Thomas Arrington III runs a green energy company, advocates for the disabled, and is the primary caretaker for his 3-year-old son Chase. "Use your quiet voice," he exhorts his youngest son, while juggling a business call on his Blackberry and maneuvering a power wheelchair around the kitchen of his Chesapeake home.
The recipient of the 2011 Muscular Dystrophy Association's Robert Ross National Personal Achievement Award, Arrington credits his varied achievements to a positive outlook. At the physical therapy sessions he attends he meets others much worse off than himself, he says, citing a 19-year-old Army veteran with no legs. "And he's asking how my day is, what I've been doing," he marvels.
Arrington has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD, a disease in which the muscles slowly disintegrate. He is dependent on his wife, Sandra, who works full time for the federal government, for his personal care. "I'm blessed to have a wonderful wife who showers me, dresses me, and makes sure that I have a good suit and look good for business meetings," he says. "It's a lot to take on."
An enthusiastic athlete, Arrington was diagnosed at 26, when he started falling and had difficulty running during an office softball game. His doctor told him he'd be in a wheelchair by the age of 30. Now 48, Arrington only started using a power chair two years ago. When his right hand failed him, he learned to write left-handed. "It's one of the mildest forms," he says of the disease which also struck his father, though not until middle age. It has not affected anyone else in his family, including his four sons.
Before moving his family to Hampton Roads seven years ago, Arrington lived and worked in New York. He started out working with his father at Brooklyn Union Gas, which became KeySpan Energy through a merger in 1998. "It had a really family atmosphere. I worked my way up from the bottom, reading meters, walking 16 miles a day, then to plumber's apprentice," he says. After his diagnosis the company supplied him with a helper but kept urging him to "move inside" to management. He was duly promoted to emergency dispatcher, dealing with gas leaks in the city's five boroughs. Then he moved up to become a gas systems operator, part of a team buying and selling gas for the entire city. "I was there for five years; it was very high pressure, we were dealing with $300 million a day. It's a lot of stress working 12-hour shifts for 13 days in a row," he says. His increasing disability pushed him to retire in 2002.
Virginia was a draw partly for its milder climate but also for long-ago family ties — an ancestor, William Augustus Hodges, served as a delegate in the Virginia legislature in the 1880s.
Arrington has made his own forays into politics. He has run for Chesapeake City Council twice, doubling his support in his most recent attempt, garnering more than 8,000 votes, but missing out on election by a thousand. He's a member of the Mayor's Commission on Disabilities and also of the Chesapeake Taxpayers' Alliance. For the latter, he's working hard against the imposition of a new $3 garbage fee; "it's a small thing but a big step in the right direction; I've never known a government fee that goes away," he says.
He was thrilled to be nominated and accepted to the University of Virginia's Sorensen Institute that serves as a training ground for political leaders. He graduates from the program this month. A Republican, he has enjoyed meeting leaders across the political spectrum.
The same curiosity and energy has kept him involved in the energy business. "I want to be in the thick of things. I still have a healthy brain. Being out and sociable and in the middle of business deals keeps me positive," he says. In 2008, Arrington, who has a green thumb evident in the plants at his home, started Atlantic Wind Energy, a company that now helps procure financing for renewable energy projects. This year he became the president of Tidewater Biodiesel, which is set to produce energy from waste vegetable oil by mid-2011. But, he's also a realist. "There's no way to get off fossil fuels," he concedes. "But let's do everything domestic — gas, wind, oil." That interest and expertise has also brought him to serve on the Energy Advisory Committee to the Joint Commission on Technology and Science in Richmond.
In his home community, Arrington works as a liaison between the Muscular Dystrophy Association and local groups to unify fundraising efforts. Already the local fire department has raised more than $400,000 for the association and he's hoping to establish a therapeutic recreation center in the city before long.
"My wife told me If I get involved in one more thing I'll be forever in the dog house. I have to be careful, she can say 'no shower,'" he says, cheerfully, scooping Chase onto his knee.
The Robert Ross Personal Achievement Award was started in 1992 to recognize the accomplishments and community service of people who have any of the 40-plus neuromuscular diseases for which the Muscular Dystrophy Association seeks treatments and cures. For information, 420-3172, Norfolk@mdausa.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times