Anthony (Tony) Filippis Sr., a nationally-known and beloved icon in the movement to improve the lives of persons with disabilities, passed away January 23rd, 2007 at the age of 91.
The founder of Wright & Filippis, Inc., Michigan’s largest provider of home healthcare products and services, Mr. Filippis dedicated his personal and professional life to assisting persons with disabilities. And while he officially retired from the company in 1995, Mr. Filippis maintained an office until the time of his death to continue his significant philanthropic efforts.
Mr. Filippis experienced first-hand the frustration and heartache frequently confronted by persons with disabilities when he lost both of his legs below the knee in a train accident at the age of 13. The disappointments and discrimination he faced fueled Mr. Filippis’ passion for making a difference in the lives of others, including his founding of the Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame in 1999.
Born September 13, 1915, Mr. Filippis is survived by his wife, Frances, a daughter, Nancy (Hakala), and a son, Anthony J. (A.J.), currently President and CEO of Wright & Filippis. He was preceded in death by his oldest son, Eugene, who lost his battle with cancer in 1997. He is also survived by 14 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
The story behind Anthony Filippis Sr.’s incredible journey from a poor Depression-era youngster to a respected businessman and advocate for the disabled community dates back to April 29, 1929. That is the day 13-year-old Tony wandered away from the safety of his family’s Detroit home, tempted fate, and forever altered the course of history for generations of disabled citizens.
“Some neighborhood kids came by and talked me into going swimming,” Mr. Filippis once recalled. “We hopped the train near Louisiana and Brush to ride to the swimming hole at Seven Mile, but the train was moving too fast to jump off.
“We ended up near Nine Mile and Hilton in Ferndale, when suddenly the train jerked, and I fell and grabbed the coupling as my feet slapped the tracks. I climbed back up and someone yelled, ‘Look! Your feet!’ They were mangled beyond recognition -- and later they had to be amputated below the knees.”
Those nightmarish moments changed his life forever. Depressed, but not defeated, Filippis would later learn to make the artificial limbs that would carry him to prominence as an admired member of the business community, and to an even greater presence as a respected voice for the disabled.
“I was like any other kid,” Mr. Filippis said. “I loved sports – I lived sports. I slept at night with a baseball. Sports was always going to be an important part of my life, and as I got older, it was going to be a way for me to reach out to people who needed a break. These people – myself included – needed to be active.”
While his keen business savvy and eye for detail helped build Wright & Filippis into one the nation’s most successful private medical enterprises, Mr. Filippis’ enthusiastic support for the rights of the disabled was arguably unrivaled. And the passion for this cause was learned at an early age.
“Things were different in those days. I hired in at a lot of places, but when they found out I had artificial legs, they fired me,” Mr. Filippis said. “I got a job in a tailor shop because I was good at sewing. The owner came by one day and asked why I was limping. I tried to play it down, but he persisted until I finally told him I had artificial legs. He fired me on the spot.”
Mr. Filippis took his anger and frustration to Carl Wright, a friend who worked at Martin-Halstead Co., and the gentleman who had made Mr. Filippis’ artificial legs. When Mr. Filippis asked Wright for an adjustment, Wright knew something was wrong.
Mr. Filippis explained: “I told him, ‘I’m branded as a cripple. I can’t get a job anyplace. They hire me and when they find out about my legs, they fire me.’”
Wright did something that would forever impact Mr. Filippis’ destiny - he offered him a job as an apprentice. Mr. Filippis worked with Carl Wright for 10 years before they formed their own company - Wright & Filippis.
From those beginnings, Wright & Filippis has grown to what is now one of the only companies in the United States that offers the complete spectrum of services for the disabled. That small shop in Detroit has blossomed into more than 30 facilities throughout Michigan and the Midwest.
“We started the business in 1944,” Mr. Filippis said. “We worked hard and it grew and grew. That’s because we had good people here, good people who cared about people, and we always put the customer first. We just tried to help. We’ve always felt we could help anyone – and there are a lot of people who need it.”
