Getting a Leg Up

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

John went to camp -- not that summer, but the next. "He got homesick within a few days, and he wanted to come home so bad," says Carole, "and the priest in charge of the place wouldn't let him leave."

By high school, John had spurned the awkward artificial arms. He had developed remarkable agility with his feet. He wore his class ring on a toe, his wristwatch on an ankle. As Carole remembers, the decision came to a head on prom night, John's junior year. "After the dance, they went out to eat. They were in a booth, and he couldn't use his arms to eat in a spot like that. It was like trying to eat with football equipment on. So he had to use his feet. After that, he decided, 'They're going to have to accept me the way I am.'"


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."

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It was during high school that John had an epiphany. He had gone to Haiti as a member of the Belleville Diocesan Catholic Youth Organization, and on the itinerary was Mother Teresa's children's hospital in Port-au-Prince. "The place was basically a concrete bunker with a rusty tin roof and an open sewer that ran behind the building," John remembers. "The stench was penetrating. There were two rooms with 20 beds each, and each bed had a little hunk of life. Some of these kids were so sick and wasted away, they had IV needles in their heads because they had no tissue on their bony arms. I was overwhelmed with memories of Shriners Hospital.

"There were other people in the room, but a little boy came up to me, and he tugged on my shirt. He never said a word -- he just smiled -- but he wanted me to pick him up ... and I had no arms to pick him up. It was an intense moment, and I felt terrible. And a few days later, when I was on the plane flying back to Miami, my mind was on the kids. I thought I was handicapped, but this took the cake -- a little kid who wanted me to hold him and I couldn't give it back. I said to God, 'You're a cruel God,' and I dared him to respond. Then I had a spiritual awakening. It dawned on me that the boy didn't want me to pick him up. He simply wanted to hug me. I was so consumed by my own self-pity that I didn't see the gift he was giving me. He looked straight past my condition, right into my heart."

When John returned, he spoke with Colette Kennett, a youth minister with the Belleville Archdiocese. A colleague who ran a youth group in Joliet was looking for speakers. John, 16, gave a speech on his Haiti experience -- not just in Joliet but many times over the next year, and the $8,000 in fees he earned he sent to the hospital in Port-au-Prince. He expanded and honed his presentations as president of the diocesan CYO and later as fraternity-pledge-class president at Creighton University. Over the next few years, the accolades piled up -- among them the Danforth Foundation's I Dare You Award -- and in 1993 he was recognized by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the group's Ten Outstanding Young Americans.

John's aspiration to be an orator was kick-started in August 1990, when he met renowned motivational speaker and author Zig Ziglar. Both were speaking at a junior college. Ziglar was impressed with John's message and offered him a position at his corporate headquarters in Dallas. John, then 22, stayed for two-and-a-half years.

Some of John's talks were tame affairs before small, reserved groups of corporate suits. But some, in terms of production and fanfare, were on the level of rock concerts. The presentations featured light shows and rock music -- well, lightrock music. A 1993 show in Houston drew 5,000 young conservatives, whipped up en masse just to hear a wet-behind-the-ears kid from rural Illinois talk about self-improvement. "He gives them real hope," says Ziglar of his protégé. "When people see him, they instinctively think: 'If this young man can do that much with that difficulty and handicap, then I'm definitely going to do more with what I have.'"

John returned to Breese and started his own company, John P. Foppe Seminars Inc. (www.johnfoppe.com). The jobs come by way of referrals, including Ziglar's. He usually books three to four months in advance, and he gives at least 50 talks per year, most of them distant engagements. Among the names on his client list are Texas Instruments, the federal Bureau of Prisons, Boeing, the U.S. Air Force and Domino's Pizza -- quite a change from the church youth groups, Jaycees and Rotary Clubs, the audiences of his early years.

Traveling alone on these speaking engagements can be daunting in itself. John manages ably using a combination of his feet, mouth and chin. He can open doors with his chin, for instance, but in a dining situation he cannot cut his own steak, and so he'll ask the server to do it for him. As far as signing the hotel register goes, the desk clerk can accommodate John by placing the book on the floor, where John can readily sign in. "If it [accepting help] is going to make it faster, safer and easier, I'm not going to let pride get in the way," he says, noting that the manner in which people offer to help matters to him. "If it sounds condescending, if it comes across like they're offering pity, that just doesn't cut it with me."

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