Roy Exum: The Champions Of Orange Grove

Wednesday, May 8, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

As new University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones wowed the largest “Champions” gathering ever at Orange Grove on Tuesday, I realized that my seat at one of the many round tables put me in direct eyesight with Tom Caldwell, one of the most respected men I have ever known. And as the new Vol coach explained the cornerstones in his remake of UT’s legendary program were discipline, adversity (or dealing with sudden change) and leadership, I looked straight into the eyes of the ever-humble Mr. Caldwell.

What you need to know is our fabulous Orange Grove Center is celebrating its 60th birthday. That’s exactly the number of years Tom Caldwell has given his all for the clients and families of perhaps the greatest source of happiness to those who walk among us with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.

Orange Grove may well be our city’s most precious treasure.

Think about this: After sitting in an Orange Grove trustee’s chair for 60 years running, you think Mr. Caldwell knows anything about fiscal discipline, helping the hopeless overcome adversity, and the most minute details of leadership? Butch Jones had to be humbled knowing there were far more champions in the delighted audience than could ever be on the same sports team. I am staggered by the compassion every time I visit and Tuesday was no exception.

I was lucky enough to sit with the “bless-ed” Janet Strang, a woman who never dreamed she would work passionately at the center because of a lifetime of miracles bestowed on her son John. To watch Mrs. Strang’s face as another parent, Sherry Campbell, told of her own life’s journey with a son who has now lived 35 years, was a portrait of serenity no known artist could possibly capture. Janet Strang’s dignity and grace has set an example for only God knows how many of us for over half a century.

You see, Mrs. Strang also signed on in the early ‘50s and emcee Jerry Summers has been on the board so long that just talking about his beloved “Special Olympics” can still reduce the tough trial lawyer to tears. There is a passion about board chairman Bruce Hutchinson’s crowd that no amount of diamonds and rubies will be sufficient for their crowns in heaven. I believe that to be very true.

Yes, the huge crowd came to hear a football coach with the apt name of Butch – “Butch” is the newest UT brand, as he might say – because while he’s busy convincing his players that their last name is the “brand” they should most respect, Orange Grove had an all-too-rare chance to show off a “brand” that 300 adults who live in 66 group homes around our city will wear every day until they die. That, my friend, is commitment.

Think about this parallel. Butch is about bringing Tennessee’s former players back as “Vols for Life.” Over 500 former lettermen were at the record-breaking spring game. Orange Grove, its reputation enabling a newly-extended outreach to North Georgia, also takes some clients for life – literally – but today’s 300 are in it for 24/7, not just sunny Saturdays. The real champions are those who make that possible.

“Look around while you are here. Come back when you think you are having a bad day. Everybody here is happy,” Summers said easily. “The kids who come here are with their friends. We’re just all friends …” he managed before his eyes gave him away. (Darn allergies)

The UT coach made a tremendous point when he quoted Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. During the NCAA tournament Pitino was asked if kids today have changed much since he won his first Final Four in 1996. “No, the kids are the same. It’s the parents who have changed.”

How is that for the best double entendre of the day? I’ll guarantee you that at Orange Grove the kids are the same but the parents have changed. Oh, as Sherry Campbell boasted, her son probably would not have lived a stunning 35 years without the support, medical care, therapists and all else Orange Grove provides when tragedy came in the form of a car wreck. That was before the ambulance exploded. “Orange Grove gave us hope the very first day and that has never stopped,” she said.

At Orange Grove the parents change – there are new admissions constantly – but the blessing is they never forget. I see Tom Caldwell, Janet Strang, Jerry Summers, and so many more who have championed the pressing cause of deserving human beings and, while I adore sports and delight in Butch, his is a story for another day. Yesterday I sat among true champions.

* * *

Orange Grove is now in the midst of its annual campaign. Those wishing to contribute may do so by mailing a donation to: Orange Grove Center, 615 Derby Street, Chattanooga TN 37404-16322. Those wishing to tour the campus, learn more about the programs, volunteer, or even offer employment to well-supervised clients should contact executive director Kyle Hauth.

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