News & Events

Wild and crazy times — and the secret to success — for this Syracuse family of 17

June 5, 2017
Wild and crazy times — and the secret to success — for this Syracuse family of 17

Story by MARK SAAL • Photos by BRIANA SCROGGINS

SYRACUSE — Jody Lucas wanted a big family, Nate Lucas didn’t. So they ended up compromising.

Sort of.

Today, the Syracuse couple has 15 children, ranging in age from 10 months to 25 years.

In what possible alternate universe could 15 kids even remotely be considered a compromise? Apparently, the Lucases simply split the difference.

“She wanted 30, I wanted zero,” Nate jokes.

That conversation took place 15 children ago.

A family of the Lucas size can face some unique challenges. Two years ago, when they went looking for a new home, there weren’t a lot of places out there that fit their needs. But it’s not what you’d think because number of bedrooms wasn’t even an issue. (For those keeping score, their current house has nine bedrooms.)

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Oliver, 6, sits on the sofa on Wednesday, April 5, 2017, while sister Janny, 17, is on her cellphone at their home in Syracuse. Nate and Jody Lucas have adopted a number of children into their family of 17.

“We had to look for a house with a dining room big enough for two tables,” Nate said. “We looked at some huge houses, but their dining rooms were so small.”

And Jody says the kitchen is the most important room in their house.

“The kitchen is the heart of our home,” she explained. “And it’s wild and crazy around here at dinnertime. Loud and crazy.”

The stalking begins

Jody was born in Missoula, Montana, and raised 20 miles south, in Florence. She eventually made her way to Ogden where she attended beauty college. An Ogden native, Nate has spent most of his life working in the family’s lumberyard.

The two met in 1993 at church. Jody had moved in with relatives, and a 23-year-old Nate had just been called to serve as a member of the bishopric in their LDS ward.

“My sister-in-law saw Nate at church and said, ‘There’s one for you, Jody,’” she recalls. “And that’s when the stalking began.”

That stalking involved regular walks past Nate’s house and occasionally leaving him little gifts. Nate admits to being quite shy, so Jody had to get creative to catch his eye.

What finally broke the ice, according to Nate, was the time the other two members of the bishopric were out of town, and a woman in the congregation passed away. Nate had to conduct the funeral. It was a stressful time.

“I was 23 years old,” he said.

In the midst of this chaos, Jody left a bucket in Nate’s vehicle — it was a sort of survival kit with aspirin and other items to help him get through the stress of conducting a funeral and running the ward.

“The aspirin and other things had little sayings on them — ‘This is for this,’ and ‘This is for this,’” Nate recalls. “I thought that was way cool.”

It took about a year after their first meeting before Nate and Jody actually began dating. However, things progressed quickly after that. Two weeks after their first date — “If even that,” Nate says — they were engaged, and six weeks later they were married in the Jordan River LDS Temple in South Jordan.

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Dry spell

Today, Nate and Jody are both 48 years old with birthdays just days apart.

“I’m a cougar,” Jody laughs. “I’m nine days older than Nate.”

Like their romance, starting a family took some time as well. Jody had two miscarriages in their first couple of years of marriage, and after that she just couldn’t get pregnant.

“We hit a dry spell,” Jody said.

They tried fertility clinics and artificial insemination, but it was expensive and frustrating. Eventually they turned to foster care. Nate and Jody took a 5-year-old boy into their home, and everything finally seemed to be falling into place.

“They told us we could adopt him,” Jody said. “But then he went back home. That was heartbreaking.”

In 1997, the childless Lucases heard about a new program adopting children out of the Marshall Islands. Thirty days later, they were back home with a 4-month-old baby, Riley Malone, who’s now 20.

But just two weeks after adopting Riley, Jody found out she was pregnant. Harrison Michael, now 19, was born, and the juggernaut that is the Lucas family was off and running.

Harrison was a big baby, and Riley was on the small side, so strangers would often ask if they were twins — despite the fact one had darker skin and one was “very white,” according to Nate.

“Finally,” Jody said, “we just started telling people, ‘Yeah, they’re twins.’”

Cosmic practical joking

After Harrison was born, Nate and Jody hit another dry spell — no babies — although she does confess they “tried and tried.”

“We had some fun tries,” Jody teased to Nate’s embarrassment.

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Finally, the Lucases decided to go the adoption route again. They’d heard about an 8-year-old girl in Russia, Yulia Lynn (now 25), and made plans to adopt her. But when they found out she had a younger brother and sister — Alexander Otis (now 24) and Abbey Lubov (22) — they figured they couldn’t very well split up a matched set.

And that’s when the cosmic practical joking really kicked in.

“I’d been sick, and Nate asked me if I was sick — or if I was pregnant,” Jody recalls. “We were at Shopko, and we were leaving the next day to go to Russia, and I picked up a pregnancy test.”

Wanna take a stab at the result of the test?

