Getting a Leg Up

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

The lunch choice is a boxy-looking diner on the main drag. Though he has handicap license plates, he doesn't use the allotted parking space. "You haven't discovered Breese until you've had a Wallyburger and a Ski," says John. A visit to Wally's L-shaped lunch counter with its 10-stools is the Clinton County experience. Taking his seat on the short leg of the L, John orders a cheeseburger and fries and a large Ski. At Wally's, the fries are served as hot as a radiator cap on an overheated car, and when the food comes, the waitress says what she always says: "Watch those fries -- they're really hot."

John, perched on a stool, has his left leg up on the counter. He holds the fat Wallyburger, dripping grease, between his second toe and big toe (which is very nearly like an opposable thumb), and, leaning close to the plate, he chows down. When he wants a hit of Ski, he leans over to the glass and sips from a straw. To the diners on the long leg of the L, John might as well be a contortionist, and they steal surreptitious glances.

When John travels beyond Breese, as he often does, he must deal with the brazen stares of strangers. He's grown immune to the gawking by now. On the other hand -- or foot -- the folks in Breese see him as one of their own. "Everyone in town either knows John or knows of him," says John's brother Ron Jr., 27. "Sometimes I think the entire town almost feels like they have some ownership in him. I mean, we were sitting in Wally's one time and this guy, a total stranger, bought John's lunch. I didn't know him, John didn't know him. He just bought lunch because John was sitting there eating a burger with his toes."

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."

"I don't care who you are, everybody is curious," John says on the drive back to his place. "Even I, as a disabled person, I get curious when I see other disabled people and wonder, 'How do they do they do that?' It's never gonna change. It doesn't mean that people shouldn't be sensitive, but the fact is, a lot of people do not know how to deal with someone with a disability. It's probably the No. 1 question I get in my presentations: 'When I'm in a mall or an airport and I see a disabled person struggling and I feel like I want to help, what do I do?' My response is 'If you feel inclined to help people, you should offer to help. If the disabled person doesn't accept your help, don't take that personally. They just want their independence, and maybe they're trying to show to themselves that they can do something.'

"What I fear is happening in our society is, we've become hypersensitive around the disabled person. It's the proverbial elephant in the living room. When people are confronted by a glaring disability, they often try to ignore it for fear of offending the individual. I think that only reinforces stereotypes, because you're not acknowledging the individual or his disability. I truly believe that prejudice, whether it's about race or disability, is rooted in ignorance, and the only way you bust through that is by talking about it, letting people ask questions."


Kids in Breese learn to play baseball before they can tie their shoes. For inspiration, all they need is to look southward, toward nearby Germantown, the home of Red Schoendienst, and to New Athens on the Kaskaskia River, one of several area burgs to lay claim on Whitey Herzog. Growing up, John romped with his seven brothers. But as the tribe, along with neighbor kids, formed sides for rough-and-tumble games, John usually sat on the sidelines.

"There were times we played kickball and whatnot, and he wasn't able to play, and he'd jump on the trampoline and watch us," says Ron Jr. "But there were other times, too, when we tried to include him in what we were doing -- and even if we didn't come out and ask, he had a way of talking us into doing things. He was a good salesman at a young age."

John's presence at the St. Dominic grade school caused a bit of a stir, but not for long. Says Ron Jr., "I remember times when kids would make fun of him and then us brothers, we would either pound the kid who made fun of him or threaten him. And that's the way it was: Kids knew you don't make fun of John Foppe, because his brothers will come and beat the crap out of you. But," he adds quickly, "there wasn't too much of that. Most of the time, it was the opposite. His classmates accommodated him and made him feel welcome and did everything they could to involve him."

The boys had a treehouse, a space of their own, where they could steal away from the serious realm of adults. "It was the only handicapped-access treehouse in Breese," says Ron Jr. with a laugh. "Dad carpeted the ladder so John could use his chin to climb up. It had a fire pole that came from a firehouse in St. Louis, and he'd slide down that too, using his legs and chin." That treehouse became John's sanctum sanctorum, a combination philosopher's aerie and artist's garret, where he could pursue his predilections for reading and drawing.

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