Getting a Leg Up

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

Drawing is still a passion of John's, and he is an accomplished watercolorist. His home is filled with paintings and sketches of various scenes, some from Germany and Austria, where he has traveled to unearth his heritage. His love of reading has evolved into a desire to write. On the table is a book offer from Thomas Nelson Publishers, an established house specializing in inspirational literature. The work bears the same title as the promotional video for his seminars, Armed with Hope, and John wrote the initial draft with help from Jay Memmott, a mentor and professor at St. Louis University. "I've signed on the dotted line," he says. "The stipulation is, they want me to beef it up another 100 pages or so. I'll have to dig down into my experiences."

Those experiences are remarkably rich and, by John's own assessment, often ironic. "So many things that I couldn't do as a child, it turned out that there were other things to counterbalance what I missed," he says. "Like, I couldn't play football with my brothers -- pretty disappointing in a sports town like this. But, years later, I did motivational speaking for Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Dolphins. And they gave me that." He points to a framed Dolphins jersey on the wall of the rec room. Emblazoned on it is "Foppe 1," and it has been signed by all the members of the team.

Another irony involves religion. The Foppes are Catholics in a very Catholic town. Tiny Breese even has two Catholic grade schools, one for each side of the tracks. John attended the St. Dominic school, and during the fifth grade he was eager to become an altar server. "At the time, I had these artificial arms. I didn't like them, but I was willing to wear them to serve Mass. The priest said no, it just wouldn't do. That was my first experience of rejection because of my disability." The pope, however, had not dismissed him. In 1976, John and his father, Ron, had traveled to the Vatican and were attending Mass at St. Peter's Basilica. The celebrant of that mass, Pope Paul VI, noticed John packed in among the congregation; he was saying the rosary using his feet and 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."

"After Mass, the pope motioned to John," recalls Ron Foppe Sr., "and he told the Swiss Guard, 'Bring me the bambino without arms who can do so much with his feet. I want to give him a blessing.' I carried John up to the altar -- 13 steps, I remember -- and held him as the pope blessed him."

The church would play a strong role in John's life -- he spent at year in the seminary program at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Omaha -- but long before that, another Catholic institution, a rustic summer camp, was the impetus for John to start fending for himself. For parochial-school kids in central Illinois, Camp Ondessonk, in the Shawnee National Forest, is one of the few legitimate refuges from parental care during summer vacation. John's older brothers had gone there, but when John ran home excitedly after school, carrying a camp brochure, Carole told the sixth-grader that he simply was not willing or able to take care of himself away from home.

"That really upset him," says Ron Jr., "and he went on to what was called his 'pity pot' (a variant of 'pity party'), feeling sorry for himself." Around this time, recalls Ron Jr., "Mom had told us brothers that we weren't allowed to help John anymore, like pick up his pants or put his shirt on, because we were all kind of babying him. He talks about this in his speeches, that he remembers coming to me and asking me to do something for him, and I was frozen in my tracks. I wanted to help him, but Mom had instilled the fear of God in us that we weren't allowed to help him anymore."

"I told the boys, 'If John wants a plate from the cupboard, let him get it himself, even if he breaks every plate in the house,'" says Carole.

Writing his book caused John to revisit certain seminal moments, he says, "in a deeper way." This was one of them: "I'd been speaking about some of these things for years -- the tough love with my mom and the camp thing, but when I wrote that story out, I went into detail about the struggle that it was to learn to get dressed, about lying on the floor with my feet in the air, trying to slip the pants down to my hips. And the sweat and the tears and the feeling of abandonment because the others were in other parts of the house but they're not coming to help. I went very deep into that. It was the first turning point in my life."

Today, that childhood experience is told and retold to the hundreds of people who attend his seminars. "I think there's a fine line between being stubborn and being strong," John says. "Behind both there's a will, but when we're stubborn, with the low self-esteem and the negative attitude, it's like we're fighting ourselves, and when we're strong, we fight the problem. And I think somewhere back there, in the midst of being emotionally tapped out and completely stripped of defenses, there was a shift in my attitudes, when I stopped fighting myself and started fighting the problem. And then I worked, I worked with my parents to come up with creative solutions to deal with my condition -- wearing suspenders on my pants, putting a hook in the bathroom where I could pull up my pants, having my clothing adapted, using the tabi socks like Dr. Wilke had used."

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