Soldotna couple heroes to others

Posted: Sunday, April 28, 2002

James "Lucky" Kirk sits in front of a microphone, tuning his guitar and chatting with band members on either side of him.

Nearby, his longtime companion, Lou Abbott, nods at microphone checks and waits for the music to begin.

Throughout the Forget-Me-Not Care Center room sit about 15 senior citizens, many with Alzheimer's. They watch the band set up or rest their eyes, calm and stationary in their chairs.

Lucky breaks the ice, joking with another band member.

"You've been playing that guitar since 1970 and you can't play it any better than that?" he teases.

The band laughs, but the crowd remains still.

Then they begin to play, kicking off with "This Little Light of Mine."

The audience is suddenly awake. Hands clap, feet tap and smiles brighten every face. One client even drags an attendant into the center of the room to dance.

"They get such a kick out of the band coming here every week," said Carlee Ljubich, a Forget-Me-Not employee. "It really lifts their spirits. Every day they're not upset, wrapped up in their own problems is a good day."

Linda Huhndorf, director of the center, added that for many Alzheimer's patients, music is a trigger to past memories.

"The days that the band is here, they talk more, remember more. This is one thing they remember from week to week," she said. "It's really the highlight of the week."

Lucky and Lou echo the sentiment, claiming their weekly volunteer visits to both Forget-Me-Not and Heritage Place in Soldotna are the high points of their week.

But they are anything but typical volunteers.

At 68, Lucky is legally blind and mindful of possible obstacles. Lou, 79, is confined to a wheelchair with limited use of one arm and leg after suffering a stroke two years ago.

They could be residents in need of cheering themselves -- in fact, for a time Lou was -- but still they come every week without fail, Lucky performing and Lou chatting and singing along.

"We'll help anybody we think we can help," Lucky said. "People over at the nursing home can't get out to see us, so we go to them."

"It's the height of our week," added Lou. "To get to go really makes it good."

Lou was born and raised in Texas. In 1955, she moved to Alaska with her husband who got a job with a lumber company.

Later, her husband moved into the commercial fishing industry and the couple and their four children moved to North Kenai, where Lou worked as a cook with the Kenai Natives Association.

In 1989, her husband died, leaving Lou alone. One of her children had moved to Florida, two to Anchorage and one remained in Soldotna.

She moved to Soldotna to be closer to town and to work.

Lucky grew up in Wisconsin and lived in Idaho for 12 years, where he worked as an electrician and earned his nickname.

"A lot of electricians are nicknamed Sparky. Everybody used to say, 'You're lucky you don't get shocked,' and it just stuck," he explained.

Plus, he added, with the name James Kirk at the height of the popularity of Star Trek, he used to get a lot of prank phone calls.

Is he Lucky?

"Well I must be. I'm not dead yet," he joked.


James "Lucky" Kirk acknowledges the audience at Forget-Me-Not Care Center in Kenai recently. He joins other musicians every Wednesday to entertain center visitors.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

And, he had the good fortune to meet Lou.

"She's my backbone. She's the one who got me doing what I'm doing today. She says when she met me, she picked me up by the nape of the neck, shook me and said, 'There's something worth saving here.' And she did."

The couple met at a dance in 1990. Lucky remembers seeing Lou across the room as she walked back to her table.

"I said to myself, 'I'm going to ask her to dance. The worst she can do is turn me down,'" he recalled. "I did and she didn't -- turn me down that is."

With Lou's help, Lucky continued writing songs -- a hobby he had begun in 1960. Both she and Alaska became sources of inspiration, leading him to have a professional tape made. Song three, he said, tells the story of how the two met.

Together, the couple would take long drives around the peninsula and spend time with Lou's family.

"I never thought I'd live to have any grandchildren," Lou said. "But they're so much fun. If I'd known how fun, I would have had them first."

Plus, she said, the grandkids love Lucky.

"I'm pretty pleased about that," he answered.

The two also enjoyed camping, back when Lou was able to drive around.

"We'd go camping and her son and I would sit and play (guitars). We'd run into people from all over the world," Lucky recalled. "I'd eventually mention my tape and they'd buy it."

He now has tapes all over the Lower 48, throughout Canada and Europe and in New Zealand and Australia.

The couple also began traveling all over the peninsula visiting care homes and playing benefits. Lucky would play the guitar, while Lou, a former member of the Swinging Golden Girls, danced and visited with residents.

When Lou had her stroke, however, things changed. She was bedridden and doctors weren't sure she would recover at all. She was forced to move into Heritage Place.

Lucky visited every day, took a nursing course to help care for her and began playing music at Heritage Place instead of the rest of the peninsula.

With time, Lou began to improve.

"All by herself, she's made this remarkable recovery," said her occupational therapist, Carol Tauriainen-Ernst. "At one point she wasn't expected to live, but she's made wonderful progress. And Lucky has been at her side the whole time."

That the two are still dedicated to volunteering to help others amazes Tauriainen-Ernst.

"They are absolutely remarkable people," she said. "They're not just my heroes, they are so many people's heroes.

Lucky and Lou shrug off the title of hero.

"People enjoy the music, and we enjoy watching the smiles," Lucky said simply.

Lou added that she gets as much out of the outings as anyone else.

But while they may be humble individually, neither is shy about complimenting the other.

Lucky smiled, looked at Lou and said, "I'm kind of proud of that girl."

"I'm proud of you, too," she smiled back.

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