Lu Hardy spent her career ministering to some of society's most challenging and difficult beings - autistic children.
"Autistic children for so long were considered uneducable," she says. "Many were simply put in institutions because they appeared to be so severely handicapped. We know now that they can learn with the right techniques."
Lu's battle to help those children learn to control their behavior and to educate them to the extent possible brought her from the Institute for Logopedics in Wichita to the Wichita school system, where she set up and ran the district's first autistic program in 1976.
She battled daily with children who could not communicate, who were withdrawn and isolated, who threw tantrums. Autism is a brain disorder that keeps a person from understanding what he sees, hears and otherwise senses. Because the messages received are garbled and chaotic, severe problems in learning, communication and behavior are the result. Many nights Lu went home from school exhausted and bleeding.
She developed innovative programs in an era when little was known about autistic children, winning national, state and local awards from organizations dedicated to exceptional children.
Lu grew up on a farm in northwestern Oklahoma and graduated from Northwestern Oklahoma State College in Alva. In 1941, she came to Wichita to join the war effort, working as an inspector of airplane parts.
Following the war, she went to Oklahoma City, where she became a social worker, then an Arthur Murray dance instructor. She returned to Wichita in the late 1940s to help a friend open a dance studio. Later she joined the Emporia Avenue Clinic where she worked for seven years as a medical assistant.
With her marriage to geologist Roy Hardy in 1953, Lu left her job to raise her stepson, Greg. Wishing to make a difference in her community, Lu went to the Institute of Logopedics as a volunteer. Within a year she was a paid staff member.
She had discovered a new career, and returned to school at Wichita State University, earning her master's degree in educational psychology and special education.
Seven years later, she left the Institute and went to the Wichita school system, where she worked with mentally handicapped children until she was given the green light to develop the program for autistic children. In 1981, her program was cited as one of the best in the United States, according to the Kansas Federation Council newsletter.
One of Lu's daily struggles was finding a way to communicate with these children in a manner to which they could relate. She started carrying a camera and taking pictures of the children in various activities. She made a reader for one boy. She communicated activities and progress to the parents each day, stressing how important it was that the children receive consistent messages.
Grateful parents praised Lu's efforts. One mother created a scrapbook which featured Lu in action with her special children. Years later, at Lu's 80th birthday party, one of the mothers came and brought her now grown son.
"I got hooked on those kids," Lu says, but after years of daily struggle, she came to realize it was time to retire. "I loved doing it, but I had to quit."
A widow since her husband was killed in an automobile accident in 1971, Lu enjoyed her retirement for about a year, then felt the need to make a contribution. She began volunteering at a northeast Wichita nursing home.
The camera that Lu had begun carrying when teaching her special needs children became an extension of her arm, accompanying her everywhere. Along the way, she became an accomplished amateur photographer. The walls in her apartment feature some of her favorite works.
In the early 1990s, Lu decided she had had enough of living alone, and began looking at retirement communities. After visiting several, she came to Via Christi Village on Georgetown.
"I walked in, saw all this light, and knew this was where I wanted to be," she smiles. "I moved in in December of 1991 and I have never regretted it. People here are wonderful."