Active Dad in a Wheelchair: Wally Frost...Family Life Today, California

The endless hours that Wally Frost spent hitting grounders and roughhousing with his five children produced more than an album of faded photographs and memories.  His own athletic intuition, enthusiasm, and firm, but gentle, coaching built five tough competitors, all of whom are facing prominent sports careers.  

Like other fathers, Wally is proud of his children.  Unlike other fathers, Wally is confined to a wheelchair and has been ever since he was diagnosed with polio 35 years ago.  

He was an accomplished athlete in his own right when he was stricken and left paralyzed from the waist down.  Twenty years old, brash, and confident, Wally had returned from military service in World War II determined not to let the changing times in any way divert his lifelong dream: the dream of becoming a professional football player.  

He enrolled at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.  His 235-pound, 6'4" frame made him a natural for the college football tem and he quickly proved himself adept at executing plays mapped out by the coach.  That skill earned him a spot on the varsity team, one of only two freshmen to receive such an honor.  And that 1946 football season, Wally was named as a tackle among the starters.  

One day after practice, Wally noticed a tingling sensation in his legs.  Gradually, a creeping paralysis took hold.  Wally was ordered to bed with a burning fever and a headache.  In a matter of days, Wally had lost the use of his legs, legs that had run the length of the football field so many times.  

"It was completely devastating to me at first," he remembers.  "I would pray to God that I would go to sleep and not wake up."  

The bitterness ran deep.  Sports was not just an enjoyable pastime for Wally; he thrived on it. 
In the rare moments when he wasn't on the football field, he was playing out his competitive urges on the tennis or handball court or in the boxing ring.

"I kept thinking, 'Life isn't fair.' I was a Christian at the time, but I guess, looking back, I might have had my priorities mixed up.  Becoming a professional football player was the most important thing in the world to me."

Now Wally sees a different role for himself: for most of the past 30 years, he has been an active member of First Baptist Church of Lakewood, California; he shares the gospel with students at Cerritos College where he is an academic counselor; and, on most Sunday mornings, he travels to juvenile halls in Southern California to minister to the needs of youths in trouble with the law.

Wally likens his response to his paralysis to that of job, who lost everything, but still remained true to God and was doubly blessed.

"I don't feel doubly blessed," says Wally.  "I feel quadruply blessed!"
The analogy with Job falls short on one important score.  Job lost his children and his wife.  For Wally, they have been a constant source of emotional support and understanding.
His wife, Phyllis, a youthful and bubbly woman, was 18 when she first met Wally.  They became good friends, but even she did not realize at first how special he was in her heart.

"I was engaged to someone else, in fact," she laughs.  "It was after the war.  I was in nurses' training at Cook County Hospital in Illinois when I heard that he was in the hospital with polio."

It was Thanksgiving.  Wally was discharged from the hospital and he had nowhere to go for the holidays.  So Phyllis invited him to dinner at her parents' house.

"He was very weak and couldn't sit up for more than 45 minutes at a time.  I saw him lying down on the coach.  It was piercing."  It wasn't much later that Phyllis broke off her other romance.  In time she consented to marry this Illinois man, leave her parents, nine brothers and sisters in Iowa and follow Wally into an uncertain future.

What seemed uncertain as newlyweds blossomed into a marriage as rich in irony as in love.  "The doctor said, because of my affliction, we wouldn't be able to have children," Wally notes.  That prognosis struck the Frosts especially hard.  Both came from large families (she, one of ten children; he from a family of eight), and they wanted children of their own.

"After three years of marriage, we had our first child," Wally says, a noticeable gleam in his eye.  He proved his doctor wrong -- five times.

Those children are Wally's pride and, in a sense, the realization of the dreams he left on a football field in Wheaton.  Twenty-eight-year-old David, a graduate of Stanford University, is in his fourth year as a pitcher for the California Angels.  "Our hearts are in our mouths with every pitch," the Frosts agree.

The other children are equally accomplished in academic sports.  Dan, 26, has gone from his basketball days at the University of Iowa, where he was selected Most Valuable Player, to semi-professional play with Athletes in Action.

Daughters Becky, 21, and Debbie, 18, have concentrated their efforts on college volleyball.  Only Steve, 24, has had an abbreviated sports career because of problems with his knee.

Wally still plays volleyball and other games with his children from his wheelchair.  "They never grew up any different than other children," Phyllis says, recalling Wally's active participation in their athletic involvements.  And sometimes the playing would get rough.  Wally even discovered that he could wrestle with his kids as well as any father.

Discipline was no different in his family, either.  Sometimes the Frost children were asked by playmates why they didn't just run from their father since he couldn't catch them anyway.  "You just don't run from dad, that's why," was the reply.

"I think being in a wheelchair caused me to make an extra effort to spend time with my children more than some fathers do.  It was sort of a compensatory thing," Wally admits.  "Touching and playing were always very important."

Especially in his early days of confinement to a wheelchair, Wally yearned to remain active in sports.  So, he took a spin at wheelchair athletics, an event that draws crowds in the thousands and presents some pretty colorful clashes on the court.

"There are slightly different rules in wheelchair basketball, but it's every bit as competitive.  You would see the two teams going against each other and some of the players would be falling out of their chairs."

Wally played from 1950 to 1956 with Flying Wheels, a nationally recognized wheelchair basketball team.  In 1962, he traveled with a group from the University of Illinois to Africa to demonstrate the sport.

"The purpose of the eight-week tour was to win new enthusiasts and show other countries that people in wheelchairs can live normal lives like everyone else."  The message was warmly received.  A special wheelchair Olympics is held internationally and Wally says many nations are making great strides in helping the handicapped get around.

Wally never let his paralysis interfere with his mobility, particularly when it came to deciding what to do for a living.

"I went to a watchmakers' college because I was told that was all I could do since there never was any hope of getting out of this chair.  But, making watches was not what Wally wanted to do.

Instead, he channeled his excitement about the Christian faith and his love for young people into academic counseling.  The last 16 of his 25 years in that profession have been spent at Cerritos College in Cerritos, California.  Students come to his office to talk about everything from class selection and careers to personal problems.  What they find is not a parent to lecture them, but a friend to listen to them.

"I don't think giving advice is good counseling," Wally says.  "The best thing you can do is be a good listener.  There's no magic, no mystery; just letting them know someone cares."

As Wally talks, the steady ticking of a wall clock behind him beats a rhythm to his words.  It is a reminder of the watchmaking career Wally chose not to follow.  But, the ticking also strikes a note of dependability, stability: those qualities, too, are what make this imposing, white-haired man tick.

And Wally thinks of his day in terms of how he uses his time.  "I spend eight hours a day working, roughly eight hours sleeping and eight hours being a father," he says.

And what is required in being a good father?  "It means teaching your children to seek God, playing with them, being an example, a leader.  You have to discipline them sometimes, but do it with love.  And always admit it when you're wrong."

Wally has learned that being a father has nothing to do with walking, or being like other dads.  All that matters is love.