By Lisa Whaley
Sometimes, shooting for the stars is simply the right thing to do.
In a conversation with Unicoi County Rotary Club President Jim Johnson at the close of their meeting last week, I was reminded of that fact more clearly than ever.
According to Johnson, the Rotary Club’s decades-long quest to bring about a polio-free world was nearly at hand.
“Twenty-four years ago, there were 350,000 polio cases every year” he said, adding with pride that now, those world-wide cases have been reduced to the lower double digits in just three countries.
His statement not only brought with it a feeling of satisfaction for the accomplishment, but also a more personal response, thanks to some sweet memories shared long ago by a very special man.
Robbie was a bright-eyed lively little boy when he contracted polio. It wasn’t until his mother set him down to walk after he started feeling better that she realized something was terribly wrong. In the 1920s, there were few, if any options available in small town America. And for his parents, hardworking German immigrants with 10 more mouths to feed, there were even fewer financial options.
Fortunately, the Shriners organization had already become active during that time, stepping in to meet the need despite monetary considerations. Robbie was sent by train to a nearby city for two important operations to improve his ability to walk – once when he was 7 and a second time when he was 12. He had to go alone – the cost of anyone else accompanying him as well as the inability of his mother to leave her other children made any other option impossible. And he admits that it was often lonely – and painful.
Many years later, Robert E. Zier emerged from his trials, a strong, gentle man with a slight limp who built a good life as a respected accountant in his hometown and eventually married my mother and became “dad” to a quiet little girl looking for a father to love her.
Still, I remember sitting around our kitchen table so many afternoons, pestering my new dad with questions about his childhood – and while the stories were always warm and nostalgic with no hint of self pity, some of the harshness of polio would occasionally emerge.
These included stories of:
Waiting until all the kids left the hallway so he could run awkwardly to his locker with no one seeing or commenting on his pronounced limp.
His long-discarded dream of being a farmer, the career he would have chosen had he felt capable.
Glorious adventures of bicycling around the county with family and friends, always wrapped in a slightly bittersweet reminder that on a bicycle, he could feel like everyone else.
Eventually, as he aged, some of the damages caused by polio returned, and it became harder and harder to get around.
Robert Zier died in 2007, still the most gracious, thankful and dependable man I have ever met, and a perfect father. I miss him to this day and while I recognize that his hardships helped shape the kind man he became, I can’t help but be thrilled on his behalf that the odds of some other little boy facing polio is growing smaller each day.
I am also reminded that whether something seems impossible is truly irrelevant to the task. I am certain when those first Rotarians sat around a table in 1985 and decided to launch their PolioPlus program to tackle global polio eradication through mass vaccinations, the chances of it ever happening seemed highly unlikely. At that time, the world was seeing about 1,000 cases per day.
Yet here we are, with an end in sight.
Who knows what might be next, if we are but brave enough?