Charlottesville’s Mid-Life Crisis

The mid-life crisis of my little city of Charlottesville, Virginia, has taken a turn for the worse. At Saturday’s Alt-Right Rally we lost 3 lives. One hit by what appears to be a madman in a vehicle, who also injured a number of others in his moment of rage, and two Virginia State Troopers who died when their helicopter crashed into the earth.

Following last month’s KKK rally here in Charlottesville, which I also wrote about, the city began to brace itself for this version of the racial hornets’ nest. After seeing and hearing the bubbling hatred from both sides at the KKK rally I expected something similarly disappointing yesterday, and let’s just say that unfortunately, the Alt-Right rally exceeded my expectations.

As a filmmaker and a documentarian I approach events like these from a very different viewpoint than most who attend. I try my best to be like a fly on the wall, pointing my camera in the direction of the most interesting action in front of me and capturing what it sees—the good, the bad, and the ugly. I don’t currently have a plan to make a film or even a short video from the material I’ve captured, but I realize the significance of these events and so I feel almost obligated to be there to be the eyes and ears of those who can’t, those who choose not to attend, and for future generations. This is a part of how I serve both my community and my society.

That’s what I was doing at the Alt-Right Rally when I was punched three times in the face by one of those “peaceful counter-protestors” you’ve probably heard so much about. Fortunately for me, she was the 5 foot, 92 pound variety of counter-protestor and not the 6 foot, 300 pound version. Besides knocking off my glasses and roughing up my lip a bit, I’m no worse for the wear. This occurred early at the rally when I was attempting to film something that she and a few of her friends didn’t want filmed. That’s when she started throwing her punches. What was I trying to capture with my camera when this occurred? A couple of counter-protestors had been pepper-sprayed and were receiving aid. I was trying to document people helping their fellow man when I became the victim of her fury and rage. It’s crazy what will set people off when they are so on edge at a rally like this. I guess in some way it’s probably easier to punch a middle-aged member of the media with a 20 pound camera on his shoulder than it is to punch one of the young, angry, racist, alt-right members with pepper spray in his hand. Unfortunately, the greatest harm she did was to my camera. She grabbed a cable and yanked it with both hands which ripped it in half and left my viewfinder inoperable for the remainder of the day. Imagine trying to document an event like this without being able to see what your filming.

The hatred I saw at the Alt-Right rally flows in both directions. The hatred of white supremacists is it’s own ugly breed of hate. It’s a type of evil that must consume it’s carrier like a cancer, eating away at any good healthy cells that remain. In many ways, it’s easier to diagnose than it is to cure, but at least it’s diagnosable. We can label it, call it what it is, and weep for the victims it claims. Or, as I witnessed at the rally, we can label it as racism, call it what it is, and then become consumed with hatred toward the person who caught the disease. Now the hatred I saw from the counter-protestors is not nearly as easy to label, define, or diagnose. This makes their version of hatred more complex and perhaps more insidious. I fully believe in the idea of a “righteous anger” where the ideas of racism and white supremacy can anger us to the point of action. But our actions are very telling. If we examine them carefully, our actions can let us know if we crossed the line from “righteous anger” into pure hatred—which is what I witnessed at the rally in Charlottesville.

One benefit of a rally of hate like this is that the hatred from both sides is evident and on display. I consider this a benefit, because it’s good to be able to look into someone’s eyes and know what they hate. It’s very revealing. The concern, of course—the danger—is the harsh reality that when the rally is over, and the outfits, gas masks, and flags are all put away, these people just blend right back into the society around us. They go to work with us. They eat at restaurants at the next table over. They walk our streets. And although their wardrobe and signs might be back in their closets, the hatred they have for their cause is still in their hearts.

There was a lot of violence yesterday which made it very different from the KKK rally last month. And as I examine the two events in my mind I think much of yesterday’s chaos could have been avoided with one simple addition to the layout at the park; the media moat. At the KKK rally there were two sets of barriers between the KKK members and the counter-protestors. This double-fence (provided by the City) gave a gap of ten or twelve feet between the anger of each side. This “moat” was only accessible by members of the press. I could point my camera in either direction and capture the rally and the counter-protest. Yesterday at Lee Park there was no media moat provided. This put members of the media right into the midst of the melee where they could get punched in the face. The Alt-Right Rally had more participants than the KKK rally did which may have made the moat harder to establish, but I really believe that if the city of Charlottesville had provided a media moat that the violence between the two groups could have been stemmed.

