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Little Big Man It's not the height, it's the heart when

Published: Sunday, January 28, 2001
Page: P1F
Byline: Marina Hendricks

HALF a dozen students occupy a table toward the back of Herbert Hoover High School's cafeteria a few days before Christmas, enjoying a preholiday meal of turkey with all the trimmings.

Larry McDonnell II, the quietest of the six, munches on Cheetos and sips Sprite while his friends discuss scholarships and trade good-natured barbs. Although he says little, he smiles constantly to indicate his interest in the conversation. The junk food goes by the wayside as he flicks napkins back and forth with one girl, and then aims the tiny red light from a key chain at each of his dining companions.

"You want my car keys?" 18-year-old senior Alan Cummings asks him at one point.

"I can't drive," Larry replies.

As the group finishes eating, Alan grabs the remnants of Larry's meal and tosses them into a nearby trash can. Larry slides off his seat, takes the handle of his backpack on wheels and heads for the door.

The lunch period is not over, but Larry needs extra time to get to his next destination. The 19-year-old senior from Pinch, who stands 3 feet tall and weighs about 70 pounds, is a diastrophic dwarf.

Larry and Amanda Hughart, a 17-year-old senior, ride the elevator to the second floor. During the brief journey, they joke about selling elevator tickets to unsuspecting freshmen.

"There's a Taco Bell here, too," Larry says.

In the school's computer lab, Larry and Amanda meet up again with Alan and some of the other students from lunch. Amanda bends down to hug Larry and then sits on the floor beside him. He pretends to do karate moves on her. Soon, 18-year-old senior Tara Adkins joins them.

"The ladies' man," Alan observes. "Mac daddy." As he slaps hands with Amanda, Larry arches an eyebrow wickedly and says, "She's mine, by the way - one of them, anyway." Larry's close friends do not shy away from the subject of his height.

"It's a short story," Alan says at one point. "Oh, I'm sorry - that's kind of low." A few minutes later, he tells Larry to "bring it, don't sing it." Larry assumes a karate stance, addressing his friend with the challenge, "Want to say it to my face?" In response, Alan leans down to look Larry in the eyes.

The bell finally rings. Amanda gives Larry another hug and whispers "90 minutes," a reference to when they will meet again. Then Larry walks into the classroom of Renee Lepley, his English teacher. He sits at the front of the room at a desk sized for an elementary school student, with a wooden box on which to rest his feet.

The class is studying "Night," Elie Wiesel's account of his Holocaust experience. Larry places his books on the desktop and says with a grin, "A short story by Larry McDonnell." "Did you get a picture of all his girls?" Lepley asks a photographer.

"He never comes to class alone." A lecturer originally scheduled to address the class has canceled, so the teacher gives the class a crossword puzzle based on "Night" to solve. While the other students crowd their desks together to compare answers, Larry works quietly and diligently on his own.

Later, Lepley instructs the class to select a word from a list on the chalkboard and write a short paragraph about it. Choosing "Holocaust," Larry steadily fills several lines on a sheet of notebook paper with his small, precise printing.

"Larry - you done? Read mine," 17-year-old senior Ian Longwell says.

They trade papers to compare their work.

With 10 minutes or so left in the period, Larry leaves for his next class. Senior David Stowers, 18, packs Larry's bag and places it on the floor. A chorus of "Bye, Larry" follows him out the door.

En route to the elevator, he pauses at another classroom. "I always stop here," he says. Within seconds, the reason pops out of the doorway. She is Katherine Lockhard, a 16-year-old sophomore.

"Hey, sweetie," she greets him. "Hi, baby." Katherine plops down on the floor, hugs Larry and extracts a three-ring binder filled with photos from her backpack. The front cover reads "Katherine and Larry - Best Friends." She fills him in on the latest gossip and then they continue on down the hall, Katherine pulling Larry's backpack for him.

"He's the cutest guy in the world," she says. "He's my baby." Counting on friends Larry lists his hobbies as computers, karate and friends, and of the three, friends seem to rank the highest.

Alan is his best friend. The two sometimes wear identical blue T-shirts with Superman logos, and they share a passion for the martial arts.

