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Real 'Rain Man' touches hearts in Butler

Sunday, September 28, 2003

By Jill Cueni-Cohen

It's like asking a bird what a bird song means. You have to be a bird to know. " -- Tom Elliott, Butler Area Public Library trustees president, on meeting Kim Peek

Few in Butler County knew what to expect from the man who inspired the movie "Rain Man."

Not even the person who invited him to visit.

When Dick Musko, a member of the Butler County Chamber of Commerce, met Kim Peek, he was so impressed by Peek's ability to remember nearly everything he has ever heard or read that Musko invited Peek and his father to Butler to speak at a chamber dinner.

"When I later realized that I would have to give up three days of work to drive them around, I started to wonder why I had done this," Musko said.

He's not wondering now.

"I wouldn't trade those three days for the world. It was great, and I'm now lost without them."

"It was humbling to meet him. It was a pretty moving experience for me, and almost embarrassing to realize how we fail to look inside of people because we can't see past the artificial confines of what we define as typical social behavior."

-- Dave Malarkey, WISR-AM radio talk show host

Kim Peek is described by doctors as a megasavant.

Considered an expert in about 15 subjects, Peek, 51, can instantly recall information ranging from sports and movie trivia to geography and history facts.

He reads a book by using one eye to read one page and the other to read the other page -- and he remembers 95 percent of the information years after reading the book once.

When people tell him their birth dates, he is able to tell them what day of the week they were born on, what day their next birthday will fall on and what day they will reach retirement age. He'll throw in events that occurred the year in which they were born and movies that won Academy Awards at that time.

Yet, simple physical tasks confound him. He is unable to dress himself or turn on a light switch.

"If it ends in a physical motion, his coordination stops," said his father, Fran Peek.

Kim Peek was born with an enlarged brain that is missing a corpus callosum, the tissue-thin bridge that links the brain's left and right hemisphere and filters out unneeded information. He also suffered brain damage, which affected his physical abilities.

Originally diagnosed as autistic, he scored 69 on standard IQ tests, well below the average of 100. "His inability to understand metaphors knocked him out of having a decent IQ because he's always literal," his father said. When his IQ was measured based on the volume of his knowledge and his ability to recall information -- without applying reasoning or abstract elements -- it was 184.

Despite his intelligence, he has no understanding of social skills, making it impossible for him to speak softly or avoid hurting other people's feelings.

His father said his son once told President Gerald Ford, "You're lucky to be in office because your boss was a crook."

At the premiere of "Rain Man," the wife of actor Dustin Hoffman, whose character in the film was based on Peek, was late in arriving. When she finally showed up, Peek told her in a loud voice, "You kept a lot of important people waiting."

She responded, "You must be Kim."

"People were astounded by him. When a magician does a trick, it's a trick. But this isn't a trick, it's an incredible gift."

-- Alan Offstein, owner of Furniture Galleries, Butler

Before he met Barry Morrow, screenwriter for "Rain Man," Kim Peek had contact with only about 20 people in his life and never looked anyone in the eye. That changed after Peek became the inspiration for the character portrayed by Hoffman in the 1988 Oscar-winning film.

"I've shared him with over 2 million people since Dustin Hoffman made me promise to take him out into the world," Fran Peek, 77, said.

Kim Peek and his father, who live in Utah, travel around the country to deliver what has become the younger Peek's mission statement: "Learning to recognize and to respect differences in others and treating them like you want them to treat you will bring the peace and joy we all hope for. Let's care, share -- be our best!"

The statement and the unusual man who delivered it made an impact in Butler County, where the pair recently spoke at the chamber of commerce dinner, attended a picnic for members of the newly formed Autism Society of Butler County and visited schools.

"It was thrilling just to see the effect he had on people here. The business people, the parents from the autistic society, the children, the teens -- such a cross section of people -- and he touched every single one of them in some type of way."

-- Leslie Osche, executive director of the United Way of Butler County

Musko issued the invitation to the Peeks on an impulse after meeting them in March at Penn State University. A member of the Butler AM Rotary Club, Musko was at Penn State to speak about the club's recent completion of the first phase of the only playground in the county designed for children who have special needs.

Musko also was in charge of planning the chamber of commerce dinner, which hadn't been held in eight years, and decided the Peeks would make excellent speakers.

