None of my well-wishing friends has asked me, "Was it worth all the trouble?" But whenever one of them does, I will have the answer. I will just look him in the eye and say, "A champion lives in my house."
Trouble—some people might call it that, but I never will. My daughter Shelley is a great champion now, and only 12 years ago she was a shy, pathetic little girl who could scarcely walk. It has taken a lot of work and sacrifice and I have washed a lot of dishes, but I'd never call it trouble.
Shelley's story begins in 1943 when she was six years old. I was a lieutenant in the Navy then, studying radar at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. It was a dark year for me, as it was for most folks. My mother was seriously ill, dying, at home in Virginia. The war seemed to stretch out endlessly, and I knew that soon I would have to leave our little family—Shelley was then our only child—and go overseas. In the midst of all our problems, little Shelley was stricken with polio.
She was in the hospital for weeks with her right leg paralyzed, and our hearts were torn apart as we watched her suffer. When she was finally released we did not know whether she would ever walk again. What my wife and I thought, and what we went through, no one who has not had a similar experience can ever realize.
After several months of systematic treatment and exercise Shelley did walk—but with a limp that brought tears to our eyes.
I could do very little to help her—the years 1944 and 1945 allowed me little time for my family. I was transferred to Washington and then I was sent to the Pacific for seven months. When the war finally ended I returned, was released and took a civilian job with the Navy. In the meantime my wife had done a heroic job with Shelley. While I was gone she had worked patiently with the leg, month after month, and by the time I came home Shelley was riding a bicycle. The limp, however, was still there.
We settled down to live in Washington. In 1947, when Shelley was almost 10 and our second daughter, Emily, just a baby, we bought a summer cottage in nearby Sherwood Forest. In the summer Sherwood Forest teems with children who compete with each other in sports like tennis, golf, horseback riding and swimming. I thought Shelley would compete with the others for the trophies that are awarded at the end of the season and that the exercise would strengthen her leg. But it didn't work out that way.
After Shelley had spent one summer at Sherwood Forest and we were starting our second, she came to me one day and said, "Daddy, I just don't seem to be any good at anything. All the other kids play golf or tennis or ride horseback or swim, but I'm just no good."
I had previously noticed a tendency in Shelley to be bashful and shy. To me, it indicated the beginning of a serious inferiority complex and I was worried. Over and over I asked myself how I could help her get rid of it. I examined my own complexes, remembering the sinking feeling in my stomach on the few occasions when I had been asked to speak in public. I remembered the times I had neglected to apply for a better engineering job because I felt I was not competent—only to find that some less qualified engineer later got the job and succeeded in it. I felt that I had suffered from feelings of inferiority, and now I saw the same insidious thing taking root in Shelley. I knew something had to be done about it.
The answer seemed obvious. In some way, in some field, she must be made to be good enough to have confidence in herself. I began to watch her closely, looking for something in which she had some natural aptitude.