ST. PETERSBURG — Mary Jane Lucas is used to chatting with her husband using the Internet software Skype.
It is the only way she can talk to Army Lt. Col. Ken Lucas, who's been deployed to Kuwait since January.
But this was different.
Mary Jane wasn't making the call from her home. She was standing on the stage at the Coliseum in downtown St. Petersburg in front of a crowd of nearly 800 people who'd gathered Thursday night for Keswick Christian School's annual banquet.
The school was honoring Ken, its former technology director, who was scheduled to appear via Skype.
But as the phone call was about to begin, something went wrong: Ken's photo was on the screen, but the call wasn't going through.
School superintendent David Holtzhouse grabbed the mike to tell the crowd not to worry. He had a "back-up plan."
"Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome …"
Mary Jane put her hands to her face. Before she could turn around, her husband, who she hadn't seen since July, walked on stage.
"It was really like a dream," she said afterward. "It was unreal."
By the time the couple separated, everyone in the banquet hall was on their feet, giving the family a standing ovation.
Mary Jane held a dozen roses in her hands. The couple's 19-year-old son, Kenny, a student at St. Petersburg College, wiped a tear from his eye as he huddled near his father. Their 21-year-old daughter, Kelly, who's in the North Carolina National Guard, is serving in Iraq.
"We Skype every morning," said Ken, 48, his words picked up by a microphone attached to his uniform. "To reach out and touch is different."
The surprise had been in the works for months.
It began nine months ago, when Holtzhouse started to plan this year's banquet. The only day the keynote speaker, Dallas Pastor Tony Evans, was available was Thursday.
When Holtzhouse realized that it was Veterans Day, he settled on a theme: "HEROES. Answering the Call."
Then he got the idea to try to bring Ken home.
"I've seen it on Oprah," Holtzhouse said. "I thought, 'Why can't we do it here?' "
At first, Ken was skeptical of the plan. His unit, the 595th Transportation Brigade, is scheduled to end its deployment by year's end. He doubted his superiors would let him leave.
He is the chief of operations for the brigade, which moves supplies around Kuwait.
Holtzhouse didn't give up, enlisting help from St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, whose son is a sophomore at the school. Foster called a general at U.S. Central Command, who agreed to fly Ken home for a short furlough.
He arrived in town about 11 a.m. Thursday. School officials whisked him away to the Vinoy, where he stayed hidden until the event.
He flies back to Kuwait on Sunday.
He won't be gone for long though. By the time he and his wife's 26th anniversary comes around next month, Lucas should be back in his Clearwater home.
"Anytime you can get a soldier out of a war zone and reunited with his family … it's a no-brainer," Foster said. "I get chills when I think about the reunion. What a tribute to an American hero."
Reach Kameel Stanley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.