Vickroy: Competing for 45 years, she’s still bringing home the gold
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy June 12, 2013 7:46PM
Updated: July 15, 2013 2:34PM
What makes Mary Pat Bekta special?
Well, we could start with the 100-plus medals she’s won in Special Olympics events, in which she’s been competing since the Games began in 1968.
Or we could talk about her compassion and love for just about everyone. When other athletes cry because they didn’t win a competition, Mary Pat comforts them by sharing her medals, letting the others wear them for a time.
Or we could look at the love she brings out in others. When it’s time to extend the sign of peace during Sunday Mass at St. Stephen Church in Tinley Park, so many want to shake her hand that she often ends up pews away from where she started.
Mary Pat Bekta was born in 1957 to Eugene and Dona Bekta, of Oak Lawn. She was the couple’s second of six children.
“My parents knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what,” recalled Julie Huhra, Mary Pat’s sister and one of her two guardians. “When my dad told me the story about how she was diagnosed, I just cried.
“He said, the doctor came in and said Mary Pat had Down syndrome. My dad asked how he knew. The doctor said, ‘I see that window and I know it’s a window. I see that door and I know it’s a door. I see your daughter and I know she has Down syndrome.’ Then he asked my dad to step out in the hall and said, ‘That’ll be $24.’”
Mary Pat lived at home and attended Misericordia in Oak Lawn for four years. In the fall of 1963, her parents placed her at the St. Mary’s of Providence residential center in Chicago. On Sept. 3, she will mark 50 years there.
“I can only imagine how hard that must have been for my parents,” Julie said. “On Friday nights, I would sit in the front window and wait for Mary Pat to come home for the weekend. Then on Sunday nights, I’d cry because she had to go back to St. Mary’s.”
But Mary Pat, without missing a beat, reminds Julie, “I love my school.”
St. Mary’s has been good for Mary Pat, Julie said. She has a job in one of the workshops, enabling her to earn a paycheck. There are field trips and classes in which the residents learn important skills, such as how to count money and make change.
In the early 1990s, St. Mary’s was converted from a children’s home to an adult woman’s residence.
Because her parents have passed away, Mary Pat now divides her time between St. Mary’s and Julie’s home in Tinley Park. Julie, a special-education teacher at Millennium School in Tinley Park, shares guardianship with her brother, Dan Bekta, who lives in Wisconsin.
St. Mary’s also introduced Mary Pat to the Special Olympics. Five years ago, she received a certificate commemorating her 40 years of participation.
And she has a boatload of medals to show for that. She began competing in swimming events, then added softball throw, walk/run races and bowling.
Even now, at 55, Mary Pat continues to amaze. Last month, during preliminary games at Soldier Field, she took gold in both the 100-meter Walk/Run Race and the 100-meter Walk Relay. Those feats qualified her to compete in the state finals this weekend in Normal.
Mary Pat, now one of the oldest competitors, and other finalists will take a bus to central Illinois on Friday. They’ll spend the night in the dorms on the Illinois State University campus.
Julie, who will watch from the stands, said the Special Olympics are always an uplifting experience.
“Everyone cheers for everyone,” she said. “It’s really something to see. There is such a feeling of love and peacefulness.”
Rose Ann Straukas is Special Olympics athletic director at St. Mary’s. Her sister, Edna Ference, who passed away this year, was also a charter member of the Special Olympics.
Straukus grew up across the street from St. Mary’s and has fond memories of watching Mary Pat and Edna compete when they were young.
“Mary Pat is awesome. She is just the life of the party,” Straukas said. “We have been friends forever.”
The only downer about competing in the Games, at least for Mary Pat, is the rule that she can’t wear any jewelry while competing.
She’s rarely seen without her glittery rings and bracelets. Often, when Julie takes Mary Pat along on errands around town, people give her rings.
“She loves her bling,” Julie said. “... Everyone knows she loves glitter.”
Perhaps that’s why she loves her many medals so much.
One year, Mary Pat’s sister, Jane, took many of the medals and transformed them into ornaments for a Special Olympics Christmas tree. But when Mary Pat saw it, she was mad, Julie recalled.
“We thought it would be a nice surprise, but she wanted her medals back,” Julie said.
She said she can’t help but fear that her sister’s competition days are nearing an end, despite the incredible showing this year.
“Age is working against her,” Julie said, adding that Mary Pat has a heart condition and will eventually need an aortic valve replacement.
“When she was diagnosed, doctors said her condition was progressing so slowly they expected it to outlive her,” Julie said.
But yet again, Mary Pat is defying the odds.
“There is something so special about Mary Pat,” Julie said. “She has a way of uniting everybody. People are always asking about her, and when she comes home, they can’t wait to see her.
“She just has a way of bringing out love,” Julie said.
Even after their father died in 2007, Julie said Mary Pat was so accepting. She frequently tells strangers that her father and her mother “are in heaven.”
“I know my father was worried when she was born. He didn’t know what to expect, how things would go,” Julie said. “But later he told me she was the absolute joy of his life.”
For more information on Special Olympics Illinois, visit www.soill.org/