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Classmates acknowledge special couple in Milton

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
May 18, 2011
— Milton High School juniors elected two of the nicest people they know as prom king and queen.

The pair just happen to have Down syndrome.


Robert Witt, 18, and Kathleen Coogan, 17, had the surprise of their lives Saturday when their classmates chose them from a court of 32.


On Tuesday, Kathleen still was feeling “incredible.”


Kathleen recalled how she teared up when she heard Robert’s name called first.


“I started to cry, in a good way,” Kathleen said, sitting next to Robert in school Tuesday. She shyly touched his arm. “I voted for you.”


Robert said he didn’t have tears.


“I was gonna tough it up,” he said with a smile.


Kathleen was sure Maxine Arndt, another court member, would win as queen.


When Kathleen’s name was called, “I just broke down,” she said. “I lost my heartbeat.


“It was quite an experience for me,” Kathleen said. “I had a meltdown. I was trying to hold myself together.”


The couple’s classmates screamed in excitement around them.


Brianna Smith, special education teacher and prom advisor, said she had her own meltdown earlier when she counted the votes and saw who won—by a landslide.


Maggie McCarthy, a junior on court, said there wasn’t a big push to vote for the couple but that the juniors mostly made the decision individually.


“I just think a lot of people thought it would be a nice thing to do for them, just because they have had it so rough,” Maggie said.


“They are two of the nicest people you’d ever meet.”


Kathleen and Robert always have been included in school events and activities and have been accepted as part of the class. Maggie said that’s a “cool thing.


“I know a bunch of people said (the crowning) was one of the things that made prom really special for them,” Maggie said.


Wendy Witt, who works in food service at the school, said her son’s classmates don’t look at the pair as having Down syndrome. “They just look at them as classmates,” she said.


“They know they’ve had to work harder than them, and they deserve this.”


Robert was just recovering from leukemia when he started first grade.


“Those kids helped us get through some tough times,” Wendy said.


Sharon Coogan said Kathleen and Robert worked hard to be a part of the class. Sharon said it was “beautiful” that their fellow students recognized and honored the effort.


“I think we’re outgoing students,” Kathleen said. “We try hard every day.”


The pair take a combination of special and regular education classes.


Kathleen is manager of the softball team, is on the student council and won second place at state in forensics.


Robert is manager of the football team. He works at Dave’s Ace Hardware in Milton. Last year, the couple worked with their teacher in the coatroom at prom.


Both are in Link Crew, a group whose members are chosen to be leaders and role models for new students.


The moms lauded Brianna Smith because the teacher works hard to help include the students in all aspects of school.


Kathleen and Robert want to clear up “a little rumor” and make it clear that they are not dating.


But they are BFFs—best friends forever—and have known each other since fifth grade at Northside Intermediate School. The mothers say their children are more like brother and sister, and the friendship is evident in their knowing looks and gentle touches.


The two hang at each other’s homes, swim and lift weights together. They go to movies, are lunch buddies and just generally hang out.


Kathleen is more verbal and encourages Robert to get involved. If Wendy Witt wants to find out what’s going on with her son—he is closemouthed like many boys—she talks to Kathleen.


“He always wants me to feel happy,” Kathleen said of Robert. “He doesn’t want me to be sad. He doesn’t want me to get hurt.


“He’s always there for me.”


“When she gets sad or hurt, I’m there for her to comfort her,” Robert agreed. “She’s a beautiful girl.”


Kathleen and Robert ended their fairy-tale night at 1:30 a.m. after attending an after party. Both went home exhausted.


“All that crying made me tired,” Kathleen said, adding: “It was a night to remember.”


Said Sharon: “It seems like the Class of 2012 knows people with disabilities have a lot to offer, and maybe we can all learn from that.”



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