Getting a Leg Up

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

"We'd go to the prosthesis clinic every day to see him," says Carole, "and he was hoarse from crying. The medical people would say, 'He's adapting well.' But in the end, what we found out is that the artificial arms handicapped him more, because he wouldn't use his feet then. I look back and think how that kid had to suffer so much with that -- and it was so fruitless, though we didn't know that at the time. We felt that we had to do everything possible so he wouldn't come back to us and say, 'Hey, why didn't you do this?' or 'Why didn't you do that?' Now he's almost at the point of 'Why did you do so much?'"

One day, Carole read a story in the Belleville newspaper about the Rev. Dr. Harold Wilke, a minister and board member of the United Church of Christ in New York, who had been born without arms. Over the years, Wilke would become a leader in the disability-rights movement. In a famous 1990 photograph, President George Bush passes him a pen (hand to foot) as they sign the papers that created the Americans With Disabilities Act. But even in the early '70s, Wilke was an inspiration to disabled folks everywhere. He was self-confident and adept at doing everyday things; he would be a role model for John. After Carole wrote him a letter, Wilke obligingly came to Breese. Though John was only 3 at the time, he still remembers him: "He wore the black tabi sock that I now wear, with the toes separated -- like gloves for the feet -- so you can pick things up. He showed us how he ate without hands or arms, how he brushed his teeth. He showed us how he drove a car, how he wore his clothes, how he carried things -- and he went all around the world. He gave Mom and Dad hope."

John gives a painting lesson at the Kinder Haus daycare center in Germantown, Ill.
Jennifer Silverberg
John gives a painting lesson at the Kinder Haus daycare center in Germantown, Ill.
John gives a painting lesson at the Kinder Haus daycare center in Germantown, Ill.
Jennifer Silverberg
John gives a painting lesson at the Kinder Haus daycare center in Germantown, Ill.

It is Jan. 2, bitterly cold, and Breese is covered with a fresh blanket of pristine snow. A minute after the doorbell rings at the stately Victorian home on North Eighth Street, John Foppe, clean-shaven and comfortably attired, appears: "Come in, come in." Standing in the front parlor, he offers sodas. Two Skis, coming up. What in the world is a Ski? Finally John emerges from the kitchen, slowly, carefully making his way in to the parlor with one soda can clamped in the crook of his neck and the other balanced on a foot. It could be part of a circus act. "I think you'll like this soda," he declares. "Ski is made right here in Breese. It tastes like Mountain Dew, only with more of a zing."

Shortly thereafter, he is giving a guided tour of Breese, a town of 3,500 that is home to the Excel Bottling Co., where Ski is brewed and bottled. A sign above the door depicts a little green bottle of Ski, waterskiing. Cute. At the wheel of his new silver Lincoln LS, John tools by St. Dominic, his former grade school, and then Breese Mill & Grain Co., where pickups are backed into the loading dock, hungry for cargo.

John appreciates push-button technology. Like many recent models, his car has the remote-entry touch-pad instead of the standard key-operated locks. When he goes to his car he just walks up, slips off a loafer as easy as if it were a slipper and, balancing on one leg, effortlessly enters the code with his toes. Once in traffic, he eases back in the seat, listing slightly to the right, giving his hips and thighs ample room to work. Corners are turned smoothly, slowly, as John steers with his left foot, accelerating and braking with the other. On Main Street, he drives past the Foppe Insurance Agency, founded by his granddad, Ferd Foppe, in 1937. It is where John's dad worked until retirement and where two of his brothers, Bill and Ron Jr., now work. Until now, John has not been exactly ebullient, but he livens up while showing off the town. "I like this town," he offers. "People just accept me. I don't feel like I'm on a stage here."

It's time for lunch, and looming ahead is an inviting tavern with a Budweiser sign out front. There? "No, I couldn't be seen in a bar in the daytime," he remarks, looking, in side profile, like a young Karl Malden. "I have a reputation to think about."

He's not overstating the situation. It turns out that he is viewed as a paragon in the community, a sort of high-profile goodwill ambassador. "He really has to watch his back, you know, what he says and does in the community, because he is like a public figure," says Neil Hustedde. "I guess you'd say famous. Even the surrounding towns, if we go out to dinner, everybody knows John. The adults say hi, and the kids -- because he's spoken at one time or another at nearly all the grade schools and high schools in the area -- you'll see the kids talking, whispering to each other" -- and Neil mouths, sotto voce, "'There's John Foppe.'"

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