Perhaps one of the overlooked consequences from yesterday’s event was what I call the “hijacking of statue protection”. For those who may not be aware, both the KKK rally and the Alt-Right rally stem from a decision that Charlottesville City Council made to remove two confederate statues from two public parks. The park where yesterday’s rally occurred contains the statue of General Robert E. Lee and the park where the KKK gathered has a statue of Stonewall Jackson. Charlottesville has a good number of level-headed non-racists, including some black friends of mine, who don’t want the statues removed from the parks. But I’m afraid yesterday’s events will make it much harder for their voices to be heard. Why? Because now it will be very easy for the left to equate “statue protectors” with “racist, white-supremacists”. I can hear it now, “Oh, you’re one of them. How dare you want to keep the statues. Why don’t you take your racist, hate-filled ideas and leave this town?” I’m guessing after yesterday, it will be a bit easier for those who want the statues removed to hate those good citizens who want to keep them. May our potentially misguided assumptions of others not foster division among the good, well-meaning people of this city.

Which brings me to the Reverend Martin Luther King,Jr. One of my favorite quotes of his is this… “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I don’t know how we do it, but I believe that love is a better response to the evils of racism than hatred can ever be. We must find ways of living out this type of love in our communities. Every time we are called names, or spit on, or punched in the face, we must… we must retaliate with love. Hatred breeds only more hatred, but a righteous anger can lead us to love and I truly believe that love conquers all.

As the events were winding down yesterday around Lee Park, I was walking the streets thanking individual police officers and members of the National Guard for doing their jobs. I looked down in the gutter along Market Street and saw the most profound sight of the day. Laying there among the trash was a plastic bronze eagle, the type that would adorn the tip of a flag, perhaps the flag of one of the racists at the rally, perhaps. But what made it profound was that the head of the eagle was tucked under a discarded face mask that someone had used to protect themselves from pepper spray. A bronze eagle that represents America’s freedom, made out of plastic (probably in China), lying discarded in a gutter trying to breathe through a face mask. I stared at it for a moment and then I knelt down and picked it, tucked it securely into my pocket, and walked away.

UPDATED: 3:20pm, August 13, 2017 — This article was updated to adjust event timing to “yesterday” where one instance originally said “today” and to include the following paragraph which was omitted in the original…  “One benefit of a rally of hate like this is that the hatred from both sides is evident and on display. I consider this a benefit, because it’s good to be able to look into someone’s eyes and know what they hate. It’s very revealing. The concern, of course—the danger—is the harsh reality that when the rally is over, and the outfits, gas masks, and flags are all put away, these people just blend right back into the society around us. They go to work with us. They eat at restaurants at the next table over. The walk our streets. And although their wardrobe and signs might be back in their closets, the hatred they have for their cause is still in their hearts.”

The KKK Took My Cville Away

I awoke this morning disappointed… and a little encouraged. Yesterday I attended my first KKK rally right here in my little city of Charlottesville, Virginia. If you’re curious as to why I attended a rally of the Ku Klux Klan you can read my reasoning here. The rally went off as expected. The KKK preached their hate. There was a large police presence. I witnessed several non-Klan arrests and saw 3 pepper grenades deployed to help disperse the crowd afterwards. All in all it was an afternoon of “entertainment”, our town made the national news, nobody was shot or seriously injured, I was documenting the event and captured some great footage… so why do I awake today disappointed?

I’m certainly not disappointed with the members of the KKK. They delivered exactly what they promised… a protest against the removal of confederate statues in Charlottesville. They applied for their permit to demonstrate, it was granted by the city, and the police presence protected them throughout the event. I don’t agree with their message, in fact, I’m staunchly against it, but I love the fact that I live in a country where all speech can be protected by our constitution and our police force—even hate speech. The moment that is taken away, we all have something more serious than the KKK to worry about.

My disappointment did not begin until the KKK showed up about 45 minutes late. Prior to their arrival at Jackson Park (now called Justice Park) the crowd was chanting things like “Black Lives Matter Here” and I found myself proud to live in a town that was willing to stand up to threats and defend the black lives in our community. And then the KKK arrived and the mood shifted drastically. The chants in defense of black lives became curses of white men in robes. The love and support being spoken of our black brothers and sisters turned into group hatred being demonstrated toward the protestors. “F— you, KKK!”, “Go to hell, KKK!” And while the venom continued to build within the counter-protestors, the majority of them never realized that their hatred toward their fellow men and women is not very different at all than the hatred of the KKK. In one sense “hate is hate”. It’s much easier to feel justified in our hate when we are part of a majority that hates the actions or beliefs of a minority, but reality is that hatred is hatred. It eats our souls, consumes us, and eventually spits out our bones.

