Friday, April 5, 1996
Little girl can teach us all lesson in life

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

He never knew the little girl's name. Never met her folks. Or found out where she lived.

Still, John Wallen can't get her out of his mind. All he knows about her is that she died from a terminal illness when she was 2. And that he watched over her casket until her death.

John is a maintenance mechanic at Beech Acres. Since 1974, he's been Mr. Fix-It at the Anderson Township social service agency that mends the broken lives of troubled kids.

His current job is building a cafeteria for children with discipline problems in their schools. He's putting up drywall and getting ready to put down a ceramic tile floor in the administration building's basement.

John hopes the agency that provides so much emotional support for so many Greater Cincinnati families will name the cafeteria after the little girl. It's where, years ago, her casket was stored.

He'd love to see her name on a plaque next to the lunchroom's entrance. That way, he says, ''she would be remembered by more people than just me.''

He feels he owes her this. ''She taught me that every day is a gift.''

John Wallen's memories of this unknown little girl began on a hot day in 1985.

''I had just finished lunch when one of the directors asked me if I could carry something from her car.''

Being curious, he asked what it was. ''A casket,'' he was told.

''Won't it be heavy? Won't I need some help?'' he asked.

No, he was told. It was for a little girl. She was dying. Her family did not have any money for a casket. A social worker ''called around, and a casket company gave us a scratch-and-dent model.''

He remembers the casket being ''so small. And so light. It was a soft, shiny, golden color.''

As he carried the casket, it became heavier. By the time he took the 19 steps to the basement, ''it weighed a ton.'' The casket was heavy with the grief John Wallen felt for the little girl and her family.

Over the next two months, he made periodic visits to the basement. ''Not to be morbid,'' he insists. ''If the casket was still there, the little girl was still alive.''

One day, he checked. The casket was gone.

The mechanic chokes up at the memory of that day. He pauses to drum his thick, workingman's fingers on a table in Beech Acres' auditorium. Then he continues his story.

He tried not to dwell on the girl's death. ''You can't take on all the hurt in the world,'' he says. ''It'll break your heart.''

Four years later, his daughter, Chelsey, was born. Thoughts of the nameless girl returned.

''Have you ever done anything in your life and not grasped the significance of it at first?'' he wonders. ''Then, later on, something happens and you think back. The things go together like two pieces of a puzzle. That's when the real significance hits you.''

That's when he realized ''what she missed by not being able to grow up and what her parents missed for not being able to watch her grow.''

Her death taught him to cherish Chelsey's life. He's filling a filing cabinet with his daughter's mementos. ''I have the first piece of paper where she wrote, 'I love Mommy.' ''

In January, John Wallen went back to that basement to start building the cafeteria. He's thought again and again about that casket and who it was for.

''There's nothing weird about this,'' he says. ''I'm not hearing her voice. I'm just down here, with my companion, my radio, listening to oldies from the '50s and '60s. Once in a while, I look over to where that casket rested and I think of her.''

He thinks, too, of the social workers at Beech Acres. ''Their dedication to strengthen families is hard work. And, heart work.''

If he could go back in time and do something else, he'd go into social work. ''I've even asked about getting a night-school degree. It'd take 15 years. I'm 46. It's too late for me.''

Not really. John Wallen doesn't need a degree. He can do social work with a hammer and nails. And his heart.

Cliff Radel's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.