Getting a Leg Up

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

But recently, John got more help than he wanted. He was buying a MetroLink ticket at St. Louis Centre when a man came up, helped him buy the ticket and offered to carry his luggage. "I gave him $2 tip from my shoe and got on the train," John recalls. "Next stop, Kiel Center, the same guy sits next to me and tries to take my bag, but I got my foot on it. I said, 'What're you doing?' He pulls out these forms and says, 'These are my parole papers. I just got out of prison. I need money.' He rips my coat open: 'You got any money?' I was in a state of disbelief. It was surreal. Finally I told this guy, 'I don't have any arms.' That made him feel bad. He said, 'I'm sorry, man,' but he still wanted my money. He wasn't giving up. He reeked of b.o. and alcohol, and he's putting his arms around me. This guy was not going to leave me alone."

The other passengers moved to another car, but a man who had gotten on offered to let John sit between him and the window. The mugger didn't like that and wound up clocking the man, bloodying his face. At the Central West End stop, MetroLink security came to the rescue, but the mugger bolted and was never caught. The perp didn't get John's money, just his ire. "I felt helpless and scared at first," says John, "but when it was over, the more I thought of it, the angrier I got."

Traveling, however, rarely involves such drama. Until recently, John spent most of his time in transit and in hotel rooms with his nose in a thick textbook -- and that's one item he no longer needs to tote. While on the speaking trail full-time, John has completed his master's degree in social work, specializing in family counseling, from St. Louis University. In May, he'll walk the commencement stage. "I plan to do part-time social work," he says, "counseling one day a week, just a small caseload to begin." He is working on becoming a licensed clinical social worker, a task requiring 3,000 hours of supervised training. He does not intend to give up on public speaking; instead, he sees the degree as "added credibility and a means to expand and deepen the content of my talks."

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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Although his professional focus had always been with groups, he saw where the master's degree could give him the skills and the credentials to be a one-on-one mental-health provider. "I think he is and will be a good role model for clients," says Gary Behrman, director of admissions and recruitment and adjunct instructor with SLU's master-of-social-work program. "He seems to deal with life on life's terms. I don't think he's ever felt sorry for himself, not for a long time. If he has, he's dealt with it effectively and immediately."

Coincidentally, Behrman, 49, is from Albers, Ill.. Like John, he went to Mater Dei High School, and he has socialized with John in his dad's place, Shorty's Tavern, in Albers. "John can hoist a beer with his feet as well as any able-handed person," says Behrman. "And that same adaptiveness was evident in the classroom. John doesn't stand out, and students don't have to compensate for his presence. For example, when we're passing along handouts, the bundle goes right by him. He shuffles them with his feet and passes them on to the next student. He didn't need special assistance for anything. The only special request that he made to us during the three years he was a student here is that his mailbox would be at foot level rather than eye level."

When not on the road, John spends most of time at home. Designed by St. Louis architect H.J. Burgdorf in 1906 for A.C. Koch, then-owner of the Breese Mill & Grain Co., John's home looks as though it could be featured in Architectural Digest. When it went up for sale in the '70s, Ron and Carole, with their growing horde of boys, gave it consideration. "Mom and Dad wanted to buy it," says John, "but they backed out because they were afraid I couldn't walk the steps." John bought the house in 1995, and today he walks the steps with purpose. His office is on the second floor, his bedroom is on the third. The place is clean and tidy, with various knickknacks and mementos on display. Like his car, his home has no adaptive features; a casual visitor would never guess that a disabled person lives there.

Yet there are little clues. In an upstairs bathroom is a worn vintage copy of Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could. In another room is a framed poem by a family friend, written for John when he had his artificial arms. It is titled "The Boy with the Silver Hands." A wealth of art graces the walls, some of it John's. The largest piece hangs above the fireplace in the parlor. It is a watercolor of a village in Austria, a composite, says John, of several places he visited while in that country. There is a lone figure in the town square, dressed in native garb -- lederhosen, feather-garnished cap, calf-high stockings. His back to the viewer, the man seems to survey the scene, gazing beyond the village to the snow-capped mountains. So, who's the guy? John meets the question with a bemused look. He pivots in his chair and fixes the image as if studying it afresh. "Take a good look," he says. "He doesn't have any arms."

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