I was also disappointed with the counter-protestors comments and reaction to the police presence. Printed signs and vocal chants of “Cops and Klan go hand in hand” were seen and heard throughout the park. People yelling at state and city police officers, “Why are you protecting them?”, “Is this how our tax dollars are being spent?”, and “You’re just as bad as the KKK!” were heard through the duration of the rally and afterwards. The negativity toward the police was so bad that I stopped filming for a while and instead walked the entire media moat that separated the crowd from the KKK and told every police officer I saw (probably 30 of them) “Thank you!” for doing their job. I wanted each of them to know that at least someone appreciated what they were doing. And what exactly were they doing? They were not there to protect the KKK (even though they did that as part of their jobs) but they were there to protect the voice of dissent. And for that I am unbelievably grateful. The police presence alone probably cost the city $100,000 or more. And as I stood there watching the Ku Klux Klan spread their venom, I thought to myself, “Thank God I live in a country that allows these voices I disagree with to be heard” and “Thank God we pay our police to help make this type of event safer for everyone.”

So this is our America; a place where haters can apply for a demonstration permit and have it granted, a place where counter-protestors can believe their hatred is more “pure”, “just”, “moral”, or “righteous” than the other guy’s hatred, and a place where police officers will get up in the morning to do their job to the best of their abilities all while hoping they’ll get to come home that night and tuck their kids into bed. I won’t soon forget talking to a black, female police officer at the rally yesterday. I thanked her for doing her job and mentioned something about this having to be one of the craziest days for her on the force. Her sigh, head nod, and the look in her eye told me I was 100% right.

Screenwriting: Writing Your No-Budget Feature

I wrote this article back in 1999, but when I recently re-read it I realized there is a lot of valuable information for no-budget screenwriters to consider. So without further adieu…

Fade In:  The bus flies over the cliff. The airplane misses the runway. The stadium is packed with screaming fans. These are scenes you do not want to find anywhere near the script for your no-budget feature. Why? Because you have no budget and these scenes require money… and often quite a bit of money.

The first screenplay I ever completed was a thrilling adventure of a young U.S. serviceman who had to escape from Russia with top secret documents and, of course, he fell in love along the way. Russian Skies included location shooting in Russia, Norway, and the United States. It also required a high-altitude hydrogen balloon, a submarine, and to top it off, it was a period piece set in 1956.

This screenplay was obviously written for a Hollywood-type and has collected far more dust than I ever thought it would. Over the next few years I continued writing for big, juicy budgets and along the way I discovered something… my screenplays were not getting produced! Yikes! So I decided to do something about it and I set out to produce my own no-budget feature.

When I started writing When Love Walks In (my no-budget project) I was forced to look at things very differently. I knew from the beginning that filming in my living room would cost far less than filming in some foreign country. So I decided on a modern day love story, cast myself as the lead, and begged my wife to let a film crew take over our house.

Filming a scene in the dining room into the living room of my duplex where we shot When Love Walks In. Notice our flatbed garden dolly which we bought for $99. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job for this low-budget feature.

Writing no-budget films is very different than writing your average Hollywood feature. For starters, with a no-budget project you most likely will be using no-name talent. This means many things, but most importantly it means that you had better have a very good story to tell. It is your story and your story alone which will keep the audience watching. Make it the best it can be.

Your story also must be shootable. What does this mean? It means don’t include a bus careening over a cliff unless you have someone willing to donate a bus, a cliff, and a stunt man to your cause.

Carefully consider the locations you will need. As I got further into my script, I started exploring what locations I might have or realistically be able to get access to. I knew I could use my living room… and my bedroom, guest room, and bathroom… not to mention kitchen, dining room, basement, deck and yard. These locations would not add much production value, but they would be very functional for a good chunk of the film.

My house was the only location I could guarantee use of, and to tell the story of When Love Walks In, I would need two more houses, a park, an outdoor mall, a couple fields, a daycare center, a vineyard, an art gallery, and a train station. For these I would have to rely on the generous people of my community (and a few insane friends). In remarkable fashion, they all came through for me.

Prepping to film the climatic scene at the train station where John Redgrave catches up to Annelise and begs her not to leave. At the time the old train depot was a library so we coordinated with our local librarian to secure the location for this scene.