Mr. Filippis used the success he enjoyed in the business world to blaze a trail for Michigan’s disabled athletes. In 1946, he formed the first bowling league for the disabled, and later that same year, established a swimming program for the disabled at Detroit’s Patton Pool. It wasn’t long before he developed a variety of other sports programs for both able-bodied and disabled athletes, including basketball, baseball, softball, golf, tennis, boxing (he trained as many as 22 amateur fighters at one time), and track & field.
Mr. Filippis himself participated in every one of these sports. As an example of his own athletic prowess, he captured gold medals in the shot put, javelin, discus and baseball throw in the Michigan Wheelchair Athletic Association Regional Games – a spectacular feat considering the then-82-year-old Mr. Filippis competed in an open division against athletes of all ages. He did, in fact, establish state records in all four events and qualified for the national games.
His further contributions to athletic and recreational activities were also impressive. For more than 25 years, Wright & Filippis has hosted “Wheelchair Daze”, a free picnic which annually welcomes more than 1,200 persons with disabilities and their guests. At his direction, Wright & Filippis served as the official sponsor of the Detroit Free Press Marathon Disabilities Division for more than 20 years. And the Gene Filippis Memorial Golf Benefit raises more than $50,000 each year for a variety of community non-profit organizations.
More recently, Mr. Filippis made sports history in 1999 when he founded the Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame. The mission of the Hall of Fame is to honor Michigan's athletes with disabilities who have demonstrated achievement in sports and are positive role models in the community as well as to educate the public about the capabilities of individuals with disabilities. This unique non-profit organization also strives to provide support for recreational and educational programs for persons with disabilities.
The Hall of Fame now supports and serves as the linchpin for the newly-formed Adaptive Sports Coalition, an alliance of more than 20 locally-based groups which provide various recreational opportunities for persons with disabilities. The influence and impact of the Hall of Fame continues to grow in the community by focusing on education, awareness and scholarship programs.
Mr. Filippis’ dream of an organization that directly impacts the lives of persons with disabilities continues to fuel the Hall of Fame’s progress. The Hall of Fame recently developed a mentoring program in which its alumni visit classrooms and deliver motivational speeches to students throughout the state. The Hall of Fame has also established a scholarship endowment to benefit young athletes with disabilities as well as those children who aspire to careers that will benefit the disabled community.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Filippis was honored many times for his significant contributions. Among his notable achievements and awards:
- Named a 2004 Michiganian-of-the-Year (presented by the Detroit News);
- The 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award (the Arthritis Foundation);
- The 2003 da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award (the Muscular Sclerosis Society);
- The 2002 William Clay Ford Community Quarterback Award (the Detroit Lions);
- The 2002 Alvin Foon Humanitarian Award (the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation);
- The 2000 Gerald Ford Sports Person of the Year Award (the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame);
- The Joe Louis Award (Sports Illustrated);
- Community Hero Torchbearer (the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games);
- The Excellence in Achievement-Lifetime Award (the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan);
- The Sunnie Wilson ‘Spirit of the Champ’ Award (the Joe Louis Memorial organization);
- The Brooks-Royal Memorial Award (the Michigan Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America);
- The Lifetime Achievement Award (the American Orthotic-Prosthetic Association);
- The Alan S. Jeffery Outstanding Service Award (the Michigan Physical Therapy Association);
- The Italian-American of the Year Award (the Italian Study Club of Troy);
- Certificate of Merit (the Office of Service to the Aging);
- Humanitarian Award (the Neuro-Muscular Institute with Providence Hospital and Medical Centers);
- And a special Lifetime Contributions Award (Oakland County Parks).
Mr. Filippis’ hard work and vision have brought hope to thousands of disabled persons, nurturing belief and fulfilling dreams.
“Each generation is better off than the last,” Mr. Filippis recently said, “and it’s our job to see to it that we make this world a better place for everyone.”