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Father Of Triplets, Paralyzed And Once Functionally Illiterate, Pursued U.Va. Law Degree With Rare Passion

May 6, 1999 -- "I started to realize that not being able to read or write was a greater disability than not being able to walk."

– Toney Lineberry

Toney Lineberry spoke from experience. Two decades ago, he could do neither.

Now 39 years old, Lineberry still can’t walk. But on May 23, he will roll down the University of Virginia’s famous Lawn to accept his law degree, the culmination of years of frenzied self-improvement.

The inspiring story of his journey from being a teenager with admittedly "non-existent" academic skills to a U.Va. law degree candidate and father of triplets begins on a January night in 1978.

Lineberry, a senior at Hermitage High School in Henrico County and a standout wrestler, had celebrated his 18th birthday a week earlier. "Athletics and my car were all I cared about," he says now. Snow had closed schools that day, and some friends were throwing a party that night. His parents forbade him from taking the car out on the slippery roads, which made him angry; he waited until they were asleep, and took it anyway.

Still riled up from the argument, he jumped in the car and drove off without fastening his seat belt. A few miles down the road, he hit a patch of ice and spun out of control. The car flipped several times before coming to rest upside-down in a roadside ravine. Lineberry suffered a broken vertebra in his neck and was paralyzed from his chest down.

It was a year before he could return to school. His plans of enlisting in the Marine Corps, or perhaps attending college on a wrestling scholarship, were gone. He did get his diploma, but didn’t have much to show for his education. "The bottom line is that I graduated from high school not really able to read and write," he said. "It’s no one’s fault but my own."

"When Toney was here, if you ever told me the kid would graduate from law school, I’d say you were crazy," said his high school wrestling coach, Tim Donahue. "I was shocked that he graduated from high school."

He took a job as a clerk with the Virginia State Police, although he got around having to write anything by claiming his paralyzed hands left him unable to do so. Soon after, he started speaking to high school students about highway safety, advising them to wear seat belts, listen to their parents and not to drink and drive.

"Before I knew it, that became a full-time job," he said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with the aid of sponsorships from several corporations and state governments, began sending him to talk to students across the U.S. and Canada; in all, he spent seven years speaking on the road.

It was during that time that he began to understand more fully the limitations that being functionally illiterate imposed upon him. He worked on his reading, "more, then a little more, then I read quite a bit," he said. "It became a fascination with me." Along the way, he also taught himself how to write, entwining a pen between his stiffened fingers.

During a speaking trip, one of his hosts in Salinas, Calif. offered to take him on a tour of John Steinbeck’s home. Lineberry was ashamed to admit that he didn’t know who the author was. He picked up a copy of "Cannery Row," then read the "Grapes of Wrath," and had soon devoured everything that Steinbeck wrote, followed by the books of Jack London and others.

When the travel began to wear on him, he started to look for a chance to settle down and start a family with his wife, Donna. He also decided to go back to school, enrolling at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College outside Richmond.

He recalls getting his first test back, earning a 99 in a remedial math class. He proudly showed it to his father, who lived next door. "He said, ‘I don’t know whether to hug you or kick you square in the ...,’" Lineberry recalled.

Soon after he learned that Donna was pregnant with triplets. Travel was out, and school went to full-time. He did well enough to earn a full scholarship to Randolph-Macon College, and lived off of the proceeds of a biography that his brother wrote about him and two highway safety videos that he filmed while in school.

He graduated magna cum laude from Randolph-Macon in 1996 and was selected for Phi Beta Kappa. "It shocked people," he says now, smiling. He was accepted to U.Va.’s School of Law, again with his tuition paid, this time with a Dillard Scholarship.

"I use the word ‘metamorphosis,’" said Donahue, the wrestling coach. "He went through an unbelievable change and transformation."

He has been dogged in his pursuit of a law degree. He still lives in Manakin-Sabot, just outside Richmond, and commutes 65 miles each way to school, getting up at 6 a.m. to arrive in Charlottesville by 9. In three years, he has put over 75,000 miles on his specially equipped van. In his first year, he estimates he spent 50 to 60 hours each week preparing for and attending classes, "just trying to understand and keep up." Fortuitous scheduling enabled him to cut back to four days a week in his second year and finally, three days per week in his final semester this year.

His law professors are among his biggest fans.

"He radiates personal enthusiasm and courage," said A.E. Dick Howard, the White Burkett Miller Professor of Law and Public Affairs, who taught Lineberry in two classes. "He has grasped the opportunity of higher education in a way that is really hard to match.

"I’ve always been impressed by his sense of intellectual engagement, the passion and enthusiasm he has for law and learning. ... He’ll make quite a mark when he enters the profession."

Richard Bonnie, director of the U.Va. Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy and John S. Battle Professor of Law, recalled Lineberry’s speaking up during a seminar he taught, "Death, Dying and the Law." They were reviewing a case in which a young Air Force pilot had been severely burned in an explosion and, unwilling to live a life with multiple disabilities, insisted that he be allowed to die.

"The applicable legal principle, now well-settled, is that a competent patient has a right to refuse medical intervention, including treatment needed to sustain his or her life," Bonnie noted. "Yet, Toney insisted -- with a moral authority no one else in the class could claim -- that doctors should not readily yield to the wishes of a trauma patient who declines life-sustaining treatment."

After graduation, he’ll take some time to have some needed surgery before taking the state bar exam in February. After that, he plans to go into public service law, with some sort of state or federal connection. "I would like to have a lot of independence -- be a sole proprietor, do some consulting work," with an emphasis on civil rights, particularly within the disabled community, he said. He is "extremely interested" in the possibility of a political career, particularly after having worked for former Virginia Lt. Gov. Donald Beyer in the summer between his first and second years of law school.

Without the burden of loans to pay off, Lineberry chose not to interview with any law firms. "That’s not why I came here," he said. "It was my intention to learn as much as I can learn about the law and apply it in such a way that I can have some sort of impact on the society at large. "I’m grateful to have gotten a second chance," he said. "A lot of people don’t have a second chance in life."

###

Toney Lineberry can be reached via telephone at (804) 749-4441 or (804) 749-3831, or via e-mail at toneyL@aol.com.

Contact:Dan Heuchert, (804) 924-7676.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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