Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 30, 2012

Kokomo Tribune Year in Review: Stories that inspired

Kokomo Tribune

— Area students united to raise money for kids affected by the tornado that tore through Henryville. A paper carrier saved the life of a 93-year-old woman who had fallen in her home, and a community rallied around an injured soldier who needed help after returning home.

We chronicled stories of adults and children who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, who opened their hearts to help others or who had tales of harrowing rescues. These people touched readers’ hearts in 2012.

Here are the year’s most inspirational stories, as chosen by the newsroom of the Kokomo Tribune:

1. Community rallies around injured soldier

The Kokomo community came together in August to support U.S. Army Spc. Anthony Walton who returned home from Afghanistan with severe injuries.

He was hit with 37 rounds of fire during a patrol. He lost full use of his left arm, left back and shoulder and lost partial eyesight and hearing.

Walton had plans to medically retire from the military and return to Kokomo.

But while he was away, his home on Wabash Avenue sat empty. It fell into disrepair and could not be salvaged, officials said.

The national Homes for Wounded Warriors, based out of Grissom, worked with organizations to raise the necessary funds to build Walton and his wife and three children a new home.

For months, volunteers worked to rebuild the house from the ground up.

Volunteers finally presented the family with their new abode Dec. 21.

Walton could not make it to the dedication, though. During the build, Walton suffered another setback. He fell in a driveway while visiting his wife’s family and sustained a traumatic head injury. He is still recovering from the fall.

Jerry Fivecoate, a member of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 25, was among the many community members who offered time and money to help the Walton family.

“All of us vets stand together and support one another,” he said prior to the home dedication. “The main thing now is to get him healthy so he will be able to enjoy this with his family.”

2. Woman graduates college hours before death

Cathy Archer clung to life just long enough to fulfill a lifelong dream.

In October, Archer, a 56-year-old student and staff member at Indiana University Kokomo, received her bachelor’s degree in general studies during a special ceremony at Fairmount Rehabilitation Center, where she was staying.

She sat in a wheelchair in her cap and gown as her husband, Archie, held her hand.

Just hours after the ceremony, though, Archer died. She had suffered from a degenerative brain disease for less than a year.

Archer was supposed to walk at the graduation ceremony in May. However, in late spring she began experiencing short-term memory loss and dizziness.

Doctors initially suspected she’d had a stroke, but as her health continued to decline, they continued testing. In late summer, she was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It affects about one in 1 million people worldwide, with about 200 cases per year in the United States.

Her friends and co-workers organized a surprise graduation ceremony for her on a Monday, but she almost didn’t make it that long.

The weekend before, Archer was really struggling, friend Susan Wilson said. She slept all of the time.

“Her husband said, ‘You really need to hang on. Monday is your day, and then you can go,’” Wilson said. “She listened to him.”

She had been working toward her degree for five years. She was the first person in her family to go to college.

3. Ten-year-old plays for Red Hot Chili Peppers

He’s a dynamite drummer, a natural talent and has a major fan: Chad Smith, drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Raven Milligan has played major venues and sits in with local favorite band, Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel, but he’s only had a pair of drum sticks in his hand for eight years, which may not sound impressive until you find out Raven Milligan is a 10-year-old.  

The kid who has talent erupting through his fingers has put his talent into action. He is already writing (lyrics and music) and recorded three albums. And of course, he received the seal of drummer approval from one of the best in the biz.

Smith saw Milligan’s mad skills on youtube and quickly invited him to his Nov. 1 concert in Milwaukee so he could meet the Sycamore Elementary student and give him his first-ever drumming lesson.

4. Chinese orphan graduates from Kokomo High School despite odds

There was a time when Ping Hu cried because he thought he’d never get to go to school.

The Kokomo High School alumnus was born in Beijing, China and suffered from a congenital condition that left his wrists bent and kept him from doing a lot of activities.

His birth parents left him at an orphanage when he was a baby. The staff there told Hu his parents didn’t want him because of his “ugly, useless” hands, he recalled.

Hu was often told that he would never attend school because he couldn’t write. Sometimes, those words were enough to make him cry, he said.

“For as long as I can recall, I was always labeled as a child with disabilities, forcing me to stay with those who could barely speak a word,” Hu wrote in a college admissions essay. “It was tough to express my feelings and my desire to go to school.”

Chinese officials repeatedly rejected his requests to attend school there, so he had less than a year of formal education when Weishang Hu and Tessa Vaughan finalized their adoption and brought Hu to Kokomo. Hu was determined to succeed at his new American school, but that was easier said than done.

Hu was enrolled in the fourth grade at Sycamore Elementary School. His English as a Second Language teacher would sit with him all day and look up words in the English-Chinese dictionary. At night, he would teach himself the language. By the end of the year, he could read full novels at grade level.

In the next seven years, he became a top chess player, learned to play the trumpet, was named an algebra student of the year, Spanish student of the month and chemistry student of the month, made the high honor roll several times and passed three Advanced Placement college courses.

And in May, Hu graduated from Kokomo High School with honors.

5. Paper carrier saves 93-year-old woman’s life

In November, a newspaper carrier helped save the life of a 93-year-old woman who was trapped inside her house for three days without food or water after falling in the kitchen.

When Esther Wilkins returned home from church one Wednesday evening, she tripped over her feet and fell to the ground inside her house.

Normally, Esther said she wears a medical alert bracelet with a button to call for help in case of situations like that, but earlier that day she’d taken it off. She couldn’t get off the floor to call for help, so no one knew she was injured.

By Thursday night, she said she was frantically trying to think of ways to get help. She contemplated breaking out her window to shout for help, but decided against it.

