said.
The women had worried about Cloud, who had an attachment to Jean that's rarely seen. He had been depressed and grieving most of the summer when Jean's health failed to the point that she could no longer visit with him.
But he's thriving now. He has a new young rider, 16-year-old Christa Keirman, who, Betty says, "sincerely loved Jean. There were a lot of people interested in Cloud, but he had to buy into it too." Jean as well approved the new partnership. Christa and Cloud are good together and getting closer all the time. "He's still Jean's horse but she's not coming back," Betty said. "She taught him love and trust and he's part of why she's still here."
The friends marvel at the quote from Homer the Chicken Soup people chose to introduce Jean's story – "Seize the day, put no trust in tomorrow." That epitomizes Jean, they agree – nothing kept her down, and she always found a way to turn adversity to good.
I'm sorry I never got to thank you, Jean, for the moment of peace you gave me during that difficult time. I hope at age 72 I have another chance at my unfulfilled dreams, and a horse with whom I share a bond like yours and Cloud's. I hope I still have a barnful of old friends, still having fun playing with their horses. Maybe during a tea party sometime this spring, your friends will pass along my thanks.
"He Put the Life Back In Me"