December 18, 2012 12:00AM
On Friday, Chuck Harper walked 56 feet across the stage to pick up his college diploma. He shook hands with Pittsburg State University President Steve Scott and heard the cheers and applause of friends and family.
Harper’s walk across the stage may have seemed brief, but it represented a journey that is impossible to measure in feet or miles.
At 45, Harper has suffered job loss, worked to prepare for a new career and survived a rare blood disease that nearly took his life. And he will walk those triumphant 56 feet Friday on legs made of titanium and plastic that he is still getting used to.
Harper, a Fort Scott, Kan., native, graduated from Fort Scott High School in 1985, earned an associate’s degree from Fort Scott Community College and even began studies at PSU before the demands of work and family cause him to put his education on hold.
Harper worked first for a printing company and then for an insurance company in Fort Scott. As the years passed, he and his wife, Connie, raised four daughters. The Harpers even began serving as foster parents (they currently count two adopted children, two foster children and three children for whom they are the custodial parents among their household.)
Life changed drastically for Harper and his family in 2010 when Chuck found himself unemployed.
“Because our jobs went to a foreign country,” Harper said, “a federal grant was available to pay for two years of college education (for those of us who lost our jobs).”
But Harper was uncertain. “I just didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Harper said.
With help from advisers at KansasWorks, Harper examined his options.
“When they found out we were foster parents, they suggested social work,” Harper said.
He knew immediately it was a good match and began his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in PSU’s Social Work Program in January 2011. School went well, but throughout the semester, Harper experienced a growing amount of leg pain. He never associated it with a rare blood clotting disorder that he had been previously diagnosed with.
After a plane flight in April, the pain got markedly worse and by the week of finals, Harper’s legs were swollen and discolored.
In May, Harper’s wife arrived at Russ Hall to pick him up after his last final exam to find him sitting on the steps in tears because of the pain. She rushed him to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott and the next morning he was taken by helicopter to KU Med Center.
Eventually, doctors concluded that clots related to his blood disorder were at the root of the problem. What followed was a series of four operations, first to attempt to save the limbs and finally to amputate them.
“I was in the hospital for a total of 49 days,” Harper said. “I got out at the end of June.”
Throughout the ordeal, Harper said, he received tremendous support from his fellow students and the social work faculty.
“My fellow students and the teachers were so supportive. Patty Magee (an instructor in the Department of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences) and another student came up and helped take care of my kids while my wife was with me in recovery,” Harper said.
When Harper returned to school in August, he was in a wheelchair, but he told his classmates that he would be walking by the end of the semester.
“I went from the wheelchair to a walker and then a cane,” Harper said. “By the last week of the semester, I was able to walk on my own.”
Kristen Humphrey, an associate professor 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.”
These qualities may be one of the reasons Harper has a job waiting for him as soon as he graduates. Almost immediately, he will go to work for TFI Family Services, a non-profit agency that provides foster care and adoption services throughout Kansas.
Harper is looking forward to walking those 56 feet and shaking the president’s hand on Friday.
“It’s going to be a pretty special day,” he said. “I’m looking forward to sharing it with my wife and my family.”
But he’s clear on one thing: “I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me.”
His teachers and classmates say that rather than feeling sorry for Harper, they are inspired.
“I can’t imagine a student with that kind of dedication,” McGee added. “I am overwhelmed.”