Shelley Thomas first met Kim about four years ago after co-hosting a political debate with KUTV's Randall Carlisle.
"He walked up to me and put his face just a few inches away from mine and he said, 'I've been thinking a lot about you, Shelley Thomas,'" the KSL News anchor remembers now. "Then he started to tell me a lot of things about myself that were rather . . . well, let's say startling."But rather than being frightened by the sudden intimacy of the stranger, Thomas was intrigued. The little man was probably more than 30 years old, and yet there was something childlike and harmless about him. He had the look of the mentally handicapped about him, but he spoke with intelligence - even brilliance. He asked her when her birthday was. She told him. He told her what day of the week that was.
Correctly. Just like that.
"This is Kim." It was Kim's father, who had been watching the encounter from a short distance away and figured some sort of explanation was in order. "He's asavant."
Thomas had heard the term "idiot savant" and knew that it refers to a rare disorder of the brain in which otherwise handicapped individuals are gifted with incredible mental capabilities. But this was her first actual contact with such aperson, and her journalistic instincts told her there was a story there.
It took a while, but that story will finally air tonight when KSL presents "Kim" (7 p.m., Ch. 5), a half-hour documentary written and reported by Thomas, produced by Janice Evans and photographed by Karl Peterson.
"Kim" introduces viewers to a man who is "an island of genius in the sea of the mentally handicapped." He does complicated payroll computations in his mind, but falls apart when someone suggests a change of routine. He can recite cast lists and lines of dialogue from any of the scores of books, movies and plays he'sread or seen, but he can't explain what they do or what they mean. He has a perpetual calendar in his head that allows him to identify any date in history or the future, but he can't figure out how to sharpen a pencil.
How does he do it? As far as Kim is concerned, it's simple. "I just know my savantism," he says.
But "Kim" does more than just amaze and amuse with Kim's feats of mental dexterity. It provides interesting information on savants and savantism while portraying Kim as more than an oddity, but as a warm, compassionate, loving human being.
"I didn't want to exploit this man for these 'parlor tricks' that he does," said Thomas during an interview last Friday. "I want to show him as a whole person...not as a trained seal."
Thomas's interest in introducing the world to Kim's human side is not unique.Several years ago Kim met a writer named Barry Morrow, who was so impressed by the experience that he wrote a story about a savant who was modeled after Kim. That story eventually became the hit Dustin Hoffman-Tom Cruise feature "Rain Man."In fact, Hoffman spent a considerable amount of time with Kim, studying his movements and copying his speech patterns.
True, other savants were also included in the "Rain Man" characterization, with West Virginian Joe Sullivan generally considered the final inspiration for Hoffman's autistic Raymond. (Kim has some autistic traits, Thomas said, but not enough to be considered truly autistic.) But Morrow says that as far as he's concerned, Kim is Raymond.
And that's what bothers some of the people closest to Kim. They have limited Kim's contacts with the media and refused to allow "Rain Man" producers to use him for promotional purposes. "There were deep concerns for his privacy and welfare," Thomas said. "They were afraid that some people might not be kind to Kim."
Even Thomas had difficulty convincing Kim's father to allow her to proceed with the documentary. It wasn't until the movie went into production that she was able to obtain full permission to tell Kim's story. And even then it wasn't always easy.
"This is the most challenging, unbelievable project I've ever been involved with," Thomas said. For one thing, savantism is difficult for medical professionals to understand, so it is doubly hard to communicate its intricacies to a general audience. And for another, Kim was a tough interview.
"Sometimes he's hard to keep up with," Thomas admitted. "The way his mind makes connections, you can be talking about one thing, he'll make some obscure association and the next thing you know he's a million miles away talking about something you had no intention of talking about."
Thomas has also had to turn down requests from television stations and programs all around the country who wanted footage of Kim when a story about him and the documentary appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times. "Everybody wants film," Thomas said. "Even Geraldo."
But the biggest pressure the newswoman has had to deal with while producing "Kim" has been the burden of trust.
"The family was hesitant to have any publicity, but they decided to trust me with this," Thomas said. "And Kim is just so full of love and trust, I didn't want to betray that.'
And she didn't. "Kim" is a thoughtful, sensitive portrait of a fascinating topic and a fascinating man.
"The joy of this project was just being around him - he's such a sweetheart," Thomas said. "I hope that seeing him will help shatter the notion of what a mental handicap is. I know I will never look at anyone who is allegedly 'impaired' the same way again."
But beyond that, Thomas just wants people to care. "My hope is that people will fall in love with him like I did," she said.
Consider it done.