If you've ever doubted your ability to accomplish something, just spend a few minutes with Tom Cooney, 77, and you'll be inspired.
Cooney, who lived for more than 30 years in Palm Harbor before moving to Clearwater, has been deaf since he was an infant. But his disability has not stopped him from making his dreams become a reality.
Cooney has performed the National Anthem in sign language at the Super Bowl. He's met seven presidents. He's been the recipient of the national Thousand Points of Light award and Florida's Points of Light award for his service to the community. And along the way, he's volunteered his time to help more than one million kids learn sign language.
Cooney also owns a baseball that his family members hope might someday find its way into the Smithsonian Institution. He's managed to convince 10 presidents to sign it and hopes President Barack Obama's signature becomes the next.
It Started With Hoover
The journey began when Cooney was a 14-year-old kid living in New Jersey. He saw former president Herbert Hoover on TV, and got a wild idea to go to New York to meet him. He wound up in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where Hoover and his wife were staying.
"I asked to see Herbert Hoover, and the man at the counter laughed," said Cooney, who is very animated when sharing stories about his presidential encounters.
He showed the desk clerk the baseball that he wanted Hoover to sign. The clerk hinted to him that Hoover usually goes for a walk at 5:30 every morning, maybe he could catch him then.
The teen returned to the hotel. At 5:32 one morning, the elevator doors opened and out walked Hoover, wearing a black top hat and carrying a cane. Cooney walked with Hoover around the block, and the pair chatted. As they returned to the hotel, Cooney asked, "Can you sign my baseball?"
Hoover obliged and then went inside. Cooney says the former president had no idea that he had been talking with a deaf boy.
Since then, the baseball has been signed by 10 presidents and one grieving first lady. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis signed the ball on behalf of her late husband, John F. Kennedy, who had previously promised Cooney he would sign the baseball if he were elected president.
"The signature that I didn't get, but was substituted by Jackie Kennedy, is the one I like the most," said Cooney.
The baseball was passed around at the Bush family's Thanksgiving dinner one year. Jeb Bush, who was Florida's governor at the time, brought the baseball to the family gathering so his brother, President George W. Bush, could sign it. Their father, former President George H.W. Bush, had already signed it.
"Every signature has a story," says Cooney, who says his visit with President Ronald Reagan is one of his favorite memories.
Florida Senator Connie Mack arranged for Cooney and his sons Tom and Ron to be flown to Miami to meet President Reagan and have the baseball autographed. Reagan wound up spending 20 minutes with them.
Getting Clinton Wasn't Easy
At times, Cooney has had to do a bit of convincing before getting presidents to sign the baseball, which he stores in a bank vault. It took Cooney 19 years to obtain former President Bill Clinton's signature. Cooney also had to promise the Bush family he wouldn't sell out.
"I don't want anything on eBay, we don't do that," Jeb Bush told Cooney before helping him obtain his older brother's autograph.
As for the current president, Cooney says so far, he's sent 70 to 80 emails to President Obama asking him to sign the baseball. No doubt, he'll be sending plenty more until that baseball is signed.
And first lady Michelle Obama should not feel left out when it comes to autographs. Cooney has a baseball with the signatures of 11 first ladies that he would love to have her sign as well.
Cooney says persistence has helped him obtain his collection of presidential autographs over the last 63 years. Persistence is the same message he gives to students when he teaches sign language.
"I tell the kids never give up on things. If a deaf person can do this, you can too," he said.