Here are several other areas to consider when writing your no-budget feature:

  • Characters – Will you find actors who can play your roles? For free? For points?
  • Number of Locations – The more locations required, the more complicated and costly production will be.
  • Props – Can you get everything you need? Can you afford to buy them? What do you have sitting around the house? Who can you borrow from? (I needed an urn to hold the dead wife’s ashes, so I asked the minister of my church. He pointed me to a man in our congregation who owns a funeral home. This man was thrilled to help.)
  • Vehicles – Can cast members drive their own cars in the movie? For example, if the person playing the part of John owns a 1985 Mazda with three hubcaps and no paint, then in the movie John drives the Mazda… unless he can talk the soundman into lending his car.
  • Wardrobe – Be prepared to raid your actor’s closets and visit Goodwill.
  • Stunts – Keep them to a minimum if you need them at all.
  • Extras – Watch out for scenes requiring a lot of extras.

Be practical as you write your no-budget feature. Write it shootable… but most importantly just write it. If you don’t get the script finished you’ll never make the film. And if you never make the film, you will never experience the thrill of no-budget filmmaking.

Some of the cast & crew from When Love Walks In. Left to right: David Oulashian, Brad Embree, Karen Williamson, Savannah Williamson, Ahmad Russell, Terri Moore, Nick Bovee, Chase Williamson, Kent C. Williamson, Ardath Williamson, Ed Williamson, Brad Williamson, and Morris Priddy

2017 UPDATE: A couple of items of interest… Russian Skies the high-budget screenplay mentioned in this article still has not been produced (which means it’s still available or still collecting dust depending on your take). When Love Walks In wasn’t released until 2005. It won a number of awards at festivals and is still finding audiences today.

The Curtain Has Closed On My Forties…

Well, last night the curtain closed on my forties, which means that today it opens on my fifties. For the last few years I’ve had a sinking feeling about the arrival of this day. Mainly because from 47 though 49 I thought of myself as “late forties”, but at 50 it’s really hard to think of yourself as anything more than “middle aged”. Of course, if we’re lucky enough to get 70 years, then I guess 35 is really the middle, so welcome to “middle age” my 35 year old friends.

Last night I celebrated my last day of 49 by watching the opening night performance of the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman at Live Arts here in Charlottesville. The Pulitzer Prize winning play tells the story of Willie Loman, a washed up traveling salesman who has a hard time recognizing the emptiness and ordinariness of his life and whose desire to make the necessary changes is just not quite strong enough. It’s a brilliantly written story that some find depressing, but in it there is a painful hope as Willie’s son Biff comes to terms with his own emptiness and takes charge of his life to begin the process of change; to pull out of the downward spiral that consumes his father.

In many ways Willie Loman is “everyman”. His emptiness is our emptiness. His ordinariness is our ordinariness. His struggle to make a better life is our struggle. Even in hard circumstances we see glimmers of hope of how life could be better. Sometimes we pursue that hope and the doors open, but like Willie, sometimes those doors close.

I don’t believe in happenstance — I believe in design. Which is why I had to be in the audience of Death of a Salesman on my last night of my forties (an audience who, by the way, gave a standing ovation to the cast of the show — Bravo!). Over the last week as my turning 50 drew nearer I began to have an amazing (even surprising) sense of peace about this big day. And guess what I realized? It’s you, my friends, who will make “middle age” so wonderful.

When I was in my 30’s I didn’t have many friends in their 60’s and 70’s, but now in my 50’s I do. I also now have many friends in their 20’s and 30’s. This alone is going to make my middle age 50’s an enormous joy; the wisdom of those ahead of me, and the crazy adventure of those coming into their own behind me. In many ways I feel like I’m perfectly balanced on one of those old school teeter-totters; my older friends on one side and my younger friends on the other… perfectly balanced.

So as I stand on the edge of a new decade of life allow me to make a declaration (my anti Willie Loman declaration). As long as God allows me to stand on this great green earth I intend to do the following: to create out loud (films, art, beauty), to emote out loud (tears, laughter, joy), and mostly, to love out loud (family, friends, even enemies). I hope you will help keep me accountable to these passions and that you may even be inspired to pursue your own.

Making Up Books

I believe it was in the seventh grade when I first recall intentionally using my gift of creativity for deceitful purposes. In my English Literature class at Lincoln Junior High in El Paso we received an assignment: go to the library, pick out a novel, read it, write a report on it, and lastly, give an oral report about the book. If I recall correctly, the only requirement was a minimum page length of the book we would choose. I remember going to the school library with my classmates, I remember goofing off with some of my friends, I remember wandering the aisles, I remember searching for just the right book, I remember my friends checking out their books, and I remember leaving empty-handed.

