Act of Love, Part II

An unusual ranch in Texas

Editor’s Note: In the February 20 issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger on Down Home Ranch in Texas. He has expanded that piece in his column this week. For Part I, go here. The series concludes today.

As I’ve said, Down Home Ranch was not built in a day. Or a month or a year. Jerry and Judy Horton built it step by step, year after year.

In the early days, Jerry put up plywood signs that said “Future Site of Greenhouse 1,” “Future Site of Greenhouse 2.” These signs expressed his aspirations. And, sure enough, someone donated a greenhouse. Actually, five of them.

Other buildings went up — including homes, for the residents to live in. Many of the homes are named after Biblical figures: Sarah, Isaiah, Martha, Barnabas, and so on.

There is a swim center. There are lodges. There’s the Maintenance and Repair Shop, or MARS. When someone says, “Where are you going?” you can say, “To MARS.”

‐You’ve got horses (including of the miniature variety — I’d never met any before). You’ve got cattle. You’ve got chickens (Production Reds). There is also an old donkey named Blossom, who dates from the very beginning of the ranch.

‐Most important, you’ve got people. Down Home Ranch has 39 residents, or ranchers, as they’re called. About half of them have Down syndrome; the other half have autism, brain injury, or some other disability.

There are 30 full-time staff and 25 part-time. Plus many, many volunteers.

You have to be at least 18 years old to live here. There is no upper limit. The oldest rancher is 66. I know this because she tells me so. “Hi, I’m Terry,” she says. “I’m the oldest rancher. I’m 66.”

I’m the oldest rancher,” Jerry Horton objects. “Hey,” says Terry, “you’re not a rancher!”

‐This is a working ranch, and the ranchers indeed work. There are any number of jobs to do at a place like this. The ranchers are paid, too: minimum wage or higher.

DHR, i.e., Down Home Ranch, sells beef, eggs, tomatoes, and other food. It also sells flowers. (There are the greenhouses, after all.) They sell poinsettias for Christmas, for example, and lilies for Easter.

They also sell gift items: decorative pillows, jewelry, greeting cards, etc. These are made at DHR.

The point is, hands are kept busy, lives are made useful. There is no rotting.

‐As you might guess, there are ranchers here who have come from someplace else, meaning other institutions or facilities. I know of at least one rancher who was abused, mentally and physically, where she was. What a relief to arrive in someplace good.

‐Down Home ranchers tend to live in large houses, group homes, with five or six other people. Most like it this way. They are social. They don’t want to live alone. But there are also little homes on the ranch, “micro-houses.” One-person jobs. A man named Tom lives in one of them.

Jerry tells me a little about him. “He lived at home for about 40 years, with his parents, leading what Judy calls a ‘tag-along life’: You tag along with Mom and Dad. When he came here, he lived in Isaiah House, with other guys. After a while, he wanted a place of his own. A lot of people have this dream. So did he.”

I have a peek at Tom’s micro-house. It’s decked in University of Texas regalia. (Someone else, elsewhere, has University of Nebraska regalia. People like to show their colors, regardless of who they are or where they live.)

‐There is a Village Council, which meets every week to discuss various matters concerning the ranch. The council has a mayor, a vice mayor, and other officers.

‐Of leisure and recreational activities, there is any number: theater, swimming, movies, chorus, horseback riding. The ranch has an emphasis on fitness, as this can be a problem for disabled people (as for others). The ranchers go to the opera in Austin. They go to a Shakespeare festival. They do a lot, for work and play.

‐They celebrate one another’s birthdays zestfully. On the day I visit, someone has a birthday. She tells me immediately. “It’s my 42nd birthday,” she says.

I meet another rancher, a man who is tending a miniature horse. He has a birthday coming up, as he tells Jerry. Jerry says the two of them will go into town and have a beer, at a particular restaurant. “They don’t serve alcohol!” says the rancher, startled and amused. “They do too!” says Jerry.