By Friday night, Esther struggled with thirst and

hunger. She was so delirious she said she saw the black-and-white photos on her wall in color, and they were moving. Her lips were so parched she could easily peel off the skin, she said.

At about 5 a.m. Saturday, Sam Gregory showed up to deliver her copy of the Kokomo Tribune.

“I heard her yelling my name and that she needed my help,” he said in November, noting he’s been a Kokomo Tribune carrier for about six months. “Once she knew she had my attention, she really started shouting.”

Gregory called for an ambulance, and waited with Esther until it arrived. Doctors said she may have died later that day without his help.

The paper carrier said he was simply in the right place at the right time.

6. Western High School baseball team wins state championship

Western High School faithful celebrated after their baseball team beat Brebeuf Jesuit 8-1 in the Class 3A state baseball championship game at Victory Field in Indianapolis in June.

“I really wasn’t too nervous, seriously,” said Ty Calloway, the 35-year Western coach. “Someone said, ‘Did you sleep last night?’ I slept like a baby. No problem whatsoever. I said, ‘You ask me 35 years ago I’d probably be a nervous wreck. But I’ve got 1,000 games under my belt.’ You know what you’re doing, what you’ve got to do.”

The Panther hardballers are the second team in school history to win a state title, joining the 2001 girls golf team.

Right fielder Austin LaFollette said he’d been thinking of a state title “ever since I was a little kid. Every kid dreams of playing on Victory Field. Your parents take you to an Indians game and you’re just like, ‘Oh, can’t wait to play here one day,’ let alone win a state title for your team, and your school, and your community.”

7. Nursing student awarded for action at crash scene

An Indiana University Kokomo nursing student was on her way to Northwestern Elementary School on a snowy day in January when she missed her turn and witnessed a car wreck that would change her life.

The snow was blowing and the roads were slick in Howard County on Jan. 26.

Alexis Martin, 22, was headed to Northwestern Elementary School to shadow the school’s nurse for the day. But because the roads were icy, she missed a turn, and her GPS re-routed her.

She ended up on a back country road.

She was following a black sport utility vehicle when it lost control and hit a small car, Martin said.

Martin immediately pulled over to the side of the road and dialed 9-1-1. While she waited for help to come, she cared for one of the crash victims who was seriously injured and trapped in her car.

Her quick thinking earned her this year’s Indianapolis Star “Salute to Nurses Student of the Year” scholarship worth $3,500.

But the crash served a higher purpose for Martin.

“That was a moment,” Martin said, “A life-changing moment. That was the day I realized I was meant to be a nurse.”

8. Former homeless woman coupons to help needy

Kim Achors remembers eating out of trash cans as an 18-year-old living on the streets.

Then one day, a stranger spotted her on the side of the road and offered her a place to stay and a warm meal. She never forgot that act of kindness.

Today, the Kokomo mother of three clips coupons to help others just like that stranger helped her.

Achors said she buys 15 newspapers each week. She clips every coupon inside all of them. Then she hits the stores.

Achors said she never pays more than $2 for any household item, food or toy. And if she can get something for less than that, she always buys it — even if she has no use for it.

Boxes of hair dye and packages of adult diapers lined shelves inside her garage in April. She never used those things.

But she was hoping someone in need would. Achors

routinely donates about half of her stockpile to needy families or charitable organizations.

She once gave about $2,000 worth of clothes, toiletries and food to a mother raising foster children.

Her next-door neighbor comes over often to “shop” in Achors’ garage. She takes items she couldn’t afford otherwise, Achors said.

Achors said in April she would never let her stockpile get too big.

“I think it’s selfish not to donate,” she said.

9. Kokomo product signs with Oakland Athletics

The Oakland Athletics in June selected Kokomo native Nolan Sanburn in the second round of the MLB draft, with the No. 74 overall pick.

The following month, he signed a deal with the team that was reportedly worth $710,000.

The A’s, who put a premium on pitching, made Sanburn their first pitcher selected.

“When I think of the A’s, the only thing I can think about is the movie ‘Moneyball.’ I saw that movie when it came out. It’s such a great movie and now to almost be a part of that whole situation is a dream come true,” he said in June.

Sanburn had been drafted once before, in the 34th round (No. 1,033 overall) in 2010 by the Detroit Tigers, as a high school senior. As a late-round pick and with little bargaining power, he made the decision to play in college for a strong Arkansas program and attempt to raise his stock.

10. Maconaquah students raise $20,000 for tornado relief

On March 2, an F-4 tornado tore through Henryville, destroying much of the town and spurring Maconaquah School Corp. into action.

Superintendent Doug Arnold watched in horror as Henryville High School was obliterated in the storm. That was the first school he served as principal at, and it held a special place in his heart, he said in March.

Arnold’s first instinct was to get in his car and drive down there. He wanted to do something to help, he said.

After talking to friends in the area, though, he decided against it.

Arnold decided he could better serve the community by raising money. And his faculty and staff were on board with the idea — especially when Arnold volunteered to shave his head if they met their $5,000 goal.

Students paid $1 to wear hats and pajamas to school, play dodgeball or throw a pie in a teacher’s face.

After a week of fundraising, the kids had far exceeded their goal. They raised $10,000, and the South Miami County Kiwannis Club matched that.

Arnold said Maconaquah’s gift wasn’t the only one the West Clark Schools received.

“They had a pretty overwhelming response,” he said. “There are so many schools, so many clubs that are concerned about Henryville.”

Eastern Howard School Corp. had its own Henryville fundraiser. The district raised more than $3,000 by allowing students and teachers to wear hats for $1. Eastern also collected more than seven containers of school supplies for Henryville schools.