"He's like my brother that I've always wanted," Larry says. "Halfway through seventh grade, I found out where he lives ... four houses down from me. That just made it great." Because of his condition, Larry has endured a number of operations over the years. Alan knows what that is like.

"He had some type of operation - he's got a scar on his neck. We were able to talk about operations and what we went through. We've got a lot of the same interests.

"I'll tease Alan about being short. He's like, 'Hey, look who's talking.'" Larry's other close friends include Katherine, Amanda, Tara and Brad Richardson, a 16-year-old junior. All in all, he says he is better with females.

"I'd rather have more female friends than male friends. A lot of the girls say I listen." But being "just friends" has its drawbacks. Last year, for example, Larry went to the prom by himself.

"There's only one girl who's seen me somewhat romantically," he says.

"I've only had one girlfriend since I've been here [at Hoover]. That lasted four days." He declines to dwell on the negative, though. Rather, he focuses on his assets. "With some of the girls, if I'm trying to pick them up, I'm like, 'Hey, I'm travel-size.'" Karate kid On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Larry goes to Elk Elementary Center for karate class. Among his fellow students are his sister and brother-in-law, Jennifer and Kasey Lipscomb. Their sensei (instructor) is John Bailey, a student at West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

A few days before Christmas, the class begins with a brief meditation.

Students then divide themselves according to rank. Larry, a green belt tied around the waist of his white uniform, stands in the middle row.

Issuing commands in Japanese, Bailey puts his students through their paces. Larry's stature prevents him from achieving a full range of motion, but he nevertheless gives it his all. His movements are deliberate and precise.

Eventually, the students break into small groups to practice their set fight patterns (katas). Bailey asks Larry to help a teen-age girl.

"He's teaching her, because what they're doing, he knows better," the sensei says. "He's probably got more heart than any of us in here.

"He's not too far off from another promotion. He'll get another stripe soon," he adds, explaining that there are two stripes per belt level.

"He'll be one of the better teachers in my class, because he takes everything from a different point of view." Second chances A few days later, Larry reflects on the benefits of martial arts.

"Ever since I got into karate, that opened up my mind on what I can do." He also acknowledges that his condition itself has helped to shape his positive attitude. Since infancy, he has endured more than 55 operations to straighten his back, legs and feet.

"My spine's crooked like a politician's," he jokes.

On a more serious note, he says, "I look at all those operations as giving me a second chance. There's always something that my mom has said to me - I've got it pretty good. There's always someone out there in a worse condition who would love to have what I have." Larry's parents, Renee and Larry McDonnell, have instilled that philosophy in their son from the very beginning.

"The first time we went to Johns Hopkins, my husband walked around the hospital," Mrs. McDonnell says. "He saw people with all kinds of different problems. He said, 'Larry's got it made.' "We just basically tell him that whatever he wants to do, if he wants to do it, he'll find a way to overcome whatever obstacles are in his way." After he graduates from Hoover, Larry plans to enroll at West Virginia State College and possibly pursue a computer-related degree. "I don't know what I want to do. All my friends say I'm really good at Web design, so that's a possibility for me." Over the years, the McDonnells have taken steps to ensure that Larry has as normal an educational experience as possible. His mother recalls only a few instances when teachers or aides made things difficult for him.

"I think it was good that the school system kept the handicapped kids in mainstream [classes]," she says. "Some of the kids don't need to be in the mainstream class, but some of the kids do need to be around other people. Kids need to be exposed. Once you get out of school, this world is completely different." Taking care of business Last fall, a couple of boys in Larry's English class were getting into the habit of picking on him. One day, after he had left the room, the teacher decided that enough was enough.

"I went off on them," Lepley recalls. "Most of them don't do that." Larry says that is the only time such a thing has happened. "Kids, they love me. They take care of me. I feel like I can get along with anybody." He seems totally comfortable with his size and tries to make others feel equally at ease. "Some people don't expect it, so I'll bring it up myself," he says.

"It's really good to be short. ... It's got a lot of great advantages," he adds, lifting that wicked eyebrow once again. "I don't want to say anything to incriminate myself. It depends on what the situation is.

"I don't see myself as a little person." To contact staff writer Marina Hendricks, use e-mail or call 348-4881.

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