Tony Filippis has a story to tell that is not only unlike any of the other Italian Americans we interviewed, it's quite unlike anything any of the crew had ever heard in their lives.
Talk about inspiration! What this ninety-one year old entrepreneur has accomplished is astonishing in anybody's record book; the fact that at the age of twelve, he lost both legs in a train accident is proof of what he proudly maintains: the word 'disabled' should be stricken from the dictionary.
We had the opportunity to interview Tony in the main conference room of Wright & Filippis, an industry leader in rehabilitative health care, with thirty facilities throughout the Midwest. Surrounded by busts of Joe Lewis (a friend until the end of the boxing legend's life) and a historical perspective on prosthetics, Tony began his story with a statement that is music to the ears of serious documentary filmmakers: "I'll tell you the story, all right: but I'm not gonna sugar coat it, I'm gonna tell it the way it is."
That story proved to have more twists and turns than an Italian mountain pass, beginning with the hard-knocks tale of Tony's childhood on Detroit's east side, where he and six tough brothers moved from an all-Italian neighborhood to one where they had to fight to preserve their Italian pride. "Oh, we got called every name in the book," he says, "because even though we were born here in Detroit, we didn't speak a word of English until we got to school. The six of us boys, though, were pretty tough. You might call us names once, but never twice."
That toughness may have been partially to blame for the accident that changed his life. One morning in 1929, he snuck away from home (despite a warning from his mother, who'd had a 'bad omen' dream the night before), intent on stealing coal for his family. Along with several other neighborhood kids, he hopped a freight train near Nine Mile and Hilton, and at a sudden job, slipped beneath the wheels and wound up with both lower legs crushed beyond salvation.
In the years to come, he developed both stamina and courage, facing down obstacles that in Depression-era Detroit seem to us, on the safe side of that economic disaster, to be miraculous. Fired from three consecutive jobs-not for performance but for his condition, he was, by his own admission, on the brink of armed robbery when Carl Wright (the man who had built his first artificial legs) hired him as an apprentice in the manufacture of prosthetics. Ten years later, Tony founded his own company, taking on Wright as a partner and placing the Wright name before his own in gratitude for the break he'd been given.
Since then, he has continued to amaze the skeptical in every phase of his life.
Known equally for his almost supernatural track and field prowess, Filippis, at the age of eighty-two, took record-setting gold medals in shot-put, javelin, discus and baseball throw in the Michigan Wheelchair Athletic Association Regional Games. Additionally, the Filippis Foundation, the 501-C3 non-profit corporation established by Wright & Filippis. The Filippis Foundation offers a multitude of services and programs that allow the disadvantaged the independence to see their dreams turn to reality.
Today, at ninety-one, Tony Filippis continues to put in seven day work-weeks, and admits, that seeing how his life has turned out, he would not turn back the clock to the point where he could have saved his legs. "I have gained so much in understanding of the physically challenged that I wouldn't change a thing in my life. They couldn't give me enough money to have lived my life any differently..."