I guess I thought I would return to the the library the next day at lunch, or perhaps I thought that my friends had checked out all of the “good” books, but somewhere along the way I had the idea to just “makeup” a book. Not “write” a book, but just simply “make up” a book out of thin air. Not only would I get the chance to be creative, but I would be able to deceive my teacher along with my entire class! I don’t know if I had balls the size of coconuts or if I was just being a silly (yet creative) junior high boy. Regardless, I committed to my criminal ways and began daydreaming, developing plot & characters, action & subplots, etc. etc.

I’m fairly confident that I wrote the greatest book report ever written about a book that didn’t exist. Unfortunately the title and the plot of my masterpiece have been lost to history, perhaps trapped deep in dark cognitive space inside my brain, or in the mind of my teacher or perhaps one of my classmates that heard my brilliant oral report. Oh, how I wish I had that paper today! I would love to read what my seventh grade self delivered.

I think most of us would agree that it takes an enormous amount of guts to try and pass off a “make-believe book” on a teacher of English Literature. I remember thinking that if I was going to be able to pull this off, I needed to have details. A title, plot, and authors name we’re essential, but a Dewey Decimal number was icing on the cake, so I made up one of those, too. I like to think that one detail helped sell the whole thing.

I may have been crazy or stupid (or probably both), but I pulled it off. I turned in my paper and I stood up in front of the class and gave my oral report on a book that didn’t exist. When I received my grades and realized I aced the assignments I felt like a creative genius, like a hero, and I guess, a little bit like a fraud. I tried to focus on the amazing creative accomplishment, so I didn’t spend too much time dwelling on the deceitful nature of my actions.

So for a few days around that event back in the seventh grade, I was a little cooler, a little less dorky—a young teenage boy who walked a little taller around Lincoln Junior High on Mulberry Avenue… even if it was only in my mind.

Not Just Another Podcast

On March 8th another podcast will launch and in doing so it will become part of the enormous heap of podcast material that is available for consumption. So why is this new one significant? I’ll get to that in a moment, but first a few stats. Podcasting has seen enormous growth since it’s inception in 2003. So why do we need another one? In 2015 it was estimated that between 180,000 and 206,000 podcasts had been created and those numbers have only grown since. Again, why do we need more?

There are podcasts on pretty much every conceivable topic that reach out to a wide variety of demographics, which means that if you create a new one, it needs to be unique. This new one is. The way I look at is that it should have broad topic appeal, and yet be tailored to a specific audience. Yep! The infographic at the end of this article (courtesy of Jon Nastor & Copyblogger) gives a great summary of the history and state of the podcast industry.

So let’s talk a little about this new podcast that will launch on March 8th. It’s called the By War & By God Podcast. Although not at all preachy, it has a Christian angle to it, which places it right into the largest podcast segment that exists (see the infographic below). Potential broad appeal. The podcast is based on the EMMY® nominated film By War & By God, which also places it into the 4th largest podcast segment “TV and Film” (see the infographic). More potential broad appeal. The series will focus on the Vietnam war veterans who appear in the film, but in the podcast we have room to go much deeper into their stories than the film was able to. So there is a war element to this series. Big deal, there are a lot of other war podcasts out there. But what makes the By War & By God Podcast unique is that this group of Veterans goes back to Vietnam to love and serve the people of that beautiful land. Whoa… That is unique! That aspect of the podcast will help us stand out from the crowd.

With the success of major recent films like Last Days In Vietnam there has been a renewed interest in the Vietnam War. It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 40 years since that war ended which means there is a huge potential audience of people that didn’t watch that war on the news every night. Many of these have never heard the personal stories from the soldiers themselves and that’s a part of what this new podcast will do. But the podcast is much bigger than merely sharing stories of the war. It’s a podcast about reconciliation. That’s a big word. Most of the men in the film and the podcast came home from that war wondering why they survived when many of their friends didn’t. They felt the survivors guilt. Some self-medicated to try to cope. Others tried to blend into society, but couldn’t. And each of them felt the need inside for some type of reconciliation. Some felt they had destroyed the country of Vietnam. Others felt they had destroyed the people of Vietnam. And most of them sensed this magnetic pull to go back to the land of the war. They sensed a need for reconciliation between themselves and the land, the people of Vietnam, their enemies, and ultimately between their souls and God. Since 1989 these Vets With A Mission have taken nearly 1400 veterans back to Vietnam as part of this ministry of reconciliation. Who knew this type of work was taking place?

