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SMALL WONDERS; MOORPARK FAMILY PROVES SIZE DOESN'T MATTER WHEN NAVIGATING LIFE: GROWING ACCEPTANCE.

Byline: Story by Deborah Sullivan

During World War II, when young women were flocking to work in factories, Jeanne Michaels still had to fight for a job. Even as the war brought down gender walls, there was one she couldn't climb over - the one that kept little people out of the workplace.

But then supervisors at the Ford Bomber Plant near Dearborn, Mich., found that Michaels had an ability that separated her from most people: At 3 feet 8 inches tall, she and other dwarfs could climb inside the wings of B-24 bombers and bolt fuel tanks in tight spaces where other workers couldn't reach.

``At first they didn't want to hire the little people, but then they found we could fit in the wings,'' said Michaels, now 80. ``When they found out what we could do, they were very glad to have us.''

Since Michaels proved her mettle half a century ago, her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren - all born with a congenital form of dwarfism - are succeeding in careers in business, computers, child care and fast food.

Yet they still struggle with the same obstacles - social and physical - that she overcame.

With the exception of a foot or so of height, the family leads a typical Southern California life.

Donna and her husband, Leroy Bankowski, each 51, are GTE employees. Their daughter, Leann, 21, is a preschool teacher and son Zach, 17, is a partying, beach-going teen-ager with an after-school job at McDonald's.

The challenge to maintain that normality requires extraordinary patience and perseverance.

``We have a life like anybody else,'' Donna said. ``We work and we shop and we buy clothes. The only difference is that we have to make certain adjustments. But we have made the adjustments and we know what we have to do.''

World War II, with its demand for production, provided opportunity for Michaels.

She spent three years assembling airplanes, then when the war ended, worked as a spark plug inspector.

After that she moved to Chicago for a job at the Midget's Club, a tavern run and staffed entirely by dwarfs. The owner, himself a dwarf, installed a scaled-down bar, kitchen and even piano to fit his short-statured staff.

``It was exciting, because it was run all by little people,'' she said.

There Michaels met her husband, a waiter at the club. Like other women of that era, she became a homemaker when she married and bore her first and only child, Donna.

Donna, the child of two dwarfs in an extended family of average-sized people, grew up at ease with both tall and short people.

``I felt that I was accepted in both worlds because of a lot of problems my parents overcame,'' said Donna, who is 4 feet tall.

Her husband, Leroy, however, was born to a taller-than-average family, with three brothers who towered over him at up to more than 6 feet. His bewildered parents sought to shield him from harm, but instead kept him from experience.

``My parents, probably my dad more, wanted to be protective of me, and were afraid I'd be hurt, either physically or hurt feeling-wise,'' he said. ``So I was more sheltered.''

He met Donna in 1973 through Little People of America, a national organization founded by actor Billy Barty. Bankowski is now president.

The couple share dwarfism, age, a Polish background and Catholic faith. They married the following year and lived in his home in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.

Prejudice veiled

While Donna approached life beaming with self-confidence, she faced some of the same workplace discrimination as her mother. In an era of affirmative action, the prejudice was veiled in euphemism.

Potential employers told her she was too qualified, that she'd grow bored or that they couldn't afford to pay the salary she deserved. But she suspected that beneath the euphemisms was a deeper issue.

``There would always be the issue,'' she said. ``But the issue would always be that you're short.''

Over years she persevered to become a business control dispatcher for GTE, while Leroy worked his way up to become a database administrator.

When the company cut back its Coeur D'Alene operations, the couple transferred to the company's Westlake Village office.

As Leroy bustled around the office during a holiday potluck, bantering with co-workers and locating extra plates and soft drinks for a visitor, it was easy to forget that he confronts physical challenges in the most ordinary of tasks.

``He can do everything by himself,'' said his friend and co-worker Bill Bankowski, who is not related to Leroy.

``But in the cafeteria the sodas are so high, the salad bar is so high he can barely see it. But he manages. So it's amazing how he adapts so well and makes it look effortless.''

In fact, Leroy has twice required surgery to repair back and neck injuries related to his dwarfism.

