Donis Kay McBee Henson, chats with Wanda Vest Odom
and Theda Kellogg Darling at a Class of 1953 gathering.
DONIS KAY MCBEE HENSON, CLASS OF 1953
Our story subject today is a caring mother and she had a caring mother before her who, with her dad, saw her through a terrible period in her life and taught her how to cope with the disability that has remained with her for 55 years.
Donis Kay McBee, now Henson, was just beginning her sophomore year at Denison High School in 1950 when she developed a fever and sore throat. Doctors had a hard time diagnosing her illness until one night she got out of bed and couldn’t stand up.
For those old enough to remember, Polio, also known as Infantile Paralysis, was running rampant in this country at that time and there was no known vaccine to prevent it or cure for it. Hospitals were filled with patients, mostly young, and mothers everywhere were in a panic.
Donis Kay was taken to the Texas Children’s Hospital in Dallas, where her illness was diagnosed. For weeks she lay there unable to move her paralyzed legs. She spent almost three months lying either on her back or on her stomach to keep her body straight. All the while she was being given almost constant physical therapy.She remembers the "Sister Kinney" treatment that was part of her therapy while she was in the hospital. A large cylinder on wheels with a wringer on the side was rolled into her room and blankets were placed in the hot water, then run through the wringer and wrapped around her legs, making it easier to do physical therapy on her rigid muscles.
When the time came for her to leave, her family wanted to take her to Baylor for more treatments, but all the hospitals were filled to capacity with polio patients, so therapists taught her family how to administer the physical therapy at home.
Today, happily married to her high school sweetheart, she is the mother of a daughter and grandmother of two boys. Donis Kay still walks with crutches, but even those which now are very lightweight and come only to her elbows, are a big improvement over the hard to handle old fashioned ones that came to the armpit.
Donis Kay was determined to continue her studies once she returned home. So with the help of the visiting teacher, Fay Ingram, that first spring who brought her lessons to her, Donis Kay studied in a straight chair to which her dad had installed wheels so she could be rolled around the house after she was able to get out of the bed.Some of her friends came to see her and visited through the window. Their parents were afraid that she still was contagious and wouldn’t let them go inside.
Some of her lessons were done by telephone. She remembers reading Julius Caesar over the telephone with the class. Eight months after Polio struck, Donis Kay began to walk again with the help of her family and her crutches.
In the spring, on her birthday, she was given a brand new portable typewriter, which spurred her on, toward her ambition of becoming a secretary. She sewed on her mother’s old fashioned peddle sewing machine and baked cookies for her family to keep herself busy at home.By 1951 she completed three semesters of Spanish by going to the home of Miss Mildred Walker, a high school Spanish teacher, all summer.
She went to summer school at Sam Houston School in either the summer of 1951 of 1952 and took her first course back in school in 1952. Her mother drove up close to the school and helped her get to the algebra classroom.
By the beginning of her senior year she was able to go to school full time with the help of her best friend, Joanna Malear, now Kelly of Arlington, and Ronnie Henson, her boyfriend at that time and to whom she has been married for 48 years. She says, "Ronnie is still taking care of me."
As soon as Donis Kay was able, she returned to Sunday school and church regularly at Central Church of Christ. She met Ronnie, who also had a strong faith, in August 1952 when she and Joanna went to a gospel meeting in the park. He carried her books and helped her get to class all during her senior year.
They promised her parents they wouldn’t marry until she graduated from Austin College, so in December 1957, just after she graduated with an "A" average, they were married and she was able to walk down the aisle without her crutches on the arm of her father.. They have one daughter, Melanie Hartford of Fredericksburg and two grandsons.
Despite missing school with polio and all the problems that went along with it, Donis Kay had the second highest grade in the Class of 1953. She wanted to mention that her good friend, Myrna Brown, was Valedictorian of the class and a very smart person.
Walking across the stage at graduation to deliver the salutatorian’s address was one of her proudest moment and no doubt the proudest for her parents, John and Dicie McBee.
