It was on a hunting trip when Bruce Whitehead first knew something was wrong.
He couldn’t pull back the string on his bow.
“I was mad at first, says Whitehead. “I thought something was wrong with the bow.”
But it wasn’t the bow. Three incorrect diagnoses later, Bruce Whitehead, now 47, was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gerhig’s disease. That was in July 2011.
Whitehead and his wife Victoria moved into the Vernon Woods Retirement Community early this year.
“He is a really good man in a bad situation, and I cannot imagine what he and Victoria may feel like,” said Cheryl Messer, wellness director at Vernon Woods. “He is my age! He is not a senior. We have adopted each other as ‘brother and sister.’ That is not typical of retirement community residents. Most of them are the age of my parents or grandparents. I cannot imagine going through what he is and has, but somehow he maintains a positive attitude.”
Bruce and Victoria Whitehead have immersed themselves in the activities offered at Vernon Woods, which is how Bruce Whitehead – through total happenstance – met Jackson Templeton, who is now 12.
“We were eating watermelon,” Bruce Whitehead said.
Templeton had been coming to the retirement community with his mother, Christi Howard, who owns Compassionate Caregivers, for about five years. He also had immersed himself in helping residents while he was there, helping with crafts or in this case, serving watermelon during a special event.
“We probably wouldn’t have met if I didn’t like watermelon,” Bruce Whitehead said.
When the two began talking, they discovered they both liked to hunt. And Bruce Whitehead saw some of himself in the youth.
“He reminds me of me when I was 12,” he said.
Templeton likes to hunt with his father in Heard County and already had experience when he met Whitehead.
Whitehead is a native of northern Illinois and grew up hunting with his own father, shooting his first deer – illegally – at the age of 11. Three deer heads from other hunts are displayed on his living room wall at Vernon Woods. He proudly calls them “the herd.” He moved to Georgia in 1988.
Both Whitehead and Templeton learned to hunt from their fathers and both are mischievous. Templeton likes to pull pranks on his neighbors and once put a diaper in his neighbor’s mailbox. Whitehead thoroughly approves.
“He’s like me, he’s a mess,” Whitehead said. “I’ve been into hunting and fishing all my life.”
Howard says her son would be outside “morning to night” if it was possible.
Once Whitehead and Templeton bonded over the watermelon, they continued to visit with each other every time Templeton came to Vernon Woods with his mother.
“I think when children grow up around retirement communities it makes them a different child,” Howard said. “It teaches them to care.”
In the meantime, Whitehead knew his hunting days were nearing an end.
In October, Christmas came early for Templeton. Whitehead gave his hunting bow to his new young friend.
“The little man gave me an opportunity to pay it forward,” Whitehead said. “I didn’t do it for any recognition.”
If anything, Whitehead says, he did it to keep the tradition of hunting alive.
“The way people are about guns now, it may wind up being the only way to hunt,” he said. “And you better kill a deer,” he told Templeton.
“I don’t miss,” Templeton says.
Victoria Whitehead wasn’t surprised to hear her husband had given away one of his prized possessions.
“It’s his way of paying it forward,” she said. “He has a love of hunting and it’s something to pass on.”
In return, Templeton made Whitehead a paracord bracelet and wrote Whitehead a letter that brings both to tears three months later.
“If I were you I wouldn’t have been able to give that up,” Templeton said in his letter. “I know they mean a lot to you. I love the bow a lot and I will keep it forever.”
Thanks to the staff at Vernon Woods, Whitehead’s hunting days may not be over entirely.
Messer and others at the facility recently arranged for Whitehead to go hunting on Georgia Sheriff’s Association Pineland property where he was able to snag an eight-point buck. He’s also been hunting with Georgia native and comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who Whitehead says is “a nice guy to spend time with.”
Messer has submitted Whitehead’s story to Second Win Dreams, an organization that operates similarly to the Make-A-Wish foundation, except for adults.
Whitehead still goes to the Pineland property to meet with his hunting friends and on his last trip saw 16 deer. He didn’t get any though, because he was “waiting for the big one.”
Whitehead doesn’t regret giving Templeton his bow.
“I just want him to keep on hunting,” he said. “It was meant to be that we would meet and be friends.”