August 9, 1980, is a day etched in the mind of Tom Pisoni '80. What began as a fun canoe trip with friends on the Osage River near Lake of the Ozarks to celebrate high school together before college turned disastrous. He recalls stopping for a break, but his memory fades after he dived into the water.
"My friends thought I was playing around when I surfaced but was not moving," he says. They ultimately saved his life by pulling him out and getting help.
Pisoni had unexpectedly plunged into a shallow spot. The impact broke the fifth and sixth vertebrae in his neck. He spent most of the next year recovering at a hospital in Columbia, Missouri. Buoyed by support from family and friends, Pisoni, now a quadriplegic, endured a long road to recovery. He says his biggest champions were his parents, who regularly drove to and from Columbia to be with him.
Pisoni moved back home after his rehabilitation. Motivated by a positive, resilient spirit, he enrolled at St. Louis Community College before transferring to Saint Louis University, which was instrumental in accommodating the scheduling and location of his classes. He graduated in 1986—a remarkable feat given his circumstances—with a bachelor's degree in accounting. Though he initially wanted to be a chemical engineer, Pisoni settled on accounting because it offered a career in an office setting.
"I applied to work at many places without much success," recalls Pisoni, who became active in wheelchair sports like rugby and road races. "I learned that the federal government can be very accommodating for disabled persons and provide them a great opportunity."
Pisoni landed a job as an auditor for the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) at McDonnell Douglas, which became Boeing in 1999. It was here that he spent his entire career before retiring in 2018.
The DCAA recognized Pisoni twice with the Outstanding Employee with a Disability Award for his acumen and achievement. He was honored with the award at the Pentagon in 1994 for tracking down $17 million in unnecessary charges, and again in 2012 for finding $3.5 million in duplicative costs.
"I just tried to do my best," Pisoni says humbly. "I was just auditing like everyone else."
According to Jerry Bailey, who worked closely with Pisoni throughout his career and nominated him for the national DCAA awards, "Tom's most impactful contributions may be the enlightenment of those he worked with toward people with disabilities. He was a pioneer for disabled auditors 31 years ago. At that time, auditing was considered to require unencumbered mobility, dexterity and speed in delivering the product. Tom demonstrated that people with disabilities can be productive and valuable contributors to a workforce and adapt to the challenges the profession requires."
Throughout his career, Pisoni remained active in the community. He participated in several charity runs on his wheelchair, volunteered with the St. Louis Junior Chamber of Commerce and for the past 14 years he has sponsored a child through the ChildFund nonprofit organization.
More recently, he left SLUH in his estate and intends to create a scholarship upon his death. "I never knew I'd be in a position to help SLUH," says Pisoni, who used college credits earned in high school to accelerate his college education. "SLUH provided me an incredible education and helped me form a foundation with solid values."
Pisoni attests he has been surrounded by a remarkable support network, yet life still has its challenges. Just before his retirement last year, he experienced two significant setbacks: the death of his father and a virus that continues to affect him. Pisoni is no longer able to drive on his own (he had been able to do so until a few years ago), and he still lives at home with his mother, who remains his proudest supporter. She insists that since Tom's accident in 1980, despite all of his adversity, "He has never complained."
He also credits SLUH with helping him after his accident. When Pisoni returned to St. Louis in 1981, following his rehabilitation in Columbia, his "blue buddies" held a fundraiser at St. Raymond's Catholic Church to help with his medical expenses. In addition, one of his favorite teachers, Fr. Tom Valiquette, SJ, who taught physics, celebrated Mass at Pisoni's home.
"We forget: In life, it doesn't matter what happens to you or where you came from. It matters what you do with what happens and what you've been given," writes Ryan Holiday in his New York Times bestseller "The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph." If Holiday knew Pisoni, he might have included him as a case study in his book.
Pisoni has refused to turn inward or ask, "Why me?" In the spirit of the magis, he continued to pursue what more he could do for others through volunteering, all while embracing a deep sense of gratitude. At his retirement party, he thanked everybody who has helped him along the way. "I could not have done anything alone," he said.
Thanks to Pisoni's generosity through his eventual scholarship, future Jr. Bills will one day feel the same sense of gratitude. "I want to give back to SLUH because it gave me the best years of my life," he says. "There's no way I can repay the school but I'm doing what I can do."