Over the years, it has been common for Mayor Ronnie to be enthralled with a book, share it with me, let it inspire me, and the result has been a series of articles on any number of topics for this column. I for one am a citizen that is glad that we have a voracious reader for a mayor, and one who is determined to be a lifelong learner. However, I don’t think I have ever seen him as excited as he was the day he received by surprise an autographed copy of a book entitled The Awakening of H.K. Derryberry: My Unlikely Friendship With The Boy Who Remembers Everything. It is written by Athens High School graduate Jimmy Bradford, and I hope it becomes as much of a classic as The Miracle Worker, or Radio.
Jimmy and Ronnie have known each other for over 50 years, and a few years ago, through their friendship, Ronnie became aware of the young man simply named “H.K.” The child was born blind, has cerebral palsy, is paralyzed on one side, and has been diagnosed as being one of six people on earth to have what is known as HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. In a word, H.K. remembers everything. It is as though his mind is a security camera that never runs out of tape and goes on forever. He just “backs it up,” and tells you with precision what happened, and the amount of time elapsed since the event is of no consequence. Through a series of what can only be fairly described as providential events, H.K. and Jim became friends when H.K. was nine years old. He is now in his mid-20s, has gone on to become a highly successful speaker, and has spoken here in Athens at Central Church of Christ on more than one occasion.
Mayor Ronnie has a treasure, and it is a letter he received from H.K., written in Braille by the use of H.K.’s one good hand. Most of the time it is visible in Ronnie’s office, and it reminds him that with God’s help and determination, disabilities can be turned into strengths.
“I invited him here a couple of years ago,” said the mayor, “and made him Mayor for a Day. He sat in my chair and decided that he would make sure that all the ladies who worked at City Hall would get a raise.” We both laughed. While Mayor Ronnie worked on the budget, I read the first 25 pages of the book, and I am hooked. Here is how Jimmy Bradford describes his first encounter with H.K: “Like a pick-pocket honing his stealthy craft among the gawking tourists of Nashville’s down-town honky-tonks, H.K. Derryberry had committed the perfect crime: he stole my heart.”
Former Alabama coach Gene Stallings calls it a “must read.” Country music legend Allen Jackson’s endorsement on the back cover says, “This heart-warming story will change you for good.” H.K. and Jimmy changed each other for good, that’s for sure, and the ripple effect is far-reaching. H.K. has gone on to graduate from school, is the only known Braille user who can navigate the system with just one hand, and has no sense of being limited. Mayor Ronnie and I talked for quite a while about what a blessing the book and the lives of these two are for Athens, and then we prayed, for it was time for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner