Teresa Hett Higgins’ life has been full of surprises, spanning the range of joyous to traumatic, and as she talked with family and friends while promoting her new book Friday at Marion City Library, another good surprise walked through the door.
“I didn’t think she’d recognize me,” Bill Lindsay Jr. of Wichita said. “The last time she saw me I think I weighed 100 pounds and had bushy hair. The last time I’ve seen them is probably 35 years ago.”
Lindsay was one of many troubled youths who had Bill and Teresa Higgins as house parents during their stays at Youthville, a Newton-based program for adolescent youth with emotional or social adjustment problems.
“The kids we had at Youthville weren’t there because it was good times for them,” Teresa Higgins said. “They were having difficulties.”
That included Lindsay.
“He was a handful,” she said.
The man that stood before Teresa on Friday was more like two arms’ full, and with a hat hiding what’s left of those curls, Bill said he didn’t know who he was.
“The Billy I remember was a skinny runt,” he said. “As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew who it was.”
Teresa was quicker on the uptake, and the trio managed to get in some conversation despite the crowd.
“When he comes back now as a grown man who has his own family and thanked Bill and I for being there when he wasn’t so good, it makes you feel great,” Teresa said.
“I’m glad to see she’s getting along,” Lindsay said. “They’ve always been there and gave me a lot of advice and backing. She’s not done with her mission on earth.”
The Higgins’ six years at Youthville, work with mentally handicapped in Hays, the births of their sons, Gabe and Nicholas, Teresa’s diagnosis of and life with multiple sclerosis, their move to North Carolina, the accidental death of Nicholas in 2012, and more are chronicled in “A Blessed Life Together,” a book based on Teresa’s journals.
The stories begin in the fall of 1971 when the Marion girl and Florence boy met as high school seniors after the towns’ school districts consolidated. They knew they were meant to be together, but Teresa’s family wasn’t convinced.
“I told the folks we were going to get married,” Teresa said. “We had no idea what we were up against, but it was just supposed to be.”
After graduating in 1972, Teresa went on a trip to New Jersey to visit her sister and brother-in-law, LaVonda and Lew Rothman, and most of the family started weighing in with their opinions.
“There were hot and fiery letters going from one coast to the other, from New Jersey to Rocky and Shirley Jo to Bruce and Sandra to Shelley out in California about why we shouldn’t do this,” Teresa said. “No one liked the idea at all. Bill was from the other side of the tracks.”
It appears, 44 years later, that Teresa knew what she was talking about.
“I’m not a super woman or anything,” she said. “I’m only as good as the peole around me, and that’s Bill. He’s my rock.”
Bill was quick to qualify her comment.
“Hopefully it’s not limestone rock,” he said. “I hope it’s granite.”
Over the couple’s 18 years In North Carolina, multiple sclerosis has rendered Teresa’s arms and legs useless, but in line with her good humor she refers to herself as “the talking head” rather than quadriplegic.
Accompanying Bill and Teresa on the trip to Kansas was close friend and occasional helper Rose Martin, who said it’s rare for Teresa to be anything other than upbeat about life.
“I can count the times on one hand that I’ve gone over there and she’s not smiling,” Martin said. “Every now and then, about once or twice a year, she wants to have her pity party, and I tell her, ‘OK, we can do that; you’ve got 10 minutes.’ She cries and I cry with her, and then it’s over with.”
“It’s a heck of a lot easier to laugh and smile than to cry,” Teresa said.
The idea of writing a book had been in Teresa’s mind for a long time, and this past summer she attended a workshop about writing one. The presenter, Wayne Drumheller, became her editor.
With the help of Martin’s niece, Jasmine Galloway, a project Teresa though might take a year zoomed forward.
“That was in June and here it is October and I’ve got a book out,” Teresa said.
“Bill and I tease her about her celebrity status,” Martin said. “Not everybody knows a published author.”
Family and friends were snapping up extra copies of the book Friday, many of whom said they intended to give one to someone they knew who needed encouragement.
“It will let them know that even though you face adversity, even if things just keep coming at you, you scratch and you fight your way out,” Martin said. “That’s what Teresa did.”
The book has been publicized thus far through multiple sclerosis websites and on Amazon.com, but Teresa isn’t concerned about how many are sold.
“I just hope it gets into the hands of the right people,” she said.