By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
"He had never been on the top of a mountain before, and it's definitely a sobering feeling when you get up that high. You wonder how you're going to get down," says Neil Hustedde of John Foppe. It was February, and the two friends from Breese, Ill., had gone to Steamboat, Colo., to test the slopes. Neil was an avid skier; John was a ski virgin. John had spent the first day with an instructor and negotiated a small hill. On the second day, he was ready for the slopes. Or was he? "He was leery about it the whole time," says Hustedde. "You know, if he falls and breaks a leg, he's really going to be in a fix."
For the steep slopes, the plan was to use a tether, a strap to be tied around John with Neil behind him, controlling his speed. "I was going to get the straps," says Neil, "and when I came back, he's talking to an instructor, asking him, 'Should I really be doing this, going up to the top of this mountain?' I said, 'John, don't you dare back out. You're just going to go with me and I'm gonna take care of things.' And then we were in this gondola riding up the mountain, he said, 'Maybe I'll just ride the gondola up and down.' And once we got up there, he wasn't any less nervous. He wasn't sure that I could control him, but I was sure that I could, and so down we went. He used the short skis, about 2 feet long, where you don't need poles. I had him on the tether down the steeper parts, and, once we got to the flatter stuff, I'd let him go, and he did great out there."
"He did a great job of coaching," says John of his best friend since kindergarten. "He was very patient with me, yet he was tough when he needed to be tough with me."
The 30-year-old motivational speaker and social worker is no stranger to the concept of tough love. He had it forced on him as a boy, and he now preaches it in his seminars. Tough breaks call for tough love.
Last fall saw John at Octoberfest in Albers, another small town pickled in German heritage, just down the road from Breese, 40 miles northeast of St. Louis. Among friends and family in a big candy-striped tent, he was dressed in lederhosen, white shirt, wool vest, feather-trimmed cap -- full Teutonic regalia. Soon the tent was filled with the aroma of deutsches kochen -- hot slaw, kartoffelsalat(hot potato salad), brotchen (rolls) and wurst. Like the others, he happily gobbled bratwurst, but with his bare toes, grasping the hot, slippery sausages with gusto. John is quite dexterous with his feet. He eats, drives, types, paints and does every thing an able person would do, using only his feet. He was born without arms -- no radii, no ulnae, no humeri.
For John, life is a series of problems to solve. In one day, he deals with more obstacles to ordinary living than most people do in a month. "It's always the little things," he notes. Pumping gas, for example. "I take the nozzle out with my feet," says John, "hold it with my chin and stick it in the gas tank. Then I have to wrestle with that hose, and usually those things are grimy. I may get my shirt dirty. It's close to my face, it's in my neck, you know. I don't like it, but these things do get done, because they must. I'm disabled, not handicapped."
Asked whether he has dark moments or whether he has trained himself to think positively in every situation, his response is immediate: "Oh no, sometimes I have -- I wouldn't call them dark moments -- I'd call them tense moments, stemming from inability to do certain things, and sometimes you want to say a few cuss words. When these things happen, I try to back away from it. When something jams, you don't force it. You've just got to back away from it, come back later. And sometimes I choose to eliminate things that I think are difficult. Like opening a can of coffee: It's hard enough getting it into the electric can opener, but then you've got to hold it in there, because it's heavy and it can fall back out. I love my fresh-brewed coffee, but it's real work to get it."
Although he strives for self-sufficiency, John is forced to lean on others for certain chores. "Maybe a light bulb will go out up on the ceiling fixture," he says. "I've got to let it go until someone comes around." As for grocery shopping, "it's hard just pushing the cart," he explains. Also, a lot of things are out of reach. "It seems like, most of the time, the things you need are on the top shelf," he says with a small chuckle that sounds a bit like a snort. "But I've resolved that with my 11-year-old niece, Emily. She comes with me to the grocery store."