Turns out, Jody was three months pregnant with Carley Jo, now 15. Suddenly, the Lucas family had completely outgrown the typical family sedan.

“That was a weird jump,” Nate says. “In six months it went from two kids to six kids.”

Soon thereafter, Jody had to have a hysterectomy, and the Lucases thought they were done with having kids — certainly the natural way, but also what they like to call “the other natural way.” But this story doesn’t yet add up to a family of 17, so more adoptions were yet to come.

Having more children was still in the back of Jody’s mind.

“My mom kept saying, ‘We’re still missing somebody,’” Yulia said.

As it turns out, they were missing nine somebodies: Macey Grace (now 11), also adopted from the Marshall Islands; Korean-American siblings Jacob Reed (18) and Janny Olivia (17); siblings Bailey Glenna (13), Hunter Baez (11) and Oliver Steven (6); and siblings Sammy David (2), Timber Corbin (6) and Navy Hope (10 months). Navy’s adoption just became final in March.

Between their natural children, adopted children and various foster children, Nate and Jody Lucas have been responsible for more than 30 kids at one point or another.

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Strong work ethic

Jeff Harris, Jody’s brother, calls the Lucases “definitely a fun family, and a tight-knit family.”

“Nate and Jody just have big hearts, and they opened their lives and family and hearts and home,” he said.

Harris says he envies the large family’s organizational skills, what with getting all those kids to sports and jobs and school events.

“We have five children of our own — and we adopted one of ours,” Harris said. “But holy smokes, they’ve got three times more kids than us.”

Nate’s sister, Karen Parker of Ogden, says she’s impressed with the way the couple has tried to instill a strong work ethic and sense of cooperation within all of the children.

“When you have that many, you have to be on top of your game,” she said. “If you let one slide, everybody thinks they can get away with things.”

Parker said that from the outside, folks might see Nate and Jody as overly strict. But she just sees it as letting the children know “these are the rules, and these are the consequences if you break the rules.” But even Parker admits her brother and his wife seem a tad strict to her.

“I’ve got five kids,” Parker said. “And by the last one I was, like, ‘Whatever.’”

‘Obnixious, complicated’

What do the children think about such a large family? It’s always noisy around the house, Hunter says. And you’re never home alone, adds Macey.

“There’s no privacy, even when you have the biggest headache,” Bailey explained. “Nobody leaves you alone.”

But that can be both a blessing and a curse, she admits.

“Because you always have somebody to talk to,” Bailey added.

“And, there’s always somebody to watch the little ones,” added Jacob.

Plus, if you mess with one Lucas, you mess with the other 16.

“Even though we fight a lot, we always have each other’s backs,” Riley said.

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Asked for one word to describe his super-sized family, Alex blurts out: “‘Obnoxious’ is what I was thinking.”

But then he reconsiders before finally settling on the kinder-sounding “Complicated.” (Mom, meanwhile, chooses the word “weird,” while Dad goes with the more diplomatic “intricate.”)

Some of the advantages of this huge family are subtle. In most LDS congregations, families take their turn cleaning the church. Generally, a few families are assigned to work together on a particular Saturday, vacuuming, washing windows and cleaning bathrooms.

Because of their numbers, the Lucases offer plenty of bodies to help with such chores.

“We’re very popular with the families we clean the church with,” Jody said.

And they love to play the game “How Many Lucases Can You Fit…”

In this game, the family tries to determine how many of them can cram into a particular space. They’ve played the game in a bathroom, a king-sized bed, a green Volkswagen Beetle, a photo booth — the list goes on.

Lucas On

It’s not been an easy road. The Lucases have children with autism, with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and with various other issues.

“Overall, the picture for a lot of them was dreary,” Nate says.

It sometimes appears to those outside the family that Nate and Jody have tried to do too much, tried to help too many children. Nate doesn’t worry much about what others think.

“Anybody who knows us, knows how we are,” Nate said. “We struggle day-to-day with just about everything. But in the end we’re moving forward, and I’m not going to apologize for it. I’ll be the first to say we’re not impressive how we function — there’s a lot of yelling, a lot of cursing sometimes. But it’s working. It’s definitely not working perfectly, but it is working.”

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And Nate and Jody say they simply felt compelled to travel this road.

“Some things just needed to be done,” Nate says matter-of-factly.

Jody elaborates: “Some of the kids, we didn’t need them, but they needed us. And others may not have needed us, but we needed them.”

So then, what’s the secret to keeping a household of 17 running like a not-so-well-oiled machine?

“The secret is,” Jody says, pausing to think. “The secret is …”

A longer pause.

“I don’t know,” she finally says. “I haven’t figured out the secret.”

Maybe the secret is found in the family motto Jody had printed on the family’s Christmas pajamas one year: “Keep Calm and Lucas On.”

And at least with the adoption of Navy this spring, that’s the last of the Lucases, right? Right?

“We’ve learned never to say this is the end,” Jody says with a smile.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.