Sunday, February 18, 2001

'Every day is a victory' for lawyer

        There are stories that break your heart and stories that fix it, and you can't have one without the other.

        Dennis “Chip” Lapp sits behind a big desk on the 7th floor of a Walnut Street office building, in an office with a window big enough to see his future. He had a stroke two years ago, when he was 42. His left arm was dead, his left leg was on the critical list and his life slid into a state of gray.

        I wrote about that last June, about how the vagaries of life attach themselves to us. Who has a stroke at 42? Wife, three kids, law practice, house in the suburbs. Chip Lapp had it all. Then one day, a blood vessel burst in his brain, and all that was hopeful leaked out. Why?

        When I met Chip in June, at Goodwill Industries in Woodlawn, 18 months after his stroke, optimism had left him. He wanted to get on with his life, but he didn't know how. A man of 42 should not be allowed to give up on himself. Chip had some vague thoughts about working for the Reds publicity department. I tried to help him, but nothing came of it.

        We never realize how good we have it until we see someone who doesn't. Chip was a teacher for me then. He's an inspiration now.

        He's back practicing law. He's working part-time for Crowley, Frank & Ahlers. The firm specializes in personal injury and worker's compensation cases. Who'd have more empathy for the disabled than a 44-year-old man, rallied from a stroke? It's funny how things work out.

        “He was almost born to do this kind of work,” said Jim Crowley, a partner in the firm.

        Mr. Crowley is a member of the Business Advocates Committee, a group that matches employers with prospective employees. Chip Lapp came before the committee in August. Mr. Crowley hired him in September.

        “He still had it,” Mr. Crowley said. “He could write a legal memo, submit an argument.”

        Chip had retained the analytical ability a lawyer needs. “I could still look at a set of facts and say this is a good or bad case,” he said.

        There have been glitches. Once, Chip wanted to ask a secretary to print a document he needed. It was a simple request, but not for someone whose brain was still on the mend. “I took a walk,” Chip said. “I walked around the stadium twice. I knew I wasn't that stupid. I collected myself and I was able to get it out when I got back.”

        People will help him carry heavy files. They'll wait for him when his words aren't quick. None of us goes it alone. In return, they get a lesson in courage.

        Sorrow lingers in other ways. The stress of the stroke cost him his marriage; Chip and his wife are separated. “The prognosis for the marriage isn't good,” he said. Credit goes to his wife for holding the family together during the bad times.

        Chip Lapp perseveres. This is the central lesson in any life, this rising up. A good and full life can't be realized or appreciated without a measure of pain.

        “When I get myself in here in the morning, I've already won. I've beaten the odds,” Chip said. Compared to June, he is a different man: Confident, upbeat, survived.

        “He walks around with his head up now” was how his Goodwill contact, Mary Stradtman, put it. “He presents himself like he's more alive.”

        “Every day is a victory. Nothing that happens, no matter how bad it seems, is going to beat me. Because I'm here. My butt is in this chair.”

        I don't ask him how he ties his shoes or knots his neckties, or what it feels like, at 44, to know he'll live the rest of his days with one good arm and a limp. That seems irrelevant.

        It's a nice little win for the human spirit. On June 6, 1944, Chip's father landed on Omaha Beach. Walter Lapp wasn't supposed to go; he volunteered when another man went AWOL.

        Chip Lapp spent 40 years wondering what he'd do in a similar situation. Now, he knows.



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