It doesn’t take long to see that Jerry Horton is a master of easy camaraderie. So is Judy. From what I can tell, the ranch reflects their nature — their qualities.

‐Some of the men and women have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Relationships can be long-term, too: quasi-marriages.

‐According to DHR literature, ranchers live “not only a good life but a great life!” “What does that mean?” I ask the Hortons. Judy answers, “Well, they have standards of living and opportunities that approach what their non-handicapped siblings have. They do things like go on vacation.”

The ranchers have been to Memphis, to see Graceland. They’ve been to Corpus Christi, for deep-sea fishing. And today, the place is buzzing — because tomorrow, they travel to Galveston to embark on a cruise. A Caribbean cruise. All of them.

This is paid for by a big summer fundraiser, Swim Fest.

‐Jerry explains to me how the ranch is funded: About 60 percent comes from fees for residential services. Some of that is government money, some of it is private. (Some families can pay, and some families can’t.) About 20 percent comes from business enterprises (the sale of food, etc.). Then, 20 percent comes from donations.

‐The Hortons, now in their seventies, have stepped away from the day-to-day operation of the ranch. But they are hard at work, building an endowment. They are looking ahead.

One thing they’re looking at is elder-care: elder-care on the ranch. Take Terry, the “oldest rancher,” as she said. Jerry says, “She deserves to retire like everyone else. And when she does, why should she have to leave her community? These are her friends, her family.”

‐Judy marvels at all that has happened over the past three decades — all the twists and turns, all the provisions.

“I say over and over that the most fantastic thing about the whole enterprise has been seeing how many good people there are. People pour through the gates with the best of who they are and what they have to offer. You may not see it in ‘normal’ life a whole lot, but you certainly see it here. To witness every day how selfless people can be is amazing.”

One time, the barn was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. The Hortons sent a letter out, informing people of this. Overnight, they had $50,000.

Judy says, “I knew an old cowboy priest, who was always going on about Divine Providence. I have concluded that he was right.” She also remembers what he said about them — about the Hortons, when they were just starting their ranch, leaving their former lives behind: “Those two people either have faith like I’ve never seen or they’re dumb as a bag of hammers.”

Judy says, “I miss that old coot.”

‐I ask the Hortons, “Are you guys pioneers? Do you have imitators, people doing what you’ve done here, with the ranch?” The answer is yes and no, in short. Jerry says, “I’m like a thieving magpie — I borrow from this and that, this idea and that idea, this project and that project.”

Makes sense.

‐About Judy, Jerry says, “She’s the contemplative in our marriage. I’m a very good grant proposal–writer, doer, problem-solver. But she’s the heart, the muse, the poet. And it actually works.”

‐Before I leave, Jerry wants me to know something: “We’re not saints. We are not comfortable with praise. It’s kind of a burden, to be honest.”

I always hear this, by the way, when I interview people like the Hortons. I mean, I could set my watch to it. It’s as predictable as the sunrise. I broke out in a big smile — almost guffawed — when Jerry said this.

He continues, “We set ourselves to being good parents, and Down Home Ranch is one of the consequences of that.”

The Hortons may not be saints, but the ranch is a saintly act. An act of imagination, energy, and love. It has blessed their daughter Kelly, yes, but all these others as well.

‐Jerry remembers the early days. “We’d be out here, living in the mobile home. We’d have worked all week. It would be Sunday afternoon, and we would be bone-tired. Judy would be cooking supper; I would be writing yet another appeal letter or something. And here comes this car, driving real slow.”

And “the last thing you want to be is convivial. You just want to be done with your week. But you know that in the backseat of that car is going to be some young man or young woman, probably with Down syndrome. The family is out there. They’ve crossed the country looking for some hope for the future. And you learn very early on that they may be rich or they may be poor or whatever — but you need to be there for them.”

‐It would be weird to say that people with Down syndrome are lucky. That anyone with such a disability is. But you could do worse — a lot worse — than to have discovered Jerry and Judy Horton and this ranch.


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