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His Son’s Brave Battle to Recover from Polio Bolstered a Father’s Faith

In this story from the October 1954 issue of Guideposts, a father writes a touching letter to his son.
1950s teens line up for the polio vaccine

Guideposts celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. We’ve been looking back at stories that mark important events during those years, moments when America came together.

In the early fifties, polio was a national scourge. The epidemic peaked in 1952; there were nearly 58,000 cases, with more than 3,000 deaths and some 21,000 people left paralyzed, most of them children.

The next year, Jonas Salk announced his polio vaccine. The first volunteer to test it had been Bill Kirkpatrick, a teenage polio patient. (Someone who’d already contracted polio wouldn’t get the disease again if something went wrong.) In 1954, his father wrote an open letter to his son in gratitude for his role in creating the lifesaving vaccine.

Bill not only recovered from polio but thrived. He graduated from Franklin & Marshall College, went to seminary and became a minister in the Episcopal Church. He served in several dioceses, scaling back his work in the 1980s, when he developed post-polio syndrome. He died in 2003.

Here are his father’s poignant words, as published in the October 1954 issue of Guideposts.

Dear Son:
Every father has a special feeling about his son that’s hard to put into words. From the day you were born, back in 1935, and all during your next 19 years of achievement, I saw a little of myself in you—just as I did in Joe, your older brother, during his school days—my hopes, my dreams, my own ambitions unfulfilled.

I was proud of your boyish ability to cast for trout, your skill in other sports. I’ll not forget the football game at Shady Side when you, a 130-pound tackle, kept breaking through the opposing team’s line to down their 175-pound fullback. When you were rushed to the hospital that Labor Day weekend in 1951 and put on the critical list with polio, I couldn’t believe it. In the ambulance, I was too numb to say anything, while your mother kept whispering, “Keep your faith in God, Son; remember the Psalm: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.…’”

As you fought for life, I tried to put the pieces of my own confused faith back together. How much faith did I have?

Once before I had seen it demonstrated—back in 1928, when your mother was seriously ill. The doctors had given her up. I prayed then that she might live, and my prayers were answered. Had I forgotten in so short a time?

Now, 23 years later, I had to admit to myself that in this crisis with polio, your mother’s prayers and faith were stronger than mine.

While the doctors were fighting for your life during the next weeks, you were more concerned about another polio-stricken boy in the same ward. Remember how he kept saying, “I wish I could die, I wish I could die.…”

The Reverend Mr. Penrose was the only person permitted to visit you while in isolation, and he told me how you repeated the Twenty-Third Psalm to this boy and prayed for him. Also how you led prayers with others who were suffering.

And I heard that the nurses looked forward to going into your ward. They knew that, regardless of your pain, they could always count on a smile lighting up your face and their day.

These reports made me feel more proud of you than any of your football or scholastic achievements.

Then a series of God’s miracles started to happen. Although the doctors thought you would die, you lived. They felt you would never walk again, but in three months you began to sit up with the aid of a steel back brace.

Remember your visit home that Christmas holiday? At midnight that New Year’s Eve, Mother and I held you upright while we all sang “Auld Lang Syne.” She believed that if you stood on your feet at the beginning of the year you would continue your progress.

Three months later, with some help, all 90 pounds of you stood on your feet. Dr. Jesse Wright was amazed but stated that you would probably always have to wear leg braces. “I’ll walk without braces,” you said. Within a year, you did.

Something happened to me during this period. Before you were stricken, I had always considered myself a good Christian, attending church, contributing money, serving on committees.

But I honestly wonder now how much I really believed. At home we were always too busy to have blessings at meals. When you were so helpless, I even questioned God’s existence.

Then you began to recover and credited it to faith and prayer. I felt ashamed.

It was in June 1952, while still badly paralyzed, that you and 40 other polio patients volunteered to help Dr. Jonas Salk in his experiments with a new and untried anti-polio vaccine. We had no idea, until told by reporters in the spring of 1953, that you were listed as the world’s Case History No. 1 to receive the vaccine.

When you persuaded us to sign the consent for the test, we hesitated at first because of the possible danger. Then you talked about your brother. “Joe has two young sons, my nephews,” you remarked. “I’ll do anything possible to help protect them and others from polio.” When you said that, I thought of Christ’s words “Greater love hath no man than this…” (John 15:13).

We don’t have all the results yet, Bill, but I feel sure Dr. Salk’s work may save thousands of lives. Today I can understand clearly how God works through people and how he can use a paralyzing illness such as yours for good.

I also learned about the concern and love of friends. During your illness, our telephone never seemed to stop ringing. Mattie [the Kirkpatricks’ maid] gathered together a group of people in her church and held prayer meetings for your recovery. And your mother never let our spirits lag. How I remember her in those dark days, by the piano, playing and singing her favorite Welsh hymn, “God That Madest Earth and Heaven.”

A father is fortunate when he can learn as much from his son as I have learned from you. You helped me see that the test of a Christian is how he meets difficulties, tragedies and sorrows. You also helped me see the message of triumph in Christ’s experience on the Cross.

Whether you become a doctor or a minister, I know your one concern will be to relieve suffering, to bring help and cheer to those in need.

Your mother and I are very proud of you.

Love, Dad

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