So on Wednesday March 8th, we launch this very unique podcast. I hope you’ll join us as we share the stories of these great men and women who fought in a war, but who became heroes many years after that war was over by going back and serving some of the poorest of the poor in Vietnam. Take a few minutes and listen to the preview episode of the By War & By God Podcast right now. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, so check it out and please subscribe.

Here’s the infographic that shows the history and details of podcasting…

From 2003 to 2016: The Astounding Growth of Podcasting [Infographic]

The Election – Two Wings of the Same Bird

Well folks… the election is looming large. And for the majority of us, we just want to get it behind us. I think most of us agree that this has been an ugly election cycle. For as much as the Cubs and the Indians brought so many of us together around a game of baseball, Trump and Hillary have divided America into a very polarizing “us” and “them”. Of course most of us hope that “our candidate” will win, but for about half of us that won’t be the case.

At nearly 49 and a half I’ve lived through enough presidency’s of both political parties to know that we as a nation will survive regardless of who wins on Tuesday. If you asked either candidate about the other taking the oval office they will talk doom and gloom and despair and the end of America… and guess what, they’d both be lying to you.

As a filmmaker and a small business owner I often look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of crew members or my employees. And you know what I see? I see a diverse group of people that compliment each other in amazing ways. And as a country we are no different. The passions of the left and the passions of the right are very distinct. But guess what? Together they make us an even greater nation. They really are two wings of the same bird.

As I’ve scrolled through my Facebook feed over the past few months I’ve noticed something interesting. I have some really level-headed, sincere, honorable, passionate friends on both sides. These are people I would trust with my children. I have friends I respect and admire who are voting for Hillary and I have friends I respect and admire who are voting for Trump. And I guess this is why I really believe we as a nation are going to be okay.

If you are reading this and are of voting age then the outcome of this election is in your hands. Its up to all of us—two wings of the same bird. Go vote! And remember this… regardless of which candidate you choose I won’t unfriend you on Facebook.

Does Grace Live Here?

About 10:40 tonight the kids saw headlights pulling down our 600 foot driveway; a very rare thing out in the middle of nowhere. The vehicle proceeded to turn around to leave and then stopped. I watched from the window for a moment not recognizing the car. Flipping a couple of exterior lights on I stepped out into the cold night air.

A 40-something African-American opened the car door and started up the flight of steps. “Does Grace live here?” he asked, as he stopped at the landing. “No, no one named Grace,” I replied. He looked down at something in his hand. “Williamson? I think it’s… Savannah Grace,” he said and he held up a drivers license and a wallet. “I found this in the road out by Food Lion.”

She didn’t know it, but my daughter had left her wallet on top of her car after filling up with gas. I took the items from the stranger as he held them out and then I sat down on the step. I asked him his name, stared at him as he told me, thanked him several times, and had my faith in humanity restored.

“Does Grace live here?” What a powerful sentence. I sure hope it does.

This true story occurred on February 11th, 2014. This autobiographical post is part of my series of short articles called “Events That Shaped A Life”. Keep your eye out for more posts from this series.

Thoughts About Down Syndrome… or Encountering God Through Zoe

My wife Karen and I were recently asked to share some thoughts with our church about how we have encountered God recently. We decided to approach it through the life-changing experience of raising a girl with Down syndrome. I’ve included video from of our talk, plus the written version which contains a few more details. We give this in hopes to encourage other families who may be just beginning down this path. We’re eight years in at this point and it’s been a pretty good ride overall, but it certainly hasn’t been without its trials, doubts, and fears…

Oh, and the photo above is of Zoe, me, and a little too much of my leg… sorry about that!


KENT: Good morning! I’m Kent Williamson and this is my wife Karen and we are going to share our Encounter with God through the life of our daughter Zoe.

KAREN: We love to talk about Zoe! But Zoe is not a short term experience or even a season of life. Just in her being, she represents a change from one path to another, from one destination to a very different one than we had planned. But we can certainly testify to God’s goodness and grace through what was a major life adjustment and transition.

Zoe is our sixth child and she was born with Down syndrome. We weren’t actually expecting to have a sixth child. If you’ve seen our family together, you might have noticed a rather large gap between Zoe and the other five. So that part was a surprise—the week of my 40th birthday, I might add. And we didn’t learn about her Down syndrome until she was born, so that was yet another surprise.

