|Student beats handicap; Out of the Crowd
When the phone rang he lifted the receiver with two tiny fingers and cradled it between his head and shoulder.
"Counseling center, may I help you?" he asked.
With a stocking-covered foot he nudged a pad of paper into place on the floor and with yoga-like suppleness
swung a leg up on the desk top and grabbed a pen with his toes. Swinging his foot back down, he began to
write in a quick and fluid motion.
The message completed, he hung up, grasped the top page between his toes, ripped it from the pad and
placed it on top of the desk. Picking the paper up with his teeth, he pigeonholed it in the proper mail slot. The
entire incident took place in less than a minute.
Tom Willis, a full-time radio and television major and part-time worker at the University counseling center, has
learned to function without arms and hands – he was born without them. On one side of his body there is a
small appendage with two tiny fingers; on the other side there is nothing. To compensate, Willis has developed
remarkable dexterity in his legs and feet.
When asked how he copes with his handicap, Willis says simply, "I live with it. I don’t let it hold me back.”
Although people sometimes react negatively to his handicap when they first meet him, Willis says, “I have to
accept the fact that they’re not used to dealing with handicapped people, and I have to be patient with them.”
Willis attended John Carroll high school in Washington, D.C., and his physical disability, he says, has never
prevented him from doing what he wants.
In high school he sang in the school choir, worked on the newspaper and yearbook and was manager of the
soccer team. He participated in eight musicals and also with the summer teen theater. Last summer he played
the second male lead in the musical, "Carnival."
When asked about attending a big university, Willis explains that he was worried about the school's size and the
difficulty of college work. "Once I got here it didn't seem like 35,000 people and was not as big as I thought it
would be," he says.
One difficulty, Willis says, has been opening doors to some campus buildings. He solves this problem by
"waiting for a crowd at 10 minutes before the hour."
But despite his difficulties, noticing Willis' accomplishments can be surprising. Not only can he type – "big toe
and pinkie on each foot," – but he can also drive a car.
Willis, in his 1977 Maverick specially equipped this past summer with $1,700 worth of options, inserted the key
into the car lock with his toes and swung open the door.
Inside there is a small disc mounted to the floor and connected by a hidden chain to the steering column, which
allows Willis to steer the car by spinning the disc with his left foot.
He controls the brakes and gas with his right foot. Low turn signals are controlled by Willis' knees.
After a month of driver's training Willis got his license and now commutes from Takoma Park , where he lives
with his mother, older brother and sister.
His mother describes her son as a "terrific individual, very determined" and someone who "wants to be a
She says, "There have been problems along the way," but that his "drive to do," coupled with help from doctors
and friends, have been instrumental in his being able to overcome his handicap.
Willis says his best friend, Mike Carruthers, a co-worker at the counseling center, has helped him feel
comfortable at his present job by introducing him to fellow employees. “Within two days I knew everyone’s
name,” he said.
“He’s a great friend. I can talk to him about things and he’s always there to listen,” Carruthers explains.
The two friends recently collaborated on a series of skits at the counseling center’s annual Christmas party.
Imitations and verses sung about other employees highlighted the show.
Willis now is seeking contestants for a possible counseling center gong show this spring. He says the main idea
is, “just to have a good time and entertain people.”
Dr. Thomas Magon, counseling center director, describes Willis as “very enjoyable to work with, alert, friendly,
and imaginative.” Pat Moreland, department secretary, finds Willis “extremely competent” and says “he will
attempt any task we give him.
Recently he auditioned at WMUC, the campus radio station, and was accepted as a newscaster. He says he
would like to participate in some musicals here at the University after he has become more adjusted to college