Tuesday, October 20, 2009
A Marriage Made in Heaven
The extraordinary love story of Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband, Ken Tada
By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries
AGOURA HILLS, CA (ANS) -- After being becoming a quadriplegic, unable to use her hands or legs, after a tragic 1967 diving accident in Chesapeake Bay, Joni Eareckson was so depressed that she even contemplated suicide.
“I'm just so grateful there were no Jack Kevorkian's around back then because my problem wasn't so much my quadriplegia; it was clinical depression,” Joni told me in an interview at her Joni and Friends International Disability Center in Agoura Hills, CA.
“I just needed somebody to come alongside me and show me the ropes and teach me and lead me through the maze of questions I had to the point where I could say that ‘I can do this. I really can live life in a wheelchair and live it with a smile, not in spite of the problems but miraculously because of them.’
“And because I began to lean harder on Jesus, the stronger you discover Him to be and the more you realize what you can do.”
Today, Joni is an internationally known mouth artist, a talented vocalist, a radio host, author of 17 books and an advocate for disabled persons worldwide, but in those early days of her disability the last thing was on the mind was marriage, after all who would want to marry someone confined to a lifetime in a wheelchair?
Fast forward to the early 1980s when Joni was attending Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, pastored by John MacArthur. By now, she was an international celebrity, having written Joni, her autobiography and even starred as herself in the movie of the same name.
Watching her across the church just after the film Joni had been released was Ken Tada, a history teacher and school grid iron football coach.
“Joni was the main speaker at a Young Life banquet at the church and from a distance I could just barely see a gentleman who was seated next to her who I thought was her husband,” Ken began as Joni sat next to him.
“I thought what she said was fantastic and I was going to go up to speak to her, but the crowd was just too big. So it wasn't until the year afterward that we had some mutual friends who were trying to fix us up and I was invited to a surprise birthday party for Joni. At it, we started talking and realized we had some things in common and so I finally asked her out for a date.”
Ken smiled as he continued, “I had never taken anyone out in a wheelchair before, and so this was a new experience. I knew enough though that if we were going to go out on our first date by ourselves then I was going to have to lift Joni in and out of her wheelchair.
“So at the high school where I was teaching and coaching football I worked out with weights for the whole week with the idea that I wouldn’t drop her on our first date. I had set a goal at the time of being able to curl a hundred-eighty pounds.”
Joni quickly jumped in and said, “I'm not a hundred-eighty pounds. I want everybody to know that.”
Ken then said, “No, no, Joni was not a hundred-eighty pounds, that was just a figure that I had set. I figured that I was safe, that I wouldn't drop her, if I could curl that.”
Joni then said, “But you've got to tell the people that you knew I was heavy when you lifted me out of the chair and into your car. Tell them what you did.”
After some coaxing from his wife, Ken finally replied, “Joni thought that she was on a date with Bruce Lee because I had done this ‘Hi-ya’ and it was at the time that I was lifting her, so I will never live it down now.”
The couple went to a restaurant at Marina del Rey, on the Westside of Los Angeles, and soon the couple discovered that they had many things in common.
I asked Joni to explain more.
“Well, for one thing, we both love history and nobody knows this, but on many of our dates for that first year, we'd play history trivia at dinner and I would start beating him,” she smiled. “I was getting all these correct answers and so then he threw in more difficult questions like, ‘What sort of bomber flew the Pacific Theater in World War II?’
“We had a lot of fun playing history trivia and we both loved sports, and we are fans of the LA Lakers and we are both interested in education. So I realized we had a lot of things in common, but most of all of we shared in common was our love and passion for Jesus.
“I love this man's heart. When you see Ken and you listen to him, that's him. He's not somebody different behind closed doors. He is totally without guile and a man with a pure heart which I was drawn to then and it's still the same to this day, twenty-seven years later.”
So how did Ken propose?
“I would preface that by saying that some people wondered why I would ask Joni to marry me, but in Second Samuel it says that ‘man looks at the outward appearance but God looks on the inward appearance’ and Joni is a beautiful person on the inside. So it was very easy for me at the time to want to spend a lifetime with this person because of her inner beauty and the quality that she brought into our relationship. And, as Joni has mentioned, the most important thing for us was that we both loved Christ.
“I didn't get down on my hands and knees, but I did ask her on a lake up in the High Sierras then in her art studio. I wasn't real romantic. It was a two part proposal.”
Joni then jumped in and said, “When we were up in the High Sierras, Ken just keep asking personal questions like, ‘What's your routine?’ As he did, I was thinking that something's up, something's going on.
“And so it was, about a month later, that he came into my art studio where I was working on a painting and he popped the question. I don't know how to describe my reaction, but the colors on my painting were suddenly brighter and the swatches of red and purple and yellow paint that I had taped here and there were glowing. I learned later on after reading an article in Scientific America that when your system is flooded with endorphins, colors look brighter. And there was a very good scientific reason for everything seeming so bright and wonderful.”
Ken then took up by saying, “There were friends of ours who said that ‘before you do this before you make the final decision before you get married you ought to go away for a week and just try it out to see whether or not it's going to work.’ Both Joni and I shook our heads and said, ‘That's not going to honor God if we do something like that. So we ended up deciding that it may make for an interesting honeymoon, but we're going to go ahead and just trust that God is going to be the key and the glue that kind of keeps us together.”
“There were people who recognized me and thought I was speaking over there and I said, ‘No, I just got married,’ and they looked around for my husband. When they saw Ken standing there they asked me if he was my ‘Hawaiian tour guide’ because Ken looks very Hawaiian, although he’s actually Japanese American.”
After having an experience like that, I asked Ken what were some of the things they both had to come to terms with in their marriage.
“It was a difficult time for me personally, as a man, because of Joni's notoriety,” he said. “People recognized her as she mentioned even in Hawaii, but they didn't know who I was. My role, as a high school teacher, was where my identity was.
“But as a man, just standing there and watching these people come and greet Joni, it was one of those things that took an adjustment period. Joni was always so good to try and introduce me at the same time that people were trying to get to know who she was. Then, once we realized that this was part of our joint ministry, that as being able to do this as a couple, it made all the difference in terms of how we handled the situation.”
Joni then explained why she began using the name Joni Eareckson Tada instead of Joni Tada.
“It was because so many people knew me by my maiden name,” she said. “So I went to the Van Nuys County Court House and made my maiden name my middle name because I knew people wouldn't know who Joni Tada was, and I wanted them to know my husband, Ken Tada.
“Ken and I have an extraordinary relationship with so many people. In fact many of his former students respect Coach Tada as they call him. They love Coach Tada and they keep in touch with him over the years and that gives me a chance to interface with his world.”
I then asked Ken to tell me something about Joni that might surprise people.
“Oh boy,” he said, “I don't know if this would surprise anyone, but the beauty that you see on the outside is equally as beautiful on the inside. I think I've mentioned that. And she is the most phenomenal individual I know in terms of remembering old time music.”
After laughing he continued, “It's like being married to a jukebox. I think part of it is that she has older sisters, but she knows all the old hymns all the old songs. I mean you can go into the forties, fifties and the sixties.”
Ken retired from 32 years of teaching in 2004 and now ministers fulltime alongside Joni as they travel across the country and around the world with their wonderful ministry, Joni and Friends.
And what an example they are to so many!
To find out more, go to http://www.joniandfriends.org/
Note: I would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.
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