`Play After Every Storm'

Facing the first Labor Day telethon without Mattie Stepanek, his friends weather the loss by remembering his advice as well as his antics.

September 04, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

With Mattie Stepanek at your side, you didn't worry about how to entertain millions of people watching the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. After all, he was such a talker and what he said made you forget he was only 13. But since the boy philosopher and best-selling poet died this summer, Erin Kiernan, a junior at Urbana High in Frederick County, has been left to go it alone.

And she's nervous, this 15-year-old, about going on the air without her best pal. Every Labor Day for six years, she and Mattie shared the limelight as "goodwill ambassadors" for muscular dystrophy.

"Go with it," Mattie always said, and they did, talking on the air like the good friends they were between thanking people for contributing and cutting up over funny stories, like tricks Mattie played at camp.

Last year Mattie wore his favorite outfit: a tuxedo. It fit what his friends called the "little man" role that he assumed when he talked about politics and peacemaking and philosophy in ways that attracted friends like Oprah Winfrey and former President Jimmy Carter. Millions, too, got to know him as the boy with wisdom beyond his years.

But his friends - the kids who went to camp with him every summer and talked with him for hours at teen group meetings or on the phone - knew him as much more. And this weekend, Erin and friends will talk about the Mattie they knew.

It turns out the boy famous around the world for his profoundly simple advice to "play after every storm" was also a prankster supreme, a talent show aficionado and, above all, an accomplished flirt.

Erin, for instance, was his girlfriend. She still has the nosegay of pink and yellow silk flowers he bought her at Michael's one day after a fund-raiser they attended - pretending at first the flowers were for his mother.

So was Lauren Williams - at least he hoped she would be. She preferred to think of him as a brother. And then there was Kelly Cooper, but she's not giving details - "Nah."

Camp flirt

They are some of the "Martin chicks," girls who lived in Martin Cabin at Camp Maria in Leonardtown where kids with muscular dystrophy vacation. They were charmed when Mattie labeled them Martin chicks, and the name stuck. They giggle when they recall how Mattie followed a clutch of eight girls, six in wheelchairs, and their counselors on dirt paths lined with trees and a view of Brenton Bay.

Jealousy, it seems, was never an issue.

"Every year at camp he starts scamming on girls. He's so funny, but you know you just can't resist him," Erin said.

"It's hilarious," Kelly agreed.

To every girl he'd say "you look so lovely, you look so beautiful," said Lauren, 17, of Pasadena. "He was a 13-year-old kid, way ahead of every other 13- year-old. If Mattie were a little older, he'd be my guy."

The weeklong camp started on a Sunday. After dinner, as the sun began to dip in the sky, the kids would gather around a campfire. Mattie became a modern-day Scheherazade, telling so many stories to stave off bedtime one year that counselors staged a second campfire later in the week so others could tell some, too. His stories could be short and silly or long and elaborate, a takeoff, for instance, of Lord of the Rings.

The story Kelly remembers was the one about how the stars came to shine over Camp Maria, where the special kids go. All kids are special, he said, but these were "the children who knew the big words and understood the intense feelings." Words like Duchennes, and Beckers, and Spinal Muscular Atrophy - types of muscular dystrophy - and wheelchairs, muscle cramps, and life expectancy. And feelings like fear and loss and hope and resiliency.

In Mattie's story, the kids wrote wishes on scraps of paper and put them into a basket attached to balloons. It floated up to the heavens where the wishes became special stars. Even if the wishes didn't come true, the magic of wishing would bring hope to the children each time they looked up at the sky on a clear night.

Each year, the camp had a different theme, and Mattie's friends looked forward to seeing what he brought to wear or decorate his bunk (usually, his cabin won the prize for best ambience), and what act he would do for the talent show. The year Mattie began using a wheelchair, the theme was Safari Animals, and he arrived with a plush toy monkey attached to a wooden arm he could move up and down for campers to pay homage. Soon, he put a sign on the back of his wheelchair, "All Hail the Sacred Monkey."

This was one of the things that made Mattie Mattie, says his friend, Steven Graff, who shared a bunk with Mattie in 2002 and watched him mediate between two boys who always argued. "He didn't take sides," Steven recalled. "He urged both guys to stop and look at what was around them, to see that people were trying to sleep."

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