June 15 2017 05:03 PM

Growing up, Tony Foley got the brunt of bullying at school. It was easy for the kids to make fun of him; he only had one arm. Only Foley and his family didn't think he had a handicap. Because of his disability he is probably the most unlikely landscape contractor you'll ever meet.

He was born without a right forearm and hand, and doctors never determined what caused the defect.

His birth mother, whom he’s never met in person, gave him up for adoption. When he was two years old, he was adopted by a military family; his father was in the army and his mother worked at the base. He grew up in Copperas Cove, Texas, nine miles east of Fort Hood.

He attributes his can-do attitude to his parents. “They treated me like a normal kid. I was never considered handicapped in their eyes. If there was something a two-armed person could do, I would be able to do it.”

But school was rough on Foley; kids wouldn’t stop picking on him. “The worst part was probably when I got to junior high, because then the kids got really mean.” He made it to his sophomore year of high school before he dropped out. That was it; it was time to go to work.

He set out to find a job and got his GED. Foley thought the food service business could be a career path for him, but hiring managers dismissed him outright. “They thought that it was unsanitary, since I couldn’t wear two gloves because of where my arm stops.” His parents were infuriated when he was turned away.

Foley had come to expect such rejection. He got a few side jobs working in construction, but really couldn’t connect anywhere. He started taking computer programming classes online, but decided school wasn’t the best fit for him.

P. J. Brock, a friend of Foley’s and a licensed irrigator, heard that SS Irrigation & Landscaping in Killeen, Texas, needed more people to join its team. Brock spoke to Steve Shoults, owner of SS. He said, “Hey, I’ve got a friend who needs a job—just one thing you should know about him, he’s only got one arm.”

Shoults can recall when he first heard about Foley and at first, dismissed him outright. “A lot of what we do, you would think requires two hands,” Shoults explained. “Even just adjusting heads or putting on nozzles, I couldn’t fathom somebody with one arm being able to manage to do all that.”

But Brock was insistent. “He kept on telling me, ‘This is the hardest working guy I’ve ever seen.’ And I said, ‘But I don’t know if he can do what we can do, what needs to be done,’” Shoults said. So he presented Foley with a challenge one day. He said, “If you can come out here and show me that you can dig a ditch with a pick, I’ll give you a shot.” And he did it and he got the job. That was about three years ago.

Even after Foley had proven himself, Shoults still had misgivings. “It’s one thing to come out and prove a point, but can he maintain that? Can he do the small things that need to be done, like replacing nozzles or adjusting heads? Sometimes they’re hard to adjust even with two hands. Am I going to have to get any kind of special insurance to employ somebody with a disability?” (Additional insurance was not needed, by the way.)

Foley does run into a few snags because of his disability, but he handles them with aplomb. “I have definitely found myself in a few situations where I’ve had to call another person over who works for the company and say, ‘Here, just hold this pipe; that’s all you have to do, and I’ll do the rest,’” Foley says. “But I’ll dig the same trench, just as fast, if not faster, than anyone else can.”

Shoults was pleasantly surprised with Foley’s abilities on the job. “When he needs to get stuff done, he makes it happen,” he said. “There have been a few defining moments where I thought, ‘This guy right here, he takes a lot of pride in his work. He does a good job.’ I’ve had several people over the years say, ‘That guy’s a good guy. We were glad to have him on our project.’ That sticks out to me.”

In fact, some clients of SS Irrigation & Landscaping were awe stricken watching Foley work. One of them called the local newspaper to suggest that a story be written about him. Foley has received multiple requests for interviews with various news outlets, but he brushes off the praise. “It’s a little weird to me, because I’m not used to this much attention,” he said. “I didn’t know I’d get that much attention just for doing my job.”

Recently, Foley completed his certification to be an irrigation technician. He says he enjoys making repairs and solving some of the technical problems that come with the job. He recalls studying computer programming after high school and feels that has given him an advantage in programming controllers, especially the new smart controllers.

Outside of work, Foley, 37, focuses on his family. A father of two teenage boys, he has been married to his wife Bobbie for almost 17 years. He says his family is his first true love. “I love working outside; I love working on cars. That’s like my second passion in life. But generally, my number one is my family. Family, yardwork, cars.”

Foley says he’s happy to stick with the folks at SS who gave him a shot. “I want to help them grow. Steve’s probably the best boss I’ve ever had. He’s good at directing his team. No matter what I do, there are going to be some things that I just can’t do alone. So my team is really important to me. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for the people I work with.”

“I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to prove that people with disabilities can pull their own weight and make a contribution,” said Foley.