Friends build last­ing bond

Pat Craig and Tony Vela forge a keen friend­ship.

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - Michael Barnes Out & About

Mid-dessert, Tony Vela pauses to lis­ten. He cocks his head slightly.

“Crosby Stills and Nash!” he whoops. “One of my fa­vorite bands!”

In­deed, the haze of folk rock wafts over the South Austin eatery’s sound sys­tem. From then on, Vela names each song’s artist al­most in­stantly: “Ge­n­e­sis!” “Rod Ste­wart!” “Amer­ica!” “Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter Re­vival!”

“I al­ways pay a lot of at­ten­tion to mu­sic,” he says. “I never get tired of that.”

Legally blind and di­ag­nosed with a mod­er­ately se­vere in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity, Vela pos­sesses a rare gift of mu­si­cal recog­ni­tion.

That’s one of the unan­tic­i­pated de­lights that his friend El­lis “Pat” Craig has dis­cov­ered dur­ing their 17-year-friend­ship.

“Tony is really into mu­sic,” Craig says as his buddy across the ta­ble smiles broadly. “He has a great CD col­lec­tion, and af­ter just two bars he can name songs that go way back to the ’50s. He can im­i­tate voices amaz­ingly well.”

The Austin com­pan­ions met in 1995 when Craig, now 69, was in­vited to be­come a vol­un­teer guardian for Vela, now 43. His le­gal guardian was Fam­ily El­der­care, the Austin group that pro­vides a range of ser­vices for older adults, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and their care­givers.

Re­cently, the non­profit hon­ored Craig for his vol­un­teer work.

“I al­ways look for­ward to meet­ing him,” Vela says of Craig. “I just like Pat be­ing part of my fam­ily.”

Craig, who re­tired from the Texas De­part­ment of Men­tal Health and Re­tar­da­tion, came to the friend­ship with some un­der­stand­ing of its po­ten­tial.

Born in Three Rivers south­east of San An­to­nio, Craig grew up in Alaska. When he was very young, he played com­fort­ably with neigh­bors and rel­a­tives who had dis­abil­i­ties.

A psy­chol­o­gist by train­ing, he re­searched in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties at the Univer­sity of Alabama. He worked at the Mexia State School and con­tin­ued to study at Yale Univer­sity.

He met Vela dur­ing a Christ­mas party at a group home.

“He’s a lik­able guy,” Craig thought. “I’ll give it a whirl.”

An al­most random sug­ges­tion blos­somed into last­ing rap­port.

“It turned into one of my long­est friend­ships,” Craig says. “Cer­tainly longer than any ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship I’ve had.”

For the record, the child­less Craig has been hap­pily part­nered with Beatrice Sager for 14 years.

Born in Lib­er­tyville, Ill., Vela — who looks 20 years younger than his bi­o­log­i­cal age — came to Texas in 1977. He was re­moved from his nat­u­ral fam­ily and at­tended the Texas School for the Blind be­fore he aged out and joined a group home. He now lives with a fos­ter care provider and his fam­ily in Pflugerville.

His providers lend Vela as much in­de­pen­dence as pos­si­ble.

“I’m al­lowed to be by my­self,” Vela says. “I de­cided to make my own choices. I like pick­ing my own movies. I like go­ing out to eat. I just like be­ing my own self and by my­self in my own way.”

He also par­tic­i­pates in the Spe­cial Olympics and loves bowl­ing.

Vela and Craig get to­gether twice a month. They shop for CDs (Vela) and an­tiques (Craig). They at­tend sport­ing events and mu­sic venues. They walk around Lady Bird Lake fairly reg­u­larly.

“Tony’s real so­cia­ble,” Craig says. “When­ever we go shop­ping, peo­ple know him and come up and talk to him.”

And no won­der. De­spite his early trau­mas, Vela is rou­tinely cheer­ful. His nick­name at one group home was “Joy Boy.”

“I like be­ing happy,” he says. “They tell me I al­ways have a smile on my face. I’ve al­ways been joy­ful in my heart.”

Phys­i­cally small, Vela talks fondly of his girl­friend of three years. His face turns cloudy when he brings up his bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily, whom he hasn’t seen in decades.

“I just don’t have any mom or dad,” he says, his voice ris­ing. “It’s painful. It’s a shame.”

His nat­u­ral joy­ful­ness re­turns quickly, how­ever. With­out prompt­ing, he talks frankly and un­self-con­sciously about his fu­ture with his fos­ter fam­ily, his girl­friend and Craig, the most loyal of friends.

“I’ve been a kid my whole life,” Vela says. “I don’t mind stay­ing young the rest of my life.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.