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Kids arrange special “down south” surprise

Jerry Arnett was in for a big surprise when he and wife Donna met John Anderson. -      Photo courtesy Arnett family
Jerry Arnett was in for a big surprise when he and wife Donna met John Anderson.
— image credit: Photo courtesy Arnett family

For a guy who likes being in control, Enumclaw’s Jerry Arnett is learning to let go.

The Enumclaw resident’s life has been a whirlwind since he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease in January, but nothing like the days his children – Torri, Tanya, Tammy and J.J. – arranged recently that closed out with a surprise concert in Huntsville, Ala., with Arnett’s favorite singer, John Anderson.

It was a combination Father’s and Mother’s Day gift for Arnett and his wife Donna.

“They’re pretty special kids,” Arnett said. “I didn’t know what was going on until we pulled into the back of the concert.”

Anderson, a veteran performer for the past 30 years is known for hits like Arnett’s favorite, “Seminole Wind,” and “Straight Tequila Night” and “Swingin.’” He has been Arnett’s favorite for years, and attending one of the country star’s concerts has long been on his wish list.

“We didn’t think he played anymore,” daughter Torri Arnett said. “When we looked online, we found he was playing in a few places throughout the country, mostly for charity events and in the southern states.”

When the Arnett siblings did find Anderson’s concerts, tickets were scarce and pricey.

Through a series of events, Torri was put in contact with a fire station where tickets for an Anderson concert were on sale. The event was sponsored by the North Alabama Fire Fighters Association and was planned for Huntsville. She made the connection with the right firefighter – Terry Willet from Florence Fire Rescue Local 270.

“He made the trip amazing for my father,” she said. “It happened to be a fundraising event for muscular dystrophy.”

Similar to muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis, ALS is a progressive disease that affects the function of nerves and muscles. Muscle weakness in the hands, arms, legs or the muscles of speech, swallowing or breathing are early symptoms.

It was almost a year ago, when golfing and walking with his daughter-in-law, who’s a registered nurse, Arnett realized his limp was becoming more pronounced. He was also tiring easier. Finally, he was convinced to see a doctor, which led to a visit to a neurologist.

“I was in total shock,” Arnett said. “Yes, I’d heard of it, but didn’t know much about it, but I knew what it did to people.”

According to the ALS Association, there are 15 new cases of ALS diagnosed a day. Most people who develop ALS are between the ages of 40 and 70, with an average age of 55 at the time of diagnosis.

Arnett said he called a friend from high school who has MS for advice.

“He said, ‘you’re going to have good and bad days all the time.’”

Arnett’s cherishing the good days, like those down south.

The family picked Nashville, Tenn., a two-hour drive from Huntsville, as the destination for the extended weekend.

The only thing Arnett knew when he left Enumclaw was he was flying to Nashville, and everything else would be delivered to him on a “need-to-know” basis.

After enjoying Nashville’s sights, Willet and fellow firefighter Charlie Hart picked Arnett up and drove him to a barbecue. The Arnett kids said their dad was having the time of his life, but couldn’t figure out why firefigthers were escorting him and where they were taking him. That is until they led him through the back gates of the concert.

“Terry asked him who he would want to see in concert?” Torri said. “And he answered, ‘John Anderson.’”

Jerry was the center of attention, doing several media interviews and meeting Anderson. He was then presented with keys to the city of Huntsville by the deputy mayor, whose father who died of ALS.

Anderson invited Arnett to his recreational vehicle after the concert and personally burned two CDs for him, including his newest which was to be released June 9, which coincidentally is Jerry and Donna’s 43rd wedding anniversary, and a gospel CD to be released in the fall.

“He was the most gracious person,” Arnett said.

When the evening finally concluded, the firefighters drove the Arnetts back to Nashville.

Torri, Tanya, Tammy and J.J. said they owe a big thank you to the folks who made the event so special for their dad: The Florence Fire Rescue Local 270, especially firefighters Willet and Hart; The Huntsville Fire Rescue Local 1833, who organized the day; Frank Stephens and Clyde Masters, with the production company, who helped the firefighters arrange the meeting with Anderson; and Larry Ayers, who arranged the keys to the city.

Coverage from Arnett’s story may even be featured on the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon Labor Day weekend.

“He is so optimistic and has such a good outlook,” daughter Tanya Roberts said of her father. “He appreciates each and every day.”

“Living for now, hoping I’m one of the people who beats the odds,” Arnett said.

Although there is no cure for ALS at this time, there is more research and some promise in a treatment that is showing signs of slowing its progression. Arnett’s son-in-law Pat Roberts is doing his part by participating in a two-day charity bike ride this summer to raise money for ALS. For information go to http://web.alsa.org/goto/jerryarnett.

Right now, Arnett’s golfing when he can, spending less time working – he’s an owner of Work, Sports and Outdoors in Enumclaw and Orting – trying to bring more awareness to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and looking forward to this summer’s family trip.

To comment on this story view it online at www.courierherald.com. Reach Brenda Sexton at bsexton@courierherald.com or 360-802-8206.

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