By Garry Clifford
March 02, 1981 12:00 PM

To most new members of Congress, the corridors of the U.S. Capitol are a bewildering maze. For Sen. John P. East, though, they are literally an obstacle course. His legs paralyzed 25 years ago following a bout with polio, the freshman North Carolina Republican is the first wheelchair user ever to be elected to the Senate. When he arrived last month, he discovered that although Congress has required access facilities for the handicapped in all buildings constructed with federal funds, it has yet to get its own house in order. Admits Senate Secretary William Hildenbrand: “We realized the new senator would not be able to get onto the Senate floor—and we started making changes.”

So far East, 49, isn’t complaining. “The attitude has been positive, helpful and constructive,” he says. “You cannot constantly be waiting for the world to be perfect for you.” Because the bathroom doors in the Senate cloakroom were too narrow to admit his wheelchair, a tiny special room was remodeled for his use. To reach his Senate chamber seat, high in the back row where freshmen are consigned, East waits to be pushed up a newly installed ramp. Soon a mechanical lift will be constructed. Unable to ride the small tramway that connects the Senate office buildings to the Capitol unless there is an assistant to heft him aboard, East often rolls himself full tilt down the corridors, leaving others who prefer to hoof it breathlessly behind. “These hard hallways are ideal,” says East. “It’s quicker than walking.”

The senator is accustomed to downplaying his disability. In fact before the election few people in North Carolina even realized he was handicapped, since the issue simply never was raised. An archconservative protégé of Sen. Jesse Helms (“Helms on Wheels,” one newspaper dubbed him), East was persuaded to leave his post as professor of political science at East Carolina University in Greenville to run against Democratic incumbent Robert Morgan. Bolstered by the Reagan landslide and aided by direct-mail wizardry, East squeaked out a 7,000-vote victory. A $600,000 last-minute media blitz helped put him over the top. “It was very heavy TV,” says East. “There were issues like the Panama Canal treaty where Morgan was on a more liberal side. We hit those, and hit him hard.”

Born in Springfield, Ill., the son of a state government employee, East has been hitting hard since his days as a left tackle on the Earlham College football team. After graduating in 1953, he married his college sweetheart, Priscilla Sherk, then enlisted in the Marines. As a young lieutenant at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he contracted polio in 1955—just a year before the Salk vaccine was widely available. “The onset of the disease is very traumatic,” he says. “You are not reflecting philosophically. You are fighting the pain and the agony, just coping with survival.” Priscilla recalls that John was calm when told he wouldn’t walk again. “He put his arm on my shoulder and said, ‘Things will be all right, Sis,’ ” she says. “And I knew that they would.”

He received (and still collects) a $1,200 monthly government disability pension. After a year of therapy in Warm Springs, Ga., where FDR was treated, East enrolled at the University of Illinois because its new law school building provided easy wheelchair access. He went on to practice law for a year in Naples, Fla., earned a doctorate in political science at the University of Florida and then accepted a teaching position at East Carolina. His two daughters have stayed behind: Kathryn, 26, works with handicapped children for the Greenville Recreation Department and Martha, 21, is a senior majoring in physical therapy at East Carolina. Both have been inspired by their father’s example. Spokesmen for the disabled hope that East will have a similar influence in Washington. “East’s election is the best thing that has happened in years,” says Harold Snider, president of the lobbying group Access for the Handicapped. “The Capitol is a bastion of inaccessibility. Whether he likes it or not, the senator is going to be forced into being a crusader for the handicapped.”