He couldn’t fly, and he didn’t have X-ray vision. He didn’t shoot spider webs or climb building walls. He never rescued an entire city from the grasps of a villain. In fact, this ‘superhero’ couldn’t even walk.
Bernie Jones was born with severe cerebral palsy. Confined to his side yard, he experienced the outside world from the seat of his wheelchair. He never vacationed in another country or experienced other cultures; he rarely made it out of his hometown. Bernie Jones did, however, grant his childhood friend with lessons in acceptance and tolerance that even someone who traveled the world couldn’t teach.
Rick D. Niece, Ph.D., President of the University of the Ozarks, recently published The Side-Yard Superhero, a memoir-style recount of his childhood friendship with Bernie Jones.
“Society is fascinated with superheroes,” says Niece. “We define superheroes as those who encompass superhuman strengths and abilities. What we fail to recognize is that there are heroes alongside us every day—we just have to keep our minds open.”
Niece grew up in quaint DeGraff, OH, a picturesque small town. With a population of 900, everyone knew everyone else. Thus, before Niece met Bernie Jones on his paper route, he knew him, or at least the fact that he was in a wheelchair.
“People, especially children, fear what they don’t know,” admits Niece, “and cerebral palsy was something very unfamiliar to me. As a child, I didn’t understand why a boy had to live life strapped down in a wheelchair, unable to go beyond his side yard.”
In The Side-Yard Superhero, Niece shares the adventures he experienced with Jones and recounts the important lessons he learned. Jones revealed to Niece the value of the educational experience—as he could not go to school. He reminded Niece never to underestimate even the smallest accomplishments, like dressing yourself in the morning. Most importantly, Jones taught Niece never to complain, judge, or stereotype another person.
“Often, people walk by persons with disabilities and ignore them. They avoid eye contact almost as though they are invisible,” Niece adds. “A smile and a hello can make a person’s day. A moment of conversation can make a week.”
The Side-Yard Superhero will take readers on a nostalgic adventure. Themes in the book include:
Realizing that there are ‘superheroes’ all around us
How to uphold a sense of optimism during pessimistic times
The memories, characters, and innocence of small-town living
The acceptance of others who are different than we are
The importance of tolerance and sincerely listening to an opposing point of view
The need for a sense of community in our lives—a place where we belong and are unconditionally accepted
Why we should not judge others or measure others by their weaknesses.