KENT: I will never forget, looking into her eyes for the very first time, thinking I’ve “seen those eyes  before” and then I realize, “Oh my gosh, my little girl has Down syndrome”…. That moment felt like someone had swung a baseball bat as hard as they could square across my chest.  I’ve never felt so very alone as in those first few minutes of Zoe’s life when I knew about the Down syndrome, but Karen didn’t know yet.

KAREN: And nothing prepares you for that moment. Nothing prepares you for the time when you were expecting one thing in life, and are then handed something completely different. I’m not sure I can describe in words how it feels when that “thing” is handed to you by a stranger, wrapped up in a receiving blanket. It could have been the scene at an ordinary restaurant when I might have said, Oh no, I’m sorry, this is not what I ordered. Please take this back, and bring me what I ordered. But we all know, life doesn’t work that way, does it?

KENT: We had five other kids who were anxious to meet their new little sister. So what do you do? For the kids sake, do you just ignore the Down syndrome diagnosis and pretend it doesn’t exist? We’ve never been that kind of family, so instead we sat them all down on the end of the bed in that hospital room at the old Martha Jefferson and I told them, as best I could, about Zoe’s 21st chromosome.  What I thought I was doing was explaining that Zoe has Down syndrome. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was really explaining that our family has Down syndrome.

KAREN: I regret to say now that those first days and weeks were for me full of sadness and anguish. And I wish I could say that it was only a short time before things turned brighter in my heart. In reality, it was a couple years before these unexpected circumstances felt kindof normal. And in that time, I did an awful lot of soul-searching, trying to understand my grief, and understand God in the midst of it. I had to ask the hard questions of myself like, Why is this so hard for me? What are my beliefs about what my family should look like, and what are those actually based on? And down deep below the surface, I was discovering a lot of pride and misplaced values. I was seeing in myself a flawed view of myself and the world around me. I was taking pride in things that I had no part in making a reality, and I had been placing merit and value on things that were superficial and temporal.

I read a quote recently by Charles Spurgeon that hits right on my guilt. “Be not proud of race, face, place, or grace.” In some rather subtle ways, I had been valuing things like status, intellect, appearance, correct behavior. But now alongside my grief, I had this child who I was falling in love with. I was beginning to embrace a child who wouldn’t be able to meet these expectations. So something in me would need to change in order to make a place for Zoe in my heart.

I am here to tell you, God did do a work in my heart. It was incredibly painful in the beginning, and humbling. But somewhere along the way, when your values and standards shift, you find beauty in things that once were not beautiful. And joy in things that once were not joyful. Even in the earliest days after Zoe’s birth, I was filled with an enormous measure of grace for almost everyone I encountered. I was nearly overcome with the realization that we are all given a place in this life, a color, status, genetic makeup, even a faith, that has nothing to do with our own will or determination. All we can do is build on what we’ve been given. That realization invoked in me a care about people I would previously have overlooked.

KENT: It didn’t take long for me to bond with Zoe. She makes me smile, laugh. and cry… just like my kids without Down syndrome. Kids with Down syndrome will skin their knees. pinch their fingers, bump their heads. They will also learn to climb stairs one big step at a time, ride their bike with training wheels, and love to jump on trampolines. And Zoe loves to read. As a matter of fact she just finished first grade as one of the top readers in her class. And they will steal your heart and never give it back.

KAREN: So I was given this child. She was a gift I didn’t know I needed. She was a gift I didn’t easily receive. But the gift has never been the problem—my own fears, uncertainties, and misplaced values were the problem. It turns out that Zoe has been a blessing beyond our wildest imaginings. There are still hard places, and challenges, and sometimes we grieve about various things. But I think I can honestly say we never grieve over what Zoe is not, or what she is lacking.

KENT: My little girl doesn’t care that she has Down syndrome. She just wants to be loved like the rest of us. Our family has Down syndrome and that diagnosis is okay with me. I’ve realized over the last 8 years that I am a better person with Down syndrome than I was without. It has made me more compassionate; more accepting of others; more in love with people and all their complex issues. I am a better man with Zoe in my life. God has given me such a wonderful gift—a gift that in my ignorance I would have rejected if I could have.

KAREN: So what have I learned, what do I value now? I value laughter, because Zoe is hilarious and constantly makes us laugh. I value music, because every since she first found her voice, the first sound I hear from her room in the morning is her singing. I value innocence and purity, because though I know she has a sinful nature, she really is not naughty or mischievous, she is kind and generous. I value authenticity, because Zoe is completely who she is without pretense or concern for image. I value connectedness in relationship, because these kids, our other five kids, have the most beautiful relationships with Zoe I have ever seen among siblings.

