JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Mayor Vance Cheek Jr. has a lot going for him: a successful law practice, a budding political career, a national leadership award and his first child on the way.
But getting there has been a lifelong struggle.
Cheek, 32, was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterized by bones that break easily for no apparent reason.
Cheek's legs were broken when he was born. As an infant, his foot got caught in his mother's robe and broke. Coloring with friends one day, Cheek felt his arm snap as a boy brushed against it.
When his soft bones started bowing, doctors inserted steel rods to help the bones straighten. After each surgery, Cheek spent several months in a body cast.
Even so, he puts a positive spin on his life story:
"Most people [with the disease] will go through life with hundreds of fractures, but I've been blessed. I've only had 38," Cheek said.
He credits his success to the sense of normalcy provided by his parents. They encouraged him at age 7, for example, when he said he wanted to be a lawyer so he could use his mind instead of his body.
"They certainly never gave me the slightest hint that I would end up on a mat for 70 years," he said.
Cheek said his childhood was "like a Norman Rockwell [painting] but with traction." He played with friends often, usually as the baseball team manager. He used a walker or crutches to take weight off his legs and reduce the chance for fractures.
He said he never felt discriminated against but sometimes was angered when people stared at him or quizzed his mother about his condition.
His education started at age 3 in the public school system's homebound program. He advanced quickly, reading books and doing homework for hours on the days when a teacher was not at his house.
By age 12, Cheek was ready for high school and decided to try attending classes. He used a wheelchair for the first time and had few problems getting around the one-level school.
"I was amazed at how well I was accepted," he said. "There were guys who wouldn't open the door for their grandmother, but when they saw me coming they would rush to open the doors."
High School Diploma at Age 15
When Cheek graduated at age 15, students built a ramp so he could receive his diploma on stage. He then attended East Tennessee State University, which had many wheelchair ramps and added more for him.
But when Cheek went to law school at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the lack of ramps made it an "accessibility nightmare." He got his law degree two months before passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislation which requires schools and businesses to provide access for the disabled. It was signed into law on Cheek's 23rd birthday, July 26, 1990.
Returning to Johnson City, he worked at a law firm for several years before opening his own practice to concentrate on mediation, estate planning and corporate law. It kept him busy, but as the son of a retired bank president who was Johnson City mayor from 1971 to 1973, he was nagged by a desire to be involved in community affairs.
He was elected to a four-year term on the City Commission in 1997, and the other commissioners voted him mayor in 1999.
While supporting rights for the disabled, Cheek has not used that issue as a political platform.
"When you run for office, you represent all people: black, white, red, young, old, handicapped and nonhandicapped," he said. "If I were to be an advocate for an organization, that's a different role than being in public office."
In May, Cheek received a Distinguished Leadership Award from the National Assn. for Community Leadership. The local Chamber of Commerce nominated Cheek because of his tireless community work, said executive vice president Gary Mabrey.
"It's as if [the wheelchair] were not there. I don't even think people see it," Mabrey said. "They see a man of spirit and enthusiasm and dedication to his community."
Cheek's wife, Jody, sees even more in the man she calls her soul mate. They met through a mutual friend and talked by telephone for several months before their first date in April 1997. Four months later, they married.
Jody Cheek, 31, said some friends and relatives initially discouraged the relationship, worried that her future husband might someday require more care. But she said that his disability was never a factor.
"It just was right," she said. "I felt like a whole person, completed, like a puzzle piece wasn't missing anymore. He's just the perfect person for me."
Vance Cheek's next challenge is fatherhood.
Doctors told the Cheeks there was a 50% chance that any child they conceived would have osteogenesis imperfecta. They decided to try anyway.
The couple recently found out that their daughter, due in late August, does have the disability. They are researching new treatment options to increase bone density.
Jody Cheek said she has no regrets about deciding against adoption or artificial insemination.
"I wouldn't want anyone else to be the father of my child," she said.