Donis’ message that night was to thank teachers, parents and the people of Denison for seeing that she and her classmates arrived at that step in their lives. She pointed out that some would be going on to higher education and others would be getting jobs and going to work. Others would become involved in the Korean War.
She pointed out that there had always been disagreements between nations and that probably there always would be and that it wasn’t known if Russia really wanted peace with the United States. She said that Russia was a nation without God and that no nation, no matter how large, could last long without Him. "She may cause a great deal more bloodshed and trouble before she does finally fall, but sooner or later she is going to kill herself with the poison meant for someone else," she said.
Does time ever change?
Donis cited the counsel of an educator and philosopher who had visited the school that senior year and stressed "Do not be discouraged by the state of the world. Instead do all you can to improve it!" This statement is as appropriate today as it was 52 years ago.
Donis’ red hair, sparkling personality and the twinkle in her green eyes have endeared her to her friends all through the years. When she and Ronnie first married he began preaching in Troy for a year and a half, they moved to Sherman, where he preached at Grand Avenue Church of Christ. Here, Donis worked in the office of Tom Hudgins, a CPA, doing accounting.
For a period, due to constant exercise to strengthen her legs, Donis could get around the house without crutches, but her legs are getting weaker now because of the joint pain she now has from arthritis.
While Donis always has been upbeat about her illness, she said that she has had her bad moments. Once she fell while going down the step from the kitchen to the garage without her crutches. Ronnie heard her and came running. He asked, "What do you want me to do?" to which she replied "Go get the gun." She broke both feet and had a rough time for a while. She never lost her sense of humor and not long ago she was voted by her 1953 graduating class as having changed the least since graduation.
Donis gets around very well as long as she has her crutches or Ronnie or friends by her side to open doors and carry things for her. Ronnie has been her constant watchdog, looking out for her health and welfare as she has for him through recent illness.
Many polio victims ended up in an iron lung to be able to breathe and many lost their lives. Donis never had problem breathing.
It’s been a mystery all these years how she contacted the polio virus. She’s always believed, however that she picked it up on a band trip in August 1950 to Turner Falls, OK, when the weather was unbelievably hot.
Fifty years ago on April 10 this year scientists announced that a vaccine for polio had been discovered.
The disease has affected thousands of people, the most famous of which was a young politician named Franklin Delano Roosevelt who also became ill with what he thought was a cold after helping fight a forest fire, then taking a cold swim and remaining in his wet suit the rest of the day. When he didn’t get better, he went to a doctor and it was learned that he had what they then called Infantile Paralysis.
Roosevelt was less fortunate than Donis. His legs were left permanently paralyzed.
Research has revealed that it is believed that the polio virus entered the body by nose or mouth and went to the intestines, where it incubated.
Dr. Jonas Salk began his medical research studying immunology and in 1947 while at the University of Pittsburgh, he began his research on poliovirus. In 1949 great strides were made toward processing the virus so that it was less infectious before using it in a vaccine. Then in 1952 Dr. Salk was the first to develop a successful vaccine.
Massive testing followed in 1954 and cases of polio fell spectacularly. The government approved distribution of the vaccine to children across the country.
Then in 1957 Albert Bruce Sabin improved on the oral form of vaccine and it became available in 1963. Sabin oral vaccine is given in three doses in the first two years of life with a booster when a child starts to school.
The vaccine has all but wiped out Polio in America.
In 1960 there were 2,525 cases and by 1965 that number had dropped to 61. Between 1980 and 1990 there were only an average of eight cases a year and most of those were caused by the vaccination, which occasionally occurs. Since 1979 the rare cases were in people coming here from other countries. In 1994 polio was declared eradicated in all of the Americas.
Donis has lived with the affects of the disease for 55 years now, but life has been good with Ronnie at her side and she’s a typical proud mother. If you don’t believe me, just ask her about her daughter and grandsons.