To quote another mom who’s further along the journey with Down syndrome, “Can she live a full life without ever solving a quadratic equation? Without reading Dostoyevsky? I’m pretty sure she can. Can I live a full life without learning to cherish and welcome those in this world who are different from me? I’m pretty sure I can’t.”

KENT: “Zoe” means “life” in Greek—both physical and spiritual. It was the name Karen and I decided on before she was born. And as we see her as the gift of God she is, her name couldn’t be more fitting.

My First Day On The Set… Bozo The Clown

The first time I ever set foot in a television studio was when I was a young boy. A friend had a birthday and a portion of the party was to watch the taping of the local Bozo the Clown Show. In the early 70’s in El Paso, Texas, a local weatherman named Howell Eurich would dress up as Bozo and entertain the kids each week. The Channel Four Studios of KDBC-TV (formerly KROD) had a colorful and fun set where the filming occurred and although I don’t remember the content of the show I do remember being mesmerized by the cameras and lights and showmanship of it all.

I never knew, while I sat in the bleachers laughing with my friends as part of the studio audience, that my life was being shaped, but obviously it was. I’ve been in love with production for as long as I can remember… perhaps it has something to do with capturing and immortalizing a moment… perhaps it has to do with entertaining, educating, and enlightening… whatever it is it all started for me with a weatherman who would dress up in a clown’s outfit in order to entertain the kids.

I learned much later in my life that different television markets had their own version of Bozo the Clown. Apparently a TV Station could license the show and they would receive the clown outfit, wig, nose, shoes, and scripts. All they would need to do was provide the talent, lights, cameras & action.

I also learned some of the tragic events that would play out in the life of El Paso’s clown and weatherman, Howell Eurich. Apparently he fell in love with the stations weather-woman Gail Gordon (even though they were both married to other people at the time). Their affair blossomed on-screen, which they say was good for ratings. Together Gail and Howell adopted a platinum blonde Lasha Apso that became a TV star herself.

Puffy Little Cloud
Puffy Little Cloud

Named Puffy Little Cloud, the dog would appear with Howell and Gail on-air for the weather segment. Puffy had over 650 hats and 360 outfits in her collection, many of which were hand-sewn by adoring viewers. She would show up in a raincoat on the rare days when rain was in El Paso’s forecast and with sunglasses when hot weather was due. Some say Puffy would receive 50 letters a day from fans all over.

Howell Eurich & Gail Gordon (upper left)
Howell Eurich & Gail Gordon (upper left)

Puffy was the brides-maid when Howell and Gail were married, but not everything would work out the way they hoped. After five years together, the love affair that had blossomed in the television studio had run it’s course. Howell was broken-hearted and Gail was moving on. On Wednesday, November 3rd overnight clouds gave way to clear morning skies. By 10AM scattered clouds would dot the sky but the temperature would only rise to 57 degrees. That day Howell dropped Puffy off at a friends house and then went to the station to record one last commercial. Afterwards he drove home, parked his car inside the garage, and left the engine running. By mid-afternoon the clouds would vanish and the skies would clear, but the cloud of carbon monoxide in the garage would do its job. It was November of 1982 when Howell Eurich took his own life.

When I walked onto the set of “Bozo’s Big Top” as a child I didn’t know how significant a moment it would be for me. In 1982 when I heard that the local weatherman had killed himself I didn’t think much of it… I don’t believe I even knew that it was the weatherman who had played the role of Bozo all those years earlier. It wasn’t until 2012 or so that I started thinking about that day on the set so long ago that I began researching it and learned the story of Howell’s fate.

I wish I could send a note of thanks to Howell, or better yet, to meet him and to shake his hand and say “thank you”—not only entertaining us children by dressing up as a clown, but for unknowingly igniting a spark deep inside of a little blond-haired boy who would grow up to have a career in the film & video world. I guess I’ll just have to say it here… “Thanks, Howell… thank you very much!”

This autobiographical post is part of my series of short articles called “Events That Shaped A Life”. Keep your eye out for more posts from this series.

SOURCES: Weather details for Nov 3, 1982: Weather Underground. Other details: Tales From the Morgue, Genealogy Trails, Texas Monthly – October 1979 pg. 117, EPVMA Animal Hall of Fame.