When Ford Motor Company heard how a Manchester landscaper made a teenager with Down's syndrome smile with a simple ride in his Ford truck, a representative from Ford headquarters in Michigan wrote to him that the story sounded like something out of a country song "that makes you cry for all the right reasons."
So when Tom Topping, 54, responded that he was a "Toby Keith kind of guy," Ford offered Topping, the boy, Kevin Fellows, 15, and his family tickets to see Toby Keith perform at Xfinity Theatre in Hartford this weekend. Ray Seraphin Ford in Rockville Connecticut, where Topping got his 2012 Ford F-250, is also detailing his truck for free after learning of the story.
The recognition is heartwarming, but ask Topping about his act of kindness and he'll tell you that his gesture wasn't much. For the Manchester Green Lawn Services owner, the special part of the story is really about Kevin and his moment in the truck, the "Big Red Monster," that made it feel like "Christmas in July."
"I gave a kid a ride in a truck and you're supposed to make kids smile," he said.
Kevin, a Coventry High School student, loves playing with trucks, cars and trains, often riding with his grandfather on his tractor in the past.
"He was very excited," said his grandmother, Gail Zanlungo, who has taken care of him often over the past 13 years. "He loves anything like a tractor that moves."
It all started when Topping was at Zanlungo's house in Manchester mowing her lawn on July 10. Zanlungo was Topping's first customer when he opened a year ago after a career in sales and he had never met her grandson, Kevin before. Kevin was visiting, going from window to window to watch Topping mow. He brought a lawn chair outside to sit and watch Topping continue in the backyard, a part of the house without windows.
Topping waved to him and Kevin followed him to his Ford work truck when he was done. Topping let him press the button that activated the winch to load his mower into the truck. Kevin jumped up and down, Topping said. Though limited verbally, Kevin communicated with Topping through eye contact and body language.
As Topping was getting ready to go home for the day, Kevin opened the passenger door, hopped in and buckled the seat belt. Zanlungo and Kevin's sister, Hannah, 12, were outside at that point and told him to get out of the car, but Topping got the hint.
"Let's take a ride," he told Kevin and with Zanlungo's permission he too Kevin and Hannah on a ride down Porter Street.
The ride only lasted four minutes, but Topping said it was one of the highlights of his life, making him feel "blessed" and "lucky."
"As I slowed for the stop sign, he grabbed my arm and hugged me, then laid his head against my arm. He looked up just as I looked down, and when our eyes met I saw Christmas in July. ... and I was Santa," Topping posted on Facebook, tagging Ford's Facebook page. "That, my friends, is a great day."
Ford liked the story and shared, telling people to "read on if you want a smile today."
Zanlungo said that Ford's reaction to the story is a testament to Kevin's personality.
"He's such a wonderful little boy to everyone that he meets and I think that is a reflection of his upbringing," Zanlungo said.
"Thank you Ford Motor Company, for showing that "Built Ford Tough" is only on the outside and you have a warm spot in your heart," Topping wrote on Facebook.
But the greatest gift to Topping is to do something special for Kevin and his family, who have "adopted" him into their lives. As someone without kids or nieces and nephews, the former U.S. Marine survival trainer appreciates how Kevin and Hannah have quickly filled that void. Hannah invited him to her birthday party on Sunday, so he gave Kevin another ride.
Zanlungo is thankful to Topping and said that his generosity made this all possible.
Xfinity Theatre is affiliated with Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, the parent company of NBC Connecticut. Ford F-Series trucks are a sponsor of Keith's tour.