Jack Jablonski’s paralyzing hockey injury four years ago was the kind of heartbreaking story that brought expressions of support from across the country, including a previously secret gift from a Monroeville, Ala., author as renowned as she was reclusive.

On what would have been “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee’s 90th birthday earlier this week, Jack’s mom, Leslie Jablonski, revealed that Lee signed five first editions of her classic novel for her son in 2012. Lee died in February.

“Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves to believe something so good is actually so real. This is one of those times,” Leslie Jablonski wrote on her son’s CaringBridge page. “It’s been hard to keep this secret for the last four years, but we did so out of respect for her.”

Now that Lee is gone, the family felt they could share the story that started with Tom Ryan, the father of one of Jablonski’s classmates at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School. Ryan, a book collector, came up with a long shot idea to have Lee sign first editions of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as a contribution to Jack’s fundraising efforts.

Because of his accident during a game in 2012, Jack Jablonski faces substantial lifelong personal care and medical bills. Now 20, he is a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He balances his academic work and an internship in communications with the NHL’s L.A. Kings with participation in the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity and physical therapy sessions.

Shortly after Jablonski’s accident, Ryan sent a handwritten note to Lee. He didn’t have an address so he just sent it to Monroeville and guessed at one of three ZIP codes.

Ryan had never met Jack or his parents, but said his son Michael Ryan was heartbroken over the accident and he wanted to help.

Two weeks after sending the note to Lee, Ryan received a written response from her lawyer, Tonja B. Carter, who said she and the author looked up Jack’s story. Carter also told Ryan that Lee received and rejected nearly all of the thousands of mailed requests she receives a month. Carter noted that Lee hadn’t held a book signing since the 1960s.

But something about Ryan’s handwritten note grabbed Carter and Lee. Carter asked Ryan that the Jablonski family, a priest or administrator from Benilde-St. Margaret’s send a note confirming the request for signed books. Lee also wanted pictures of Jack. Leslie Jablonski sent Lee a book of photos.

Then came the signings, which Ryan said occurred one at a time over several months because Lee took her time. “As private as she was, she had a big heart for someone like Jack,” Ryan said.

After the recent publication of Lee’s second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” both Lee’s mental acuity and Carter’s sway over her were widely questioned. Ryan said that in his exchanges with the women, he found Lee to be engaged and “very aware” of what was going on.

An avid collector of books, Ryan said only 5,000 were in the first printing of the first edition of “Mockingbird” in 1960. Unsigned, they are worth about $30,000 each, he said. Signed and in good condition with the jackets, the books sell for about $40,000, he said.

Lee wasn’t the only novelist Ryan contacted. He sent identical requests to many well-known authors, asking that they sign first editions for Jack’s fund. Ryan requested the authors not be identified nor did he want to publicly reveal the name of the one writer who rebuffed multiple request for signed editions.

In an interview, Leslie Jablonski declined to say whether Jack still had the books or had sold them, but she remains moved by how Lee and Carter reached out not just with books, but in sending their love and adding her son to their prayers.

Leslie Jablonski said the family had hoped her son and Lee could meet, but traveling was too hard for both of them and time ran out.

Still, Lee kept Jack close to her. Ryan said Lee kept photos of Jack on her mantle until the day she died.

Leslie Jablonski said this is one of many improbable “good, inspiring things” that came out of the Jack’s accident.

“Harper Lee has a place in her heart for Jack,” Leslie Jablonski said. “It still blows my mind.”


Twitter: @rochelleolson