The Peeks accept no fees for their appearances, only traveling expenses. Their visit to Butler County Sept. 16-18 was paid for by Sprint, which sponsored the chamber of commerce dinner at the Butler County Country Club.

"When we first sat down to talk about where we could take [the Peeks], my first thought was the autism society," Osche said.

Although Kim Peek's initial diagnosis of autism was later changed, Osche believed his message about acceptance of differences would be particularly relevant to the group.

David Wildman, the parent of an autistic child, founded the Autism Society of Butler County a year ago, with hopes that the community would recognize and welcome local families with autistic children. That hadn't happened, he said, until Osche brought up the idea for a picnic for society members sponsored by the Rotary Club at the playground the club built in Alameda Park.

"We can't really take our kids to a restaurant, so it was a perfect place to have [the picnic], and it really made our group feel wonderful that there are other groups who cared enough to put this on for us," Wildman, of Butler, said.

He said the society has wanted to invite speakers to their group, and the Peeks were an inspirational and encouraging start.

"[Fran Peek] is the perfect example of not giving up on the children and fighting for everything you can to make the child's life a better life," Wildman said.

"Getting to speak with [Kim's] father was very reassuring," said Melissa Morgan, vice president of the autism society. "He's so kind and gentle, and he told me, 'You've been especially blessed with this child, and you've done such a good job so far.' That meant so much, because the littlest things keep us going.

"As a parent looking at another parent, it gave us all a bunch of strength," added Morgan, who's 11-year-old son, Hunter, can't form words and exhibits some of the same behaviors -- pacing, hand flapping and squawking -- that Kim Peek does.

One of the places Musko took his guests was the Association of Retarded Citizens workshop on Washington Street in Butler, which the Peeks had visited in 1997.

As Peek's father spoke to the group about his son, Kim Peek appeared distracted, pacing around the room as he answered birthday and sports questions from those in attendance while mumbling and compulsively slapping his hands together.

"He's very concerned about Hurricane Isabel," his father explained. "He was tossing and turning and talking in his sleep all last night."

Peek occasionally stopped to hug a staff member he remembered from his previous visit, but he was clearly agitated. "There was Hurricane Agnes in 1972," he told one staff member before adding, "You're a great lady."

Afterward, Musko took the two to Butler County Area Public Library, where Fran Peek donated to the library autographed copies of the book he has written about his son, "The Real Rain Man: Kim Peek." The Butler AM Rotary Club supplied the books.

Peek headed right for the periodicals section and perused the stack of daily papers for news about Isabel as it began to bear down on the Carolinas.

"He's read all the Farmer's Almanacs and sees patterns in the weather," his father explained, adding that his son was most concerned about whether their flight out of Pittsburgh would leave on time. "He has a hard time with change, and he doesn't like to think about the future -- only the past and the present."

The Peeks also spoke to pupils at Dassa McKinney Elementary School in the Moniteau School District and at Karns City High School.

They were guests on Dave Malarkey's radio talk show on WISR-AM, and they toured Iron Mountain National Underground Storage in the Annandale section of Marion, an abandoned limestone mine that holds, among other things, patent records, Social Security applications and original recordings of famous singers.

The Peeks' arrival in Butler was marked by an informal dinner at Dingbats restaurant, attended by a half-dozen people who were treated to their first glimpse of Kim Peek's genius.

Stan Kosciuszko, chamber president, asked Peek whether he knew anything about his ancestor, Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

"General Tadeusz Kosciuszko was a commander-in-chief during the U.S. War of Independence, born 1746, died 1817 -- remember?" Peek quickly replied.

Kosciuszko nodded enthusiastically and turned toward his colleagues. "Yes! Now you can believe me," he said, referring to stories he had told about his ancestor.

Peek went on to recall that a mountain in Australia is named after the general as well as a county in Mississippi and a museum in Philadelphia.

"It was funny, I didn't even spell it, and he knew the whole story. He was mesmerizing," Kosciuszko said.

Peek had the group hanging on his every word as he recalled baseball plays, spouted movie trivia and hummed tunes by Wagner and the Beach Boys. Although he lives in Salt Lake City, he could give detailed directions on how to get from Butler to Cranberry. And he told every woman at the table, "You are a great lady."

When he met Osche, he added, "You are also a wonderful mother."

His statement brought Osche, whose son has a form of high-functioning autism known as Asperger syndrome, to tears.

Jill Cueni-Cohen is a freelance writer.

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