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Family Album / Kathy, Joe and Frankie Gieb

Ordinary People

Although They're Less Than Average Size and Encounter Extraordinary Obstacles, the Giebs Pursue Ordinary Existences Just Like Those Folks in What They Call the 'Tall World'

November 29, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sun has slipped behind the yellow leaves of the big pecan tree at the end of the block, and the boys in shorts and T-shirts playing football in the street are slapping their bare arms to keep warm.

In the fading light, Kathy Gieb's 13-year-old son, Frankie, intercepts the ball and holds it above his head like a trophy. "Yes!" yell his teammates. "Yesssssss!"

"He is good at sports," says his mother, watching from the front stoop. "He does well at everything, really. We are so blessed, so very blessed."

From where they stand, life looks pretty good to Kathy and Joe Gieb. Although at 3 feet, 10 inches and 4 feet, 5 inches, respectively, the Giebs' view on the world is different, it is no less pleasant or unpleasant than that of many in what they call the "tall world."

Which is not to say their lives are uncomplicated. With pedal extenders for driving, stools for reaching things, pillows for propping up, and a customized mix of scaled-down fixtures and appliances for cooking, bathing and grooming, they pursue ordinary lives in the face of extraordinary obstacles.

According to actor and activist Billy Barty, who founded Little People of America, families like the Giebs (pronounced Gibbs), who received the LPA's 1998 Distinguished Service Award, "are living proof that the only space barrier we have to conquer is the one between our ears."

Such flattery makes Joe uncomfortable. As an actor, he has appeared with Cathy Rigby in "Peter Pan," as Donald Duck in "Disney on Parade," and as a leprechaun stalking Jay Leno in a St. Patrick's Day skit on "The Tonight Show." Both Joe and Kathy also work as stand-ins for child actors in a variety of sitcoms, while staying active in their church and their son's school.

"But don't put us on a pedestal," pleads Joe. "Except for our size, we're like a lot of California families. People should understand, we've had a great life."

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Joe's father, Edward, was a big man--6 feet tall and about 210 pounds. A pharmacist and rancher in Fort Worth, Texas, he and wife Virginia already had three sons when Joseph Weldon arrived on April 24, 1954.

Because he weighed 7.5 pounds and was almost 21 inches long, his parents assumed he'd be big like his dad and brothers.

"But when he was 6 months old and still couldn't sit up," Virginia recalls, "I took him to the doctor and that's when we found out. The orthopedic man said the bones from his elbows down and from his knees down wouldn't grow to full size. His torso would grow, but not the arms and legs."

Although his brothers--one is now a veterinarian and another the former district attorney in Fort Worth--thought Joe "got away with murder as a kid," their mother says he did chores like the rest, working around the ranch and heaving hay bales out for the cattle every day after school.

"Joe went to Catholic schools, was in Scouts and he bowled and played baseball. Of course, football was out," his mother says. "He was and is a terrific athlete, but I wouldn't let him play."

She scattered stools around the house for him to stand on, but sometimes Joe couldn't be bothered.

"If he wanted a drink, I remember how he'd get a butcher knife out of the drawer and jump up and push one of the glasses out of the cabinet," Virginia says. "Even now, when he comes home to visit, he'll do that and everyone says, 'Oh, Joe, not again. You're gonna break a glass.' Course he never does."

Although the money was there for college, Joe didn't go. Well, not exactly.

"At 18 I went to clown college," he says. "That was my dream."

But it was his mother's nightmare.

"When we put him on that circus train that night, it was just pitch dark, and I said to Ed, 'We're crazy. We may never see this kid again.' "

After five months, Joe too decided the circus life was not for him. But he didn't rush home. Instead, he began a series of jobs and tours that took him around the world--stopping in South America long enough to have an emergency surgery in Bogota, Colombia.

By the time he returned to the States, Joe was well-acquainted with Barty's Little People activist group and looked to the organization as a place to meet people who looked more like him.

"I'd grown up around tall and average-sized people, and I think that's a good thing, but it's also kind of like going home when you find yourself surrounded by other little people," he says.

At an LPA gathering in Los Angeles, Joe watched as a group of men gathered around one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. It was Kathy, and one of the men around her was her husband.

"I just had to feel sorry for the guy," Joe recalls. "Here was this gorgeous gal and all these other guys hitting on her."

By the time of the next year's convention, Kathy was available and Joe did not hesitate to ask her out.

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