By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
If asked to roll up his pants to the knee and show his titanium legs, Chuck Harper will gladly oblige.
But he was a little embarrassed Thursday to be getting so much media attention — first from a television station, then a newspaper, then a radio station — on the eve of his graduation from Pittsburg State University.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” the 45-year-old Fort Scott man said of a double amputation that was performed before his last year of college. “This isn’t about me.”
What it is about, Harper said, is determination, faith and attitude.
“I could have just rolled over and said ‘I quit,’ and that’s what would have happened,” he said. “Just because of something that is dealt to you doesn’t mean you have to give up and quit. I’ve got a lot of things left I want to accomplish.”
One of those things is to walk on those titanium legs across the stage Friday night to pick up his diploma. It will be a 56-foot journey that he said was 25 years in the making.
Harper graduated from high school and then community college in Fort Scott. When he began working on a bachelor’s degree in business at PSU in 1987, he was married and had children, but he hadn’t yet found his passion when it came to a career.
“I hadn’t found what I wanted to do,” he said.
He quit school and devoted himself to his family and full-time employment — first in the restaurant business, then customer service and sales at a printing company, and finally in insurance.
He and his wife, Connie, raised four daughters and began serving as foster parents. They found it rewarding, and after many hours of training and approval, they currently count two adopted children, two foster children and three children for whom they are the custodial parents among their household.
Harper’s first health scare would surface in 2009, when pains in his arm and fingers — which eventually turned purple — landed him for a week of testing at what now is Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo. He was diagnosed with Raynaud’s, a disease in which smaller arteries that supply blood to the skin narrow, limiting blood circulation and causing discoloration of the fingers and toes.
Harper eventually rebounded, but life changed again drastically for him and his family in June 2010 when he was laid off.
He learned that a federal grant was available to pay for two years of college education, but he was unsure which discipline to pursue. When advisers at KansasWorks learned that he was a foster parent, they encouraged him to try social work.
He began his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in PSU’s social work program in January 2011.
“I had always wanted to go back to school,” he said. “It seemed like another chance.”
But as the semester progressed, Harper began experiencing pain in his legs. For the avid bowler who competed nationally, his condition reached a zenith in April 2011 at a tournament in Reno, Nev.
“By the time I got there, it was so excruciating I couldn’t participate,” he said.
He returned home — barely able to make it from the car to the house — and doctors upped his pain medication and gave him crutches. His wife began driving him back and forth to class each day in Pittsburg.
On the night of Harper’s last final in May 2011, his wife arrived at Russ Hall to pick him up, only to find him sitting on the steps in tears because of the pain.
“It was unbearable,” Harper recalled. “Just too much.”
His wife rushed him to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott, and the next morning a helicopter flew him to the University of Kansas Medical Center.
“My left leg and foot were purple, and I had lost all feeling,” Harper said. “I couldn’t bear weight. It was painful just to touch.”
He underwent a series of operations, first in an attempt to save the limbs, but the blood clotted too quickly. Then doctors told him they feared the same thing would happen to his right leg in the months that would follow, and they advised amputation of it too.
He was in the hospital for 45 days, then transferred to Fort Scott for four days of rehabilitation. Although he acknowledges there occasionally were days during which he felt sorry for himself, he said he made a decision to not just walk and bowl again, but to finish what he had started: his college degree.
It was a daunting challenge. He had no job, no insurance, and medical bills totaling $500,000. He began tackling the list one item at a time. Hospital social workers helped him apply for Medicaid to cover the medical bills. His wife offered him encouragement and, sometimes, a “kick in the pants.” A friend who had lost a leg in an accident gave him moral support.
One of his instructors, Kristen Humphrey in the Department of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences, said Harper’s positive attitude throughout his ordeal was inspirational.
“He has been such an inspiration and role model to his fellow social work students,” Humphrey said. “His grades and attendance have been excellent. He has a positive attitude and never complains.”
When Harper returned to school last August, he was in a wheelchair, but he told his classmates and instructors that he would be walking by the end of the semester. And he was.
“After my wounds healed, I used a walker, and then eventually a cane, and then in finals week last December I made it a goal to walk into class without any aids,” he said. “I felt pretty proud.”
He also bowled on his new legs for the first time, although he was discouraged at going from a 200-plus average to a 120. He insisted on learning to drive with his new legs using a five-speed clutch instead of hand controls.
And he finished up his college education with a 3.49 grade-point average overall, with a 4.0 in his social work discipline. Harper already has a job with TFI Family Services, a nonprofit agency that provides foster care and adoption services throughout Kansas. He completed a practicum there last week, and after licensure he will become a case manager.
“I also am offering my support to others who might go through an amputation,” he said. “I want them to know the challenges that lie ahead, but also that they can do it, as long as they are determined and have the right attitude.”
MISSOURI SOUTHERN STATE UNIVERSITY will conduct winter commencement at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center on campus. Students are asked to meet 30 minutes before the ceremony in Young Gymnasium.
CROWDER COLLEGE in Neosho will hold its winter commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday in Bob Sneller Gymnasium. Students are asked to meet at 9 a.m. in the first-floor commons area of the Arnold Farber Building.
PITTSBURG STATE UNIVERSITY will put on two commencement ceremonies Friday. Graduates of the colleges of education and technology will be recognized at 5:30 p.m., and graduates of the colleges of arts and sciences and business will be recognized at 7:30 p.m. Both ceremonies will take place in John Lance Arena at the Garfield W. Weede Physical Education Building. Students are asked to arrive an hour early.
OZARK CHRISTIAN COLLEGE in Joplin and NORTHEASTERN OKLAHOMA A&M COLLEGE in Miami do not hold winter commencement ceremonies.