Of Triplets, Paralyzed And Once Functionally Illiterate, Pursued
U.Va. Law Degree With Rare Passion
6, 1999 -- "I
started to realize that not being able to read or write was a greater
disability than not being able to walk."
Lineberry spoke from experience. Two decades ago, he could do neither.
39 years old, Lineberry still cant walk. But on May 23, he
will roll down the University of Virginias famous Lawn to
accept his law degree, the culmination of years of frenzied self-improvement.
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.
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.
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.
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 didnt
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. "Its no ones fault but my own."
Toney was here, if you ever told me the kid would graduate from
law school, Id say you were crazy," said his high school
wrestling coach, Tim Donahue. "I was shocked that he graduated
from high school."
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.
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.
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.
a speaking trip, one of his hosts in Salinas, Calif. offered to
take him on a tour of John Steinbecks home. Lineberry was
ashamed to admit that he didnt 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.
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.
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 dont know whether to hug you or kick
you square in the ...," Lineberry recalled.
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.
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.
use the word metamorphosis," said Donahue, the
wrestling coach. "He went through an unbelievable change and
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.
law professors are among his biggest fans.
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.
always been impressed by his sense of intellectual engagement, the
passion and enthusiasm he has for law and learning. ... Hell
make quite a mark when he enters the profession."
Bonnie, director of the U.Va. Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public
Policy and John S. Battle Professor of Law, recalled Lineberrys
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
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."
graduation, hell 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.
the burden of loans to pay off, Lineberry chose not to interview
with any law firms. "Thats 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. "Im grateful to
have gotten a second chance," he said. "A lot of people
dont have a second chance in life."
Lineberry can be reached via telephone at (804) 749-4441 or (804)
749-3831, or via e-mail at toneyL@aol.com.
Heuchert, (804) 924-7676.