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Vickroy: 51 years later, message sender meets finder

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Updated: January 3, 2013 6:11AM



It was a time for dreaming, for discovery, for sending things skyward.

“It was the John Glenn era,” said George Harris, who was 12 years old way back in 1961 when he decided to conduct a scientific experiment.

One Saturday night in November, George and his younger brother, Larry, gathered outside the family’s Oak Lawn home and launched two helium-filled balloons that they’d picked up at that day’s grand opening of Green Drugs at 111th Street and Pulaski Avenue. Harris attached an index card explaining his mission and asking the finder to send back a note.

Last month, Harris finally met the man who plucked his experiment out of a field near Lake Geneva, Minn., 51 years ago.

On a wing and a prayer

Harris remembers launching the balloon package about 5:30 p.m. while standing in front of the family garage near 108th Street and Kostner Avenue.

“We let them go and they just missed the power lines,” he said. “They headed southwest.”

Days later, while hunting pheasants outside Owatonna, Minn., Ken Kaplan spied the pink balloons, one of them slightly deflated.

The next day, he penned a letter to the seventh-grader, describing the exact location where he found them, and celebrating the adolescent’s spirit of adventure.

“It is encouraging to find that you are interested in scientific exploration as I am sure that you are the space astronaut of tomorrow and that the future of America rests on your shoulders,” Kaplan wrote.

Even then, it took one to know one.

Kaplan was a writer, a hunter, a pilot and an executive for a major tool company. If anyone could appreciate Harris’ scientific curiosity, he could. He felt obliged to let the boy know that.

So proud of his success, Harris brought the letter to St. Catherine School and shared it with his classmates. Then he wrote a letter back to Kaplan, thanking him for following up and expressing surprise at the balloons’ landing location.

“I personally thought that they would go southwest because they started out that way. But apparently they got caught in an upper current,” he wrote. “If someday I become a scientist I will be grateful to you.”

Later, Kaplan would tell Harris that he could discern from the youngster’s grammar, word choice and even handwriting that he one day would grow up to do great things.

Meanwhile, life goes on

Years, then decades, passed.

Harris went on to Marist High School, then Loyola University, followed by the University of Illinois medical school. He specialized in pediatrics, has been on staff at Christ Medical Center for 35 years and has his own practice with Southwest Pediatrics in Palos Park and Mokena.

He and his wife, Mary, raised three sons. He lives in Orland Park and is president of the Advocate Christ Medical Society.

Meanwhile, in Owatonna, Kaplan worked as an executive with Owatonna Tool Co. He married, raised four daughters and wrote a book. He survived a heart attack and a devastating plane crash that left his wife a paraplegic. She died several years ago.

His daughter, Lisa Huntley, said he never lost his lust for adventure, traveling extensively and compiling impressive stories.

“He was also an inspiration to many people,” Huntley said. “I hear from people all the time who tell me my father gave them the encouragement they needed to follow their dreams.”

Now 80, Kaplan is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Huntley has spent the past few months going through her father’s many scrapbooks and photo albums, trying to ensure that they end up with the appropriate family member.

When she came across the letter from Harris, still in its original envelope, 4-cent stamp attached, she paused.

“I thought he might like to have this; I wondered if I could find him,” she said. To her surprise, two Google clicks into the search, she came across Harris’ biography, which mentions that he grew up in Oak Lawn.

At last, a meeting

In late September, she called Harris’ practice. His office manager was skeptical and suggested she send an email, which Huntley did.

Within days, the two were chatting over the phone.

Harris asked Huntley, who lives in Long Island, N.Y., if it would be OK for him to drive to Minnesota to meet Kaplan.

When she initially asked her father about the proposed meeting, Huntley said he was apprehensive. He worried his speech was too garbled; he felt self-conscious about his condition.

“I said, ‘Who would be more compassionate than a doctor?’ ” Huntley said.

A Sunday morning visit was arranged. Huntley flew in for the meeting.

The day before he and his wife were to come by, Harris stopped at a local party store and bought a few Mylar balloons. Randomly, he chose blue and silver. Later, he would learn that those were the school colors of Owatonna High School.

“We chatted for about 90 minutes that morning,” Harris said.

Kaplan told him, “This will allow us to put a big exclamation point at the end of our story.”

As he was leaving, Harris gave Kaplan the Mylar balloons he’d brought and suggested he release them “because you never know what might happen.”

A few days after their visit, on Oct. 25, Kaplan put copies of the letter he wrote to Harris, as well as the letter Harris wrote back, and a copy of the email that would eventually bring them together, into a plastic bag. He attached the package to the balloons and let them go.

Harris said, “If he gets something back, can you imagine how encouraging that would be for him?”



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