A Love That Heals Surviving A Series Of Medical Crises Just Seemed To Make Uttkes Stronger
People often ask why bad things happen to good people.
Such questions surely have echoed in the minds of those who know Larry and Claudene Uttke.
No wonder. Larry, 71, and Claudene, 66, have endured two years of medical catastrophes, any one of which might make others throw in the towel.
Through it all, the Uttkes managed to care for a house full of foster children, keep their sewing and alterations business running and maintain a strong sense of faith and dignity.
How did they do it? Children, it seems, can be powerful healers.
“It was the kids. (In) the hubub of everyday life with kids, you tend to forget the … problems of your own life. There’s always someone else who needs your attention,” says Pam Jones, 42, one of the 340 foster children the Uttkes have cared for since 1960.
At the Uttke home at 19222 E. Mission, there are always plenty of people to whom Larry and Claudene can devote their love and attention.
Five foster children, ranging in age from 9 to 15, live there now, along with Jones and her son. The Uttkes also provide a home for a 25-year-old developmentally disabled woman whom they raised.
It was a lot of responsibility for sick shoulders to carry. Yet the Uttkes didn’t dwell on their burden.
“I figure God didn’t give anyone a perfect life,” Claudene says.
The Uttke’s health troubles began in 1993, when Larry was diagnosed with lung cancer and heart problems. Doctors removed the cancer and performed five bypasses in June.
Just a day before Larry’s surgery, Claudene noticed something wrong with her vision. Doctors found a break in one of her retinas.
“I had laser surgery at noon, the next day at 8 o’clock he had the heart surgery. It was a miserable time,” Claudene remembers.
During Larry’s surgery, doctors found that he needed a new aorta, but didn’t want to try another surgery until January 1994. The artificial aorta worked, but due to diabetic complications, blood wouldn’t return to his right leg.
While Larry was still under, doctors told Claudene it either his leg or his life. She gave the surgeons the OK to perform an amputation. Doctors would later have to remove the toe from his other leg, too.
It was a wonder he survived. “We call him the miracle man,” Claudene says.
What happened to her was no less difficult. In June 1994, Claudene had her gall bladder removed. Then, in February of last year, she had one of her breasts removed because of cancer. Even then, she wasn’t off the hook. She lost the use of one of her fingers in June, and had to have corrective surgery on it.
“If I can’t use my finger, I’m a goner,” the professional seamstress says.
In the midst of the on-going crises, the Uttkes had to relocate their Hem House alteration shop from Sullivan Square into their home.
“I thought if I’m being tested, I’ve failed the course,” Claudene says.
The shop was closed in December 1994, and open again, albeit half-time, by February 1995. It’s now open in their home full-time.
Their former foster child Jones helped keep it afloat. It was the least she could do, she says. The Uttkes raised her and all five of her siblings. “They’re my mom and dad,” Jones says.
She remembers hearing years ago how her biological mother told the Uttkes that “you can’t make silk purses out of sows’ ears.” But she doesn’t resent that. The parents she grew up with more than made up for it.
“You can’t hate someone you don’t know, but you can love someone deeply who you do know,” Jones says.
A single mom, Jones chose to raise her own son Jonathan in the Uttke house.
“My son is my mom and dad’s grandson. They don’t distinguish him differently because I was their foster child.”
That reputation has gotten around. Jim and Claudene are known as superheroes in social work circles. “They’re absolutely wonderful people,” says Myrah Swim, a state foster home licensor. “I think the world of them … they are very skilled with both handicapped and non-handicapped children, teenagers to babies, you name it.”
The wallpaper in the Uttke’s dining room has a design that features small tiny hearts. Wallet-sized pictures of relatives and foster children are glued inside them.
The Uttkes don’t like to leave their hearts empty.
A social worker once said the environment was so warm and loving in the Uttke home that it was difficult to remove children placed there just temporarily. The kids didn’t want to leave.
That’s never been easy for the Uttkes, either. “It getting harder and harder to say goodbye,” Claudene admits.
For Larry, the most difficult part of the past couple of years was the two months of physical rehabilitation he went through after his leg was amputated. The 6-foot-4 World War II veteran with the Statue of Liberty tattooed on one arm had always been an active man. He worked as a postal carrier, a railroad worker and a security guard. It wasn’t easy to submit to life in a wheelchair.
“When I sat in rehab, at first I sat and thought, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ But then I started thinking about what I would do when I got home.”
He would take care of his family. Just like always.
“If they ever stopped taking care of kids, I think they would grow old overnight,” Jones says.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)