Pupils in Kay Keefer's fifth- and sixth-grade reading class at Shenandoah Valley Elementary School just happened to be finishing the story of baseball Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig when Thomas L. Blankenhorn bagged his 50th white-tailed deer in December 2001.
A Pine Grove hunter, Blankenhorn, was diagnosed with Amytrophic Lateral affliction, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a disease of the nerve cells that control muscular movement. It ended the career of the New York Yankees first baseman, who was diagnosed in 1939 and passed away in 1941.
Blankenhorn has lost full ability in his left arm and can only lift his right to the middle of his chest, sometimes a bit higher. With the help of his son, Keith, and some other loyal friends, Blankenhorn was able to shoot his 50th deer with a special shoulder harness, a flight of stairs to his white bucket tree stand and Keith's squeeze on the trigger.
His milestone story has touched many around the state, but hit home for the Shenandoah Valley group.
Two weeks prior to Christmas, Keefer's class wrote letters expressing sympathy and well wishes to Blankenhorn. The hunter received them just prior to the holiday.
"It was one of the best Christmas presents," Blankenhorn said, proudly sporting another gift, a sweatshirt with an embroidered deer and the number "50" stitched below.
Blankenhorn said he wished he could have written back to the pupils but physical inabilities prevented that.
"I can't pick up the pen anymore," he said.
He finally connected with the class at the Schuylkill League girls' basketball semifinals in Martz Hall, Pottsville. Following Pine Grove's victory over Nativity BVM and just prior to Shenandoah Valley's game, he asked a woman if she knew Keefer, and the connection was made.
With two trophy pieces - an eight-point buck and a wild boar he shot with a pistol in Tennessee - resting on a table, Blankenhorn stood behind them Wednesday and expressed his love for hunting and how he doesn't allow his handicap to be too much of a burden.
The lesson hit home for Kyle L. Oliver, a sixth-grader who wants to start hunting.
"He is self-confident," Oliver said. "He taught me to never give up."
Blankenhorn has been dealing with ALS for four years, but still manages to participate on selected hunting excursions with Keith. A black bear trip to Maine may be in the future.
However, Keith, who will head to Alaska for mountain goat, said the rough terrain and tough conditions are limits for his father.
Still, Thomas Blankenhorn plans to go hunting near Roedersville or Rock, in search of his 51st deer in the fall.
Jordan A. Zulkowski, another sixth-grader, wished for an even higher goal for Blankenhorn.
"I said in my letter I wanted him to get 60," Zulkowksi said.
Each pupil in the class had a chance to introduce himself or herself. Blankenhorn remembers many of them from the letters. Each also got to shake his hand.
Many ALS patients are given between 3-5 years to live after being diagnosed. Blankenhorn said he feels "great" and recognizes he's in the middle of his fourth year. He said he's confident he'll become part of the 10 percent of ALS patients who make it 10 years or more.
The Blankenhorns often venture into the woods together, as part of a family outing. The family has been hunting together for generations.
"My father taught me," Thomas told the class.
He and Keith are members of various hunting clubs, which Keith boasts on the rear window of his pickup truck, displaying the badges of each.
They've set a father-son deer hunting goal of 100 deer. Keith is at 35.