Getting a Leg Up

Born without arms, John Foppe gives adversity a swift kick in the pants

"He had never been on the top of a mountain before, and it's definitely a sobering feeling when you get up that high. You wonder how you're going to get down," says Neil Hustedde of John Foppe. It was February, and the two friends from Breese, Ill., had gone to Steamboat, Colo., to test the slopes. Neil was an avid skier; John was a ski virgin. John had spent the first day with an instructor and negotiated a small hill. On the second day, he was ready for the slopes. Or was he? "He was leery about it the whole time," says Hustedde. "You know, if he falls and breaks a leg, he's really going to be in a fix."

For the steep slopes, the plan was to use a tether, a strap to be tied around John with Neil behind him, controlling his speed. "I was going to get the straps," says Neil, "and when I came back, he's talking to an instructor, asking him, 'Should I really be doing this, going up to the top of this mountain?' I said, 'John, don't you dare back out. You're just going to go with me and I'm gonna take care of things.' And then we were in this gondola riding up the mountain, he said, 'Maybe I'll just ride the gondola up and down.' And once we got up there, he wasn't any less nervous. He wasn't sure that I could control him, but I was sure that I could, and so down we went. He used the short skis, about 2 feet long, where you don't need poles. I had him on the tether down the steeper parts, and, once we got to the flatter stuff, I'd let him go, and he did great out there."

"He did a great job of coaching," says John of his best friend since kindergarten. "He was very patient with me, yet he was tough when he needed to be tough with me."

John Foppe: "You haven't discovered Breese until you've had a Wallyburger and a Ski."
John Foppe: "You haven't discovered Breese until you've had a Wallyburger and a Ski."
John Foppe: "You haven't discovered Breese until you've had a Wallyburger and a Ski."
Jennifer Silverberg
John Foppe: "You haven't discovered Breese until you've had a Wallyburger and a Ski."

The 30-year-old motivational speaker and social worker is no stranger to the concept of tough love. He had it forced on him as a boy, and he now preaches it in his seminars. Tough breaks call for tough love.

Last fall saw John at Octoberfest in Albers, another small town pickled in German heritage, just down the road from Breese, 40 miles northeast of St. Louis. Among friends and family in a big candy-striped tent, he was dressed in lederhosen, white shirt, wool vest, feather-trimmed cap -- full Teutonic regalia. Soon the tent was filled with the aroma of deutsches kochen -- hot slaw, kartoffelsalat (hot potato salad), brotchen (rolls) and wurst. Like the others, he happily gobbled bratwurst, but with his bare toes, grasping the hot, slippery sausages with gusto. John is quite dexterous with his feet. He eats, drives, types, paints and does every thing an able person would do, using only his feet. He was born without arms -- no radii, no ulnae, no humeri.

For John, life is a series of problems to solve. In one day, he deals with more obstacles to ordinary living than most people do in a month. "It's always the little things," he notes. Pumping gas, for example. "I take the nozzle out with my feet," says John, "hold it with my chin and stick it in the gas tank. Then I have to wrestle with that hose, and usually those things are grimy. I may get my shirt dirty. It's close to my face, it's in my neck, you know. I don't like it, but these things do get done, because they must. I'm disabled, not handicapped."

Asked whether he has dark moments or whether he has trained himself to think positively in every situation, his response is immediate: "Oh no, sometimes I have -- I wouldn't call them dark moments -- I'd call them tense moments, stemming from inability to do certain things, and sometimes you want to say a few cuss words. When these things happen, I try to back away from it. When something jams, you don't force it. You've just got to back away from it, come back later. And sometimes I choose to eliminate things that I think are difficult. Like opening a can of coffee: It's hard enough getting it into the electric can opener, but then you've got to hold it in there, because it's heavy and it can fall back out. I love my fresh-brewed coffee, but it's real work to get it."

Although he strives for self-sufficiency, John is forced to lean on others for certain chores. "Maybe a light bulb will go out up on the ceiling fixture," he says. "I've got to let it go until someone comes around." As for grocery shopping, "it's hard just pushing the cart," he explains. Also, a lot of things are out of reach. "It seems like, most of the time, the things you need are on the top shelf," he says with a small chuckle that sounds a bit like a snort. "But I've resolved that with my 11-year-old niece, Emily. She comes with me to the grocery store."

Next Page »