John Porter East was born in Springfield, Illinois on 5 May 1931, and he played football at Earlham College in Indiana before serving in the US Marine Corps from 1953 to 1955, when he became a paraplegic due to complications from polio. He graduated from the University of Illinois School of Law and became a lawyer in Naples, Florida for one year, and he later became a political science professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. A protege of Senator Jesse Helms, he won election to the US Senate in 1980, and he was nicknamed "Helms on Wheels". He was a staunch social conservative on issues such as abortion, and he opposed the 1983 bill that created Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In 1986, he announced that he would not seek re-election, and he decided to return to teaching. On 29 June 1986, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at his Greenville home after discovering that he had low thyroid, a disorder that caused depression, tiredness, constipation, weight gain, and intolerance of the cold.