Jon Will’s Gift

I opened the Almanac this morning and read two pieces.  One was the ongoing theological diatribe between T-Bone and Michael.  The other was Dips’s extraordinary uplifting piece about his extraordinary uplifting daughter Kate.

Both pieces set me wondering about the meaning of life (as many things do these days).  On matters theological, I decided that it matters not a jot what a person believes.  All that matters is what we do.  In all the things written in that debate over the last 2 weeks, the one that struck me most was that both the Bible and the Almanac are the product of goat herders and tent weavers from disparate tribes scattered across a wide desert land.  There seems to be a collective wisdom in that process, despite the temporary insanity of many individual contributors.

More importantly, Kate and Dips made me reflect on the nature of wisdom.  When I reflect on my own life journey I often think of the many times my own cleverness enabled me “to think my way up my own fundamental orifice.”  My friend and fellow Eagles desperate, Tony, had none of my advantages.  In fact life bestowed piles of the reverse on his early years, and from then he managed to multiply plenty of his own misfortunes.  But he never gave up on the search for happiness and purpose.  The first time I heard him talk I thought “shit this bloke has got more life wisdom in his little finger than I have managed to accumulate in the last 50 years.”

And so it is with Kate.  Her story reminded me of the American social and political commentator George Will, and his son Jon who has Down Syndrome.  Both are baseball tragics.  George is specially afflicted being a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. They are known as the “Loveable Losers” having not won a World Series in 104 years – the longest championship drought of any major North American sports team.  Read it and be glad, you Dogs and Saints fans.

I came across George Will in the late 80’s when I briefly worked in the US.  I was captured by the elegance of his prose, even when I disagreed with his opinions.  And also by the generousity of his spirit.  Unlike other conservatives his railings against welfare and government stemmed from a deep belief that they impoverished more than they enabled.  That good intentions were not the same as good policy.  Much like Noel Pearson’s writings about indigenous policy and social disadvantage in Australia.

I recommend Will’s book on baseball “Men at Work”.  It is an engaging series of case studies on how ‘natural’ brilliance is the end product of thousands of hours of unseen practice and study.   In it he often talked about his son Jon’s shared love of baseball, and the ennobling influence of his son on his own attitudes.

Below is the article that Will wrote in 2012 on the occasion of Jon’s 40th Birthday.  The link (here) is worth checking out for the pictures of Jon with many sporting and political celebrities.

I look forward to seeing similar pictures of Kate with Our Dawn and Our Shane (Gould not Warne) in the coming years.

And if any Almanacker uses this story as a matter for debate on things that divide rather than unite this generous community, I shall personally smite them.  For my wife is an Avenging Eagle.

Jon Will’s gift

By George F. Will, May 02, 2012

When Jonathan Frederick Will was born 40 years ago — on May 4, 1972, his father’s 31st birthday — the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome was about 20 years. That is understandable.

The day after Jon was born, a doctor told Jon’s parents that the first question for them was whether they intended to take Jon home from the hospital. Nonplussed, they said they thought that is what parents do with newborns. Not doing so was, however, still considered an acceptable choice for parents who might prefer to institutionalize or put up for adoption children thought to have necessarily bleak futures. Whether warehoused or just allowed to languish from lack of stimulation and attention, people with Down syndrome, not given early and continuing interventions, were generally thought to be incapable of living well, and hence usually did not live as long as they could have.

Down syndrome is a congenital condition resulting from a chromosomal defect — an extra 21st chromosome. It causes varying degrees of mental retardation and some physical abnormalities, including small stature, a single crease across the center of the palms, flatness of the back of the head, a configuration of the tongue that impedes articulation, and a slight upward slant of the eyes. In 1972, people with Down syndrome were still commonly called Mongoloids.

Now they are called American citizens, about 400,000 of them, and their life expectancy is 60. Much has improved. There has, however, been moral regression as well.

Jon was born just 19 years after James Watson and Francis Crick published their discoveries concerning the structure of DNA, discoveries that would enhance understanding of the structure of Jon, whose every cell is imprinted with Down syndrome. Jon was born just as prenatal genetic testing, which can detect Down syndrome, was becoming common. And Jon was born eight months before Roe v. Wade inaugurated this era of the casual destruction of pre-born babies.

This era has coincided, not just coincidentally, with the full, garish flowering of the baby boomers’ vast sense of entitlement, which encompasses an entitlement to exemption from nature’s mishaps, and to a perfect baby. So today science enables what the ethos ratifies, the choice of killing children with Down syndrome before birth. That is what happens to 90 percent of those whose parents receive a Down syndrome diagnosis through prenatal testing.

Which is unfortunate, and not just for them. Judging by Jon, the world would be improved by more people with Down syndrome, who are quite nice, as humans go. It is said we are all born brave, trusting and greedy, and remain greedy. People with Down syndrome must remain brave in order to navigate society’s complexities. They have no choice but to be trusting because, with limited understanding, and limited abilities to communicate misunderstanding, they, like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” always depend on the kindness of strangers. Judging by Jon’s experience, they almost always receive it.

Two things that have enhanced Jon’s life are the Washington subway system, which opened in 1976, and the Washington Nationals baseball team, which arrived in 2005. He navigates the subway expertly, riding it to the Nationals ballpark, where he enters the clubhouse a few hours before game time and does a chore or two. The players, who have climbed to the pinnacle of a steep athletic pyramid, know that although hard work got them there, they have extraordinary aptitudes because they are winners of life’s lottery. Major leaguers, all of whom understand what it is to be gifted, have been uniformly and extraordinarily welcoming to Jon, who is not.

Except he is, in a way. He has the gift of serenity, in this sense:

The eldest of four siblings, he has seen two brothers and a sister surpass him in size, and acquire cars and college educations. He, however, with an underdeveloped entitlement mentality, has been equable about life’s sometimes careless allocation of equity. Perhaps this is partly because, given the nature of Down syndrome, neither he nor his parents have any tormenting sense of what might have been. Down syndrome did not alter the trajectory of his life; Jon was Jon from conception on.

This year Jon will spend his birthday where every year he spends 81 spring, summer and autumn days and evenings, at Nationals Park, in his seat behind the home team’s dugout. The Phillies will be in town, and Jon will be wishing them ruination, just another man, beer in hand, among equals in the republic of baseball.


  1. Peter B – thanks for this wonderful piece. So many powerful points you have made here.

    Kate has taught me a lot more than I have taught her.

    I regard this piece as compulsory reading. Congratulations on having the courage to pen it. Everyone is entitled to have a shot at life.

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