The adventures of the finisher

Sunday, August 1, 2004

Dave Hardesty's life story reads like flipping the pages of an adventure novel. The chapters are brimming with his energetic passions -- ultra marathons, triathlons, survival camping.

Today, he's tucked in his 14-foot Pungo 140, gliding down the Missouri River on a seven-day kayak voyage with a group of strangers.

The trip is merely a preliminary round to an excursion he's dreamed of for 20 years: kayaking down the Mississippi River from Lake Itaska, Minn., to Cape Girardeau.

Hardesty spent part of his childhood living in a boxcar in Scott City. The 54-year-old retired in 2003 after 30 years with Southwestern Bell as a technician. He started jogging 15 years ago on doctor's orders. Now the feeling of tennis shoes pounding pavement is as much a part of his life as breathing.

Over the years, he's participated in marathons, relays, triathlons and 5Ks throughout Missouri and in Illinois, Arkansas and Tennessee. He's never placed first, but that's not why he runs.

I'm slow, he'll tell you, but I finish.

Maybe that's part of the reason Hardesty picked up the phone in late 2003 and dialed a local elementary school.

"I want to volunteer," he told the woman who answered. "I don't want to sharpen pencils and I don't want to make copies. I want to help kids learn to read."

He was put on hold for a few moments, then the woman returned to the line and asked when he could come.

"Right now," he said. And he did.

That's how he met Gail Lowrance and the eight special-needs children in her class at Blanchard Elementary. He was hooked from the moment he walked in the door; perhaps he saw a little bit of himself in the struggles of Lowrance's pupils.

Some had behavior disorders, some had mental disorders, some had both. They'd had a slow start in life but, no doubt about it, these children could be finishers too. One of the best ways to help them cross the finish line, Hardesty believes, is literacy.

He's learned that lesson many times in his life -- from his best friend and wife, Marla, a speech and language pathologist at an Illinois elementary school; from a local adult literacy program, where he tutored for two years.

But most of all, it was through his three granddaughters, who lived with him for a few years. They developed a custom of reading together every night, and because of them, he promised himself he would help other children learn to read after he retired.

He didn't expect to work with special-needs children, but he did pick Blanchard Elementary for a specific reason: It has one of the largest populations of low-income students in the school district. He volunteered three days a week for three hours a day in Lowrance's classroom.

A different volunteer

The students called him "Mr. Hardesty," and it wasn't long before he was more than the typical volunteer. He was the only male role model several of the students had. He went on field trips with them and attended their concerts.

When one of Lowrance's students wasn't allowed to participate in the end-of-the-year fourth-grade trip to Jefferson City, Hardesty volunteered to go as a personal chaperone so the 10-year-old foster child could see the state's capitol. He climbed 238 steps on crutches with a cast on his broken foot to show the boy the top of the capitol's rotunda.

The climb to the top may have been a little slow, but he and the 10-year-old finished.

When Hardesty tells that story, he leaves out the part about his broken foot to focus on how privileged he was to participate in the class trip. He doesn't mention that without him, the boy likely wouldn't have been able to go.

That part of the story comes from Lowrance, who would bestow sainthood on her modest volunteer if it were within her power.

"He has the biggest heart in the whole wide world," Lowrance said.

In June, Hardesty was presented with a district volunteerism award based on a nomination by Lowrance. He shies away from that kind of attention.

"I don't want anyone to think I'm a bald-headed, bearded Mother Theresa," Hardesty said. "I'm just an old telephone man. I get more out of it than the kids do."

He'll be back at Blanchard this fall, helping children learn to read.

There's just one more promise left to fulfill. It's a big one -- as wide and long as the Mississippi. Right now, there are a lot of uncertainties.

His wife worries about him making the journey alone. Even he's not exactly sure how he'll accomplish it. Though he's read nearly all of the books on the subject that the public library has to offer, Hardesty hasn't been kayaking very long.

This week's 185-mile trip down the Missouri River is the biggest he's taken. He's not completely sure he can handle the Mississippi. But Hardesty has dreamed about the 40-day voyage down America's mightiest river for two decades now.

True, the dream has gotten off to a slow start. But he is, after all, a finisher.

335-6611, ext. 128

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