JANESVILLE, Wis. — Twenty-five years ago this month, James Arlen Wilson Jr. stood at the altar of Janesville’s Church of Christ.
He wore a white tuxedo with tails, a flashy red vest with matching bow tie and a nervous smile.
He paced toward the pews where family and friends gathered.
Then he straightened his shoulders and focused on the back of the church, where bridesmaids in shimmering red gowns fell in line.
On Aug. 6, 1994, the young man known affectionately as Jimmy waited for his bride.
Suddenly, his face beamed when he locked eyes with Kelly Flood as she glided down the aisle in a beaded wedding gown.
Some said this man with Down Syndrome should not get married. They didn’t think he could have a serious relationship.
Together, he and Kelly knew they could prove them wrong.
A quarter century later, 49-year-old Jimmy and 48-year-old Kelly of Janesville are still beating the odds. Last week, they quietly marked their silver wedding anniversary, a milestone many husbands and wives never reach, The Janesville Gazette reported.
“I knew we would make it,” Kelly said. “Because we had a lot of support from family and friends. And God was our main support.”
Earlier this month, Jimmy sat snuggled on the couch next to Kelly, the love of his life.
“That’s my wife,” he proclaimed. “I married her. She’s my love.”
He reached for Kelly and pulled her in for a gentle bear hug.
“She’s my woman,” Jimmy said. “I care for her.”
Kelly returned his soft gaze and smiled.
Over the years, Kelly has lived with depression, but Jimmy has been there for her.
“Just look at that face,” she said. “How can you look at Jimmy and have a bad day?”
She also has lived with weight gain.
“I weighed almost 500 pounds,” Kelly said. “I had to use a wheelchair because I could not walk. Jimmy was there to help me.”
Three years ago, she had gastric bypass surgery.
Today, because of weight loss, Kelly is proud that she and Jimmy can take walks from their downtown apartment around the block or to the Rock River, where they hold hands like newlyweds.
They also enjoy Special Olympics events where Jimmy competes, attending church and listening to Christian music.
One of Jimmy’s favorite songs is “In His Time,” which Kelly calls his “testimony song.” The song’s lyrics affirm that God makes all things beautiful in time, a fitting theme for Jimmy’s life. Since birth, Jimmy has overcome obstacle after obstacle to achieve things people said he could not, including marriage.
Jimmy and Kelly grew up in Janesville. She graduated from Craig High School, and Jimmy graduated from Parker High School.
They met at a church social, when both were teenagers. He bravely walked up to her and introduced himself.
They did things together in youth groups at church. They went to dances and movies, and they held hands.
“I thought she was just helping him,” said Jan, Jimmy’s mother.
As time went on, Kelly realized how much she enjoyed Jimmy’s company and the way he tenderly brushed her blond hair.
He also had a way of brightening even her darkest day.
Jimmy and Kelly knew each other eight years when Jimmy bought a ring, “a beautiful ring all on his own,” Jan remembered.
Kelly arrived at Jan’s home on a Friday night after working in her parents’ restaurant all day.
“I smelled like fish,” Kelly said.
But it made no difference to Jimmy.
He got down on one knee and, in a surprise move, asked Kelly to be his wife.
“I was so tired,” Kelly said. “But when Jimmy asked me, the tiredness was gone. My reply was an automatic ‘yes.’”
Jan witnessed the traditional proposal.
“I was in tears because no one has ever done that for me,” she said. “Jimmy has taught me how to love and how to see true love instead of fake love.”
Jan has been married three times.
When Jimmy and Kelly looked for a minister to perform their wedding, several turned them down.
Eventually, pastor Jeff Williams agreed to perform their ceremony. He is founder and senior pastor of Faith Community Church.
After speaking with the couple, Williams realized their love was sincere.
In retrospect, he said he could either see their limitations or see their potential.
Williams chose to see their potential.
“I saw a genuine love, a mutual commitment and a pattern of responsibility demonstrated over time,” he explained. “They deserved a chance. I’m not surprised by the longevity of their relationship because the authenticity was there from the beginning.”
Shirley Flood, Kelly’s mom, said she was “very surprised” when the couple decided to marry.
But now, she said: “I am proud of both of them. They are close, they are very close. Love, trust and honesty keep them together.”
On May 22, 1970, Jan gave birth to Jimmy, who was born with Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21.
Jan’s doctor told her the child would never be able to walk or talk. He suggested the baby be put in an institution.
Jan told him to get out of her room.
She resolved to give her son the chance he deserved.
“I took Jimmy to church, where I prayed for him in Jesus’ name,” Jan said.
When Jimmy was 3, the pastor walked up to him and put his hands on the child.
“God gave me a vision of this baby’s heart and told me to pray for him,” the pastor said.
The next morning, Jimmy went limp and turned blue.
Doctors told Jan that Jimmy needed immediate heart surgery.
“He had three valves and three holes that needed to be repaired,” Jan said. “They said he would live to be 9, and anything past that would be a miracle.”
Jan continued to take Jimmy to church, where the child learned to praise the Lord.
“He would run up front, and I would bring him back,” Jan recalled. “The pastor said leave him alone. Let him come up and worship God the way he wants.”
Today, when Jimmy attends church, mostly at Janesville’s House of God, he goes up front, raises his arms and prays.
“He has been that way his whole life,” Jan said.
Rachel Reit of the Down Syndrome Association of Wisconsin said more people with Down Syndrome are getting married.
They are “living exceptional, integrated lives in the community,” she said.
The Wilsons have helped educate the community about “all the things that people with Down Syndrome can accomplish,” Reit said. “Our friends with Down syndrome can get married; they can live in their own homes; they can hold meaningful jobs, and they can do so, so much more.
“Less than 40 years ago, the life expectancy for someone with Down syndrome was just 25 years old,” Reit said. “Imagine all of the expectations they exceeded 25 years ago when they got married!”
Jan sees her son as a pioneer for people with disabilities and an inspiration to everyone.
“He has touched so many,” she said.
Among them is Shanon Caballero of Janesville, who was a bridesmaid in his wedding.
“I never had any doubt they would make it,” she said. “There were some who frowned on his wedding. It made me want to stand by Jimmy and Kelly even more. I was honored to stand up for them.”
Jimmy and Kelly “showed us how to love unconditionally for better or for worse,” Caballero said.
Her mother and Jimmy’s mother were friends when she and Jimmy were children growing up.
“All I ever wanted for him was to find happiness,” Caballero said. “He is my inspiration to do what I am doing in my life.”
Caballero works for an agency that supports people with developmental disabilities. She wants Jimmy to be an inspiration to other parents and families.
“We thank God for each day that he gives us with Jimmy,” Caballero said. “When Jimmy’s around, there’s a little extra spunk in the air. He’s all about fun and surprises.”
Kelly has endured mean comments about her husband. She has let go of friends who were insensitive to Jimmy. She has listened to people said that her marriage will not last.
“But look at us now,” Kelly said. “You don’t find many couples who last as long as Jimmy and I have.”
Jimmy and Kelly do not know what the next chapter of their marriage will bring.
Kelly said Jimmy has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many, but not all, people with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s disease when they get older. More than half have the disease in their 50s and 60s, according to the National Institute on Aging.
“It’s been rough,” Kelly said. “I have sat and cried and cried and cried. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing I can do. I know the hurt he is going through.”
Still, Kelly has no regrets about their marriage.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said. “It is until death do us part. We have our rough days. Then I take a deep breath and calm down. If people don’t understand my love for Jimmy, then they don’t understand true love.”
She paused, looked long at her husband and said:
“Jimmy is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Information from: The Janesville Gazette, http://www.gazetteextra.com