Achondroplasia, the form of dwarfism that affects the Bankowskis and most other little people, is characterized by shortened limbs and small bodies and a distinctive skull shape with a prominent forehead and small jaw, said Ravi Savarirayan, a geneticist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

It results in small vertebral openings, which can cause nerve compression in the spine, he said. But surgery is complicated in dwarfs, whose average-sized organs are compacted into a small body.

During his two spinal surgeries, and prostate operation, Leroy had to seek care from specialists familiar with his condition.

Savarirayan said genetic research could yield cures for those conditions, and even reverse dwarfism itself.

But the Bankowskis are uncomfortable with that prospect, saying they view their size as part of the vast diversity of human creation, not as a malady to be cured.

``I don't mind being short and I feel there's a purpose to being short,'' Donna said. ``If you're going to start getting involved with making the perfect person, to me it's not right.''

The Bankowskis' faith that they are normal people with an unusual condition has helped their children straddle the barriers it poses.

Following the path of suburban teen-agers everywhere, Zach works at a Moorpark McDonald's restaurant, where he was recently promoted to shift leader - a step toward a management position.

``He's a very hard worker,'' said his supervisor, assistant manager Jose Zavala. ``If you ask him to do anything he'll do it. Some people think they can't do it because of their size. He'll try it.''

His diligent work habits belie the difficulty of his task, though. Zach stands atop a chair to work the drive-in window and takes Advil to ease the back pains that come from stepping on and off it.

Most of the time he works the front counter, where he has to hustle to keep pace with his longer-limbed co-workers.

``I have to work twice as hard, because it takes me twice as long,'' he said. ``I have to keep up with the other managers and I have to improve myself every day.''

Stature an asset

As a preschool teacher at Children's World in Calabasas, Leann's stature - she stands 4 feet tall - has been an asset and a challenge, complicating her job, but endearing her to her 2-year-old students.

``They relate to the eye to eye contact. They can come up to me and speak to me without having to always look up to me,'' she said. ``And they relate to me as a friend or a playmate. But they do know I'm a teacher, and they do listen.''

The changing table, waist-high to an average-sized person, is out of Leann's reach.

To compensate, she places a changing pad on a kid-height table and changes the toddlers there.

Leann's success at the center stands in contrast to a previous disappointment. Earlier, she had phoned a Moorpark preschool inquiring about an open position. When she arrived in person, supervisors said the job was filled.

Suspicious, Donna called and feigned interest in the job. She was told the job was open. Several subsequent phone calls yielded the same answer.

That experience exemplifies the kind of discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Angela Van Etten of West Palm Beach, Fla., an advocate for legal rights of little people.

``That's almost a dream case because it's so blatant,'' Van Etten said.

If Leann could show that she was physically limited by her dwarfism, but could still perform the job, she could have won a case against the day care center, Van Etten said.

But Leann chose to go where her skills were wanted and appreciated. She was hired at Children's World in July.

``Leann worked out great,'' said Cindy Valeri, a teacher who recommended Leann for the job. ``She was wonderful with the kids and she could do everything.''

Teacher Maggie Tufts said Leann's presence broadens the students' minds.

``With the toddlers, they're going to grow up with people like her. And for them that's normal.''

CAPTION(S):

7 Photos

Photo: (1 -- color) Although only 54 inches, Leroy Bankowski of Moorpark, right, is taller than, clockwise from left, his mother, daughter, son and wife.

(2 -- color) A cookie jar given to the Bankowskis as a wedding gift symbolizes the couple's outlook on life.

(3 -- color) Grandmother Jeanne Michaels helps Leann Bankowski hem a garment. She handles most the family's sewing needs. More complicated repairs are given to a tailor.

(4 -- college) Leroy Bankowski chats with section manager Kathy Allen at GTE's headquarters in Westlake Village.

(5 -- color) Zach Bankowski, who works at a fast food restaurant, walks one of the family dogs.

(6 -- color) Leroy Bankowski enjoys a round of golf with co-worker Steve Stimson during a GTE match in Westlake Village.

(7 -- color) Routine tasks such as shopping for groceries present small challenges for Donna, left, and Leroy Bankowski. ``We have a life like anybody else,'' she says.

Photos by Phil McCarten/Daily News
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Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 8, 1999
Words:1636
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