“The only disability any of us has in life is a negative attitude.”
That was the message from HK Derryberry, who, along with his buddy, Jim Bradford, shared a story of survival, perseverance and a friendship that transcends age during a visit to Fayetteville High School on Friday.
According to medical science, HK Derryberry should have never survived. Born July 8, 1990 in Nashville, the two-pound baby boy arrived three months premature due to an automobile accident that took his 19-year-old mother’s life. Because of the accident and his premature birth, HK is blind, paralyzed on his right side and has cerebral palsy. But, the now 28-year-old doesn’t let his physical limitations hold him back, sharing his inspirational story and quick wit with thousands each year.
“I have always been considered the underdog with people telling me things I can’t do without complimenting me for things that I can,” HK told FHS students.
“When I was born due to the accident that took my mother’s life, doctors told my grandmother I probably wouldn’t live long,” said HK, who was raised by his paternal grandmother, Pearl Derryberry, “but on July 8th of this year, I turned 28 years old, and I am still kicking. Doctors also told my grandmother I would probably be confined to a wheelchair. Well, I walked in here today with no need for a wheelchair.
“In school, teachers told my grandmother and me that I wasn’t smart enough nor capable of handling a regular class load. They said I wouldn’t graduate high school. Well, June 1st, 2012, this little underdog pulled a major upset. I completed all the courses required of me by the state of Tennessee to receive a regular academic high school diploma.”
The key to his success, HK said, is a positive attitude and his faith, quoting Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
“You can accomplish most anything in life within your capabilities if you just think positive,” HK told students. “The only disability any of us has in life is a negative attitude. I encourage all of you to always be and think positive.”
A lonely life
HK recalled his early years when he and his grandmother were isolated because of his physical limitations.
“Before I was nine years old, my grandmother and I didn’t have much of a social life,” he said. “We did not have kids in the neighborhood that would play with me. They were afraid of me. Kids in the neighborhood looked at me like I was different.”
Most nights, HK recalled, he would fall asleep listening to the radio, his best friend at the time – “That can get to be very lonely, especially for a blind boy who is not mobile without assistance.”
HK’s life was forever changed in 1999 when he unexpectedly met Jim Bradford, a 56-year-old business executive who was married and had two grown daughters. Jim noticed HK sitting alone at a table at a Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits fast food restaurant and struck up a conversation with the lonely boy listening to a beat-up boom box held together with silver duct tape. Jim learned that HK spent the weekends there at the table while his grandmother worked her shifts at the Mrs. Winner’s since affordable daycare was not available for the child.
The sight of the young boy stirred emotions for Jim, who felt drawn to the boy, a feeling that would bring him back weekend after weekend for visits at the fast food restaurant table.
HK and Jim became inseparable, and Jim’s personal mentoring and constant interaction exposed HK to a world he had never experienced.
The once lonely little boy found his best friend.
“He’s invested his time, money and patience in me, and he changed my life,” HK said, while his friend, Jim, sat with him, the two side by side, in chairs on the FHS gymnasium floor. “He let me do things normal boys my age get to do that I had never gotten to do. He became a father figure to me which I had never really had because my father abandoned me at the age of five for 10 years.
“Mr. Bradford let me borrow his eyes … He painted word pictures for me so I could visualize. He told me he loved me. He told me he was proud of me. He’s proud to introduce me to his friends. He told me I would be a success in life. He and his wife, Brenda, bought me clothes so I looked like other young men my age.
“Yes, 19 years later, the return on Mr. Bradford’s initial investment in me has created a priceless friendship,” he added.
A special gift
Vanderbilt University researchers discovered that HK is one of only a handful of people in the world medically identified with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), allowing him nearly total recall of every detail and minute of his life since he was four years old.
FHS students learned about HK’s special gift first hand, as students told HK their date of birth, only to have him immediately tell them the day of the week on which he or she was born, along with notable events that happened on their actual birth date or a subsequent anniversary, everything from the death of world leaders to holiday observances to pop culture. According to Jim, HK will recall even a year or more from now, in perfect detail, the conversations he had with students last week.
“The Awakening of HK Derryberry”
HK and Jim’s inspirational message captivates and inspires audiences everywhere. They have shared their story nationally with more than 100,000 people since 2012. This year alone, they have made 40 appearances in 11 states, addressing more than 18,000 people. Fees from their appearances go into a trust fund for HK’s future care.
In 2017, they were nationally featured in an “Inspiring America” segment of NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and the Huckabee Show on TBN with Governor Mike Huckabee. In October 2016, their story was featured in USA Today. Their book, “The Awakening of HK Derryberry,” is an Amazon best seller. A German and Braille edition was released in 2018.
“A day never passes that I don’t think about him or mention him in conversation,” Jim writes in the book he co-authored with Andy Hardin, a retired attorney and friend. “He will always affirm my belief that God is still in the miracle business. I frequently consider how much better our world would be if everyone could see life the way HK does – through his heart rather than his eyes.”