Nature may have dealt him a cruel hand, but John has played it out and, with the help of a few good draw cards -- the most beneficial being a large, supportive family -- it's come up aces. Until the age of 10, John was unmotivated to get dressed and go to the bathroom by himself. Twenty years later, he is in demand as a speaker, inspiring others to overcome adversity and achieve personal goals. "Our only real handicaps," he's fond of saying, "are those mental and emotional ones that keep us from living a full life."
John is the fourth of eight boys born to Ron and Carole Foppe. Ron grew up in Breese. Carole hailed from South St. Louis but had a family connection in Breese. Both are devout Catholics -- they met in church -- and it is not so coincidental that a priest prepared Carole for John's condition. Ron had known the late Rev. John Maronic, who had a ministry at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in nearby Belleville. At the time, it was called Victim Missionaries, but later, in the wake of political correctness, it became Victorious Missionaries. Essentially, he hoped to reach out to the disabled.
In the summer of 1970, when Carole was ripe with child, she and Ron got to talking with Father John, who wanted to start a support group in Clinton County. He asked the couple to invite a few disabled people over so he could speak with them. A few weeks later, Carole recalls, "we sat around the table, hearing these people tell about their hardships. I was young and nine months pregnant, and that was my first time ever I was around anybody like that. The only thing I knew about handicapped people was that you weren't supposed to stare at them. When they left, I had all these thoughts that went through my mind, and the biggest one was, 'What if my baby is born with something wrong?'"
Within three weeks, the premonition came true. When Ron came into the recovery room on the labor-and-delivery floor, Carole knew something was wrong. He wasn't wearing the same jubilant expression he had worn when the other three boys were born. He told her their son had no arms. Somehow, it didn't surprise her. The pregnancy had been difficult and stressful. She had had Hong Kong flu in her first trimester and was sick in bed for a week. Although the doctors didn't know with certainty the cause -- Ron and Carole's other children have no congenital defects -- the Hong Kong flu theory always comes up. When the nurse brought the newborn to her and unwrapped him, Carole looked at his bare shoulders and saw what looked like little earlobes hanging under them. "I said, 'Well, thank God he has legs.'" Ron and Carole named their son John Paul: John after Father John Maronic and Paul after St. Paul, thought by some to have had a physical handicap because of his having spoken of his "affliction" in his writings.
For Carole, the troubling ramifications began to sink in. "By that evening I was pretty much in a state of shock," she remarks. "I kept wondering, 'How will he do this, how will he do that?' And I had all these 'how?' questions. What just drove me out of my mind almost was the idea that he wouldn't be able to crawl, and I knew crawling was so important in developing motor skills. And that was the thing that just wore me down. I didn't think about him not being able to eat or go to the bathroom, only that he couldn't crawl."
A normal, healthy baby begins to crawl at about 6 months and takes his or her first step around 10 months. John actually began to toddle at 22 months. But before that, he became dexterous with the only digits he had. Says Carole, "He was sitting in middle of a table with aunts and uncles all around him -- it may've been a birthday party -- but he picked up a toothpick with his toes for the first time. We were absolutely astonished. After that, we made a game out of it, and he picked up pennies and put them in his piggybank. We simply found things he could do and focused on that. We never, ever focused on what he couldn't do."
Before he was 3, Ron and Carole took John to Shriners Hospital in St. Louis, where he was fitted for a set of artificial arms. In her small book about the tribulations over John, Born with Wings, (2000, Easton Publishing Co. Inc.) Carole describes her reaction: "I looked at that cold, steel hook, it felt like an air hammer in my head."
That time was no less difficult for John, who still remembers the hospital stay as one of the most agonizing times in his life. "I had to wear this extremely cumbersome appliance, and all day, every day [I was] being poked and prodded by occupational therapists. And they wouldn't let the parents stay at the hospital, and when they came to visit, they only got to stay for a little while, until they yanked them away from you. It was not at all fun."
"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."
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.'"
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."
"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.
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.
"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."
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.'"
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."
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."
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."