BAXTER — Care. Appreciation. Love.

“Our world doesn’t do this enough.”

That’s why Collette Turcotte helped organize an event to honor a former co-worker who she said so profoundly impacted his community.

“It was a work of love,” she added.

That work was a gathering in the front yard of JP Whalen’s house in Baxter Tuesday, Oct. 13.

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The psychologist worked at Nystrom & Associates for nearly nine years before retiring in 2018 after a prior diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the ailment affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, killing off neurons that control voluntary muscle movement.

Whalen was diagnosed in 2015, pushing him into an unplanned retirement three years later from the clinic and patients he gave his all to. But his Nystrom & Associates co-workers still value their friend for all he’s done for and with them, and wanted to acknowledge that.

In a surprise event, about 20 masked friends and family members gathered on Whalen’s lawn Tuesday with gifts, cards and a plaque. Leading the pack was Brian Nystrom, owner of Nystrom & Associates.

“We’re here today to honor JP for his many contributions. We’re also here to honor Donna, who has been the greatest support and fiercest advocate,” Nystrom said of Whalen and his wife Donna. “JP has positively impacted many countless lives in his career. JP has cared about people, patients, colleagues, support staff and those he supervised. We are here today to express our gratitude to you, JP, for your service, and to Donna and to the entire Whalen family.”

Nystrom then presented a plaque with Whalen’s picture on it and similar words of gratitude. While Whalen will keep that plaque with him, an identical one will hang in the most prominent place at the clinic, Nystrom said, so community members know of his service as well.

Friends of JP Whalen gather in his front yard Tuesday, Oct. 13, in Baxter, to show their appreciation for him and all the work he put in during his years working at Nystrom & Associates as a psychologist. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Friends of JP Whalen gather in his front yard Tuesday, Oct. 13, in Baxter, to show their appreciation for him and all the work he put in during his years working at Nystrom & Associates as a psychologist. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of what I was able to do working for Nystrom and Associates,” Whalen told the group from his wheelchair, after jokingly apologizing for not getting up.

He expressed his gratitude for everyone he worked with and praised the clinic’s Adult Rehabilitative Mental Health Services — or ARMHS — team for being the best in the state. The statewide program enables patients to develop and enhance psychiatric stability, social competencies, personal and emotional adjustment, and independent living and community skills when these abilities are impaired by the symptoms of mental illness.

“At one point there were 33 counties being served by the ARMHS program in the state of Minnesota,” Whalen said. “Seventeen of those 33 were serviced out of the city of Baxter. Way to go.”

Glady Kidrowski worked in the rehabilitative mental health program with Whalen and later interviewed him for a paper in her career planning class while working toward her psychology degree. She is nearly done with classes now and shared part of her paper, which was supposed to focus on a professional in her chosen field.

“I’ve been around the mental health setting long enough to know that if there is anyone I choose to be like in my therapy approach, it would be JP. … He has gone above and beyond for his clients to ensure they receive the most out of each session. Just his willingness to meet with me to help me complete this assignment was an expression of his kindness,” she read. “... He strives for excellence yet is very humble to his successes. His clients adore him, and he is a very respected member of his community.

“His advice I take to heart because of his surmountable knowledge and experience. The last piece of advice during the interview he stated, ‘See success in your clients, but do not blame yourself when therapy is not conducive. You will never reach them all, and it is imperative you know this in the beginning. Just do your best and be your best, and you will succeed.’”

Tears welled up for some listeners, including Donna Whalen and the couple’s daughter Claire Winter.

Jackie Kempe (left) and Mellisa Rausch, hospice caregivers for JP Whalen, stand with his daughter Claire Winter Tuesday, Oct. 13, as a group of friends recognized Whalen for his years of service to Nystrom & Associates. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispath
Jackie Kempe (left) and Mellisa Rausch, hospice caregivers for JP Whalen, stand with his daughter Claire Winter Tuesday, Oct. 13, as a group of friends recognized Whalen for his years of service to Nystrom & Associates. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispath

“I didn’t realize how many people he touched their lives, and it’s awesome what he’s been doing throughout the years,” Winter said. “And it’s also hard seeing him in the state that he’s in, but he’s in good spirits, and that’s what keeps me holding on. He’s very positive about it. I love him very much.”

Whalen’s positive attitude and high spirits were evident through jokes he continued to crack, like that he would be a good standup comedian if he could just stand up.

“If your nose runs and your feet smell, you’re built upside down,” he added when the group asked for another.

On a more serious note, Whalen said one thing he learned about while working toward his doctorate in rehabilitation psychology was acceptance being the biggest challenge for those with disabilities to overcome.

“Once a person can accept where they’re at, then they’ve made a giant, giant step,” he said, “... and they can get beyond that and start getting into the process of living beyond that diagnosis.”

Whalen’s hospice caregivers, Jackie Kempe and Mellisa Rausch of Knute Nelson, described him as inspirational and intelligent. Kempe said her first visit with Whalen almost felt like a therapy session, solidifying his calling as a psychologist.

After personally greeting every visitor, Whalen said he didn’t feel like he deserved all the attention.

“This was my job. This is what I was supposed to do,” he said.

But his wife perhaps made sense of the little gathering best with the simple explanation, “To know JP is to love JP.”

Collette Turcotte (right) presents flowers and other gifts to JP Whalen and his wife Donna during a surprise gathering at Whalens' house Tuesday, Oct. 13, in Baxter. Turcotte and other former co-workers of Whalen's at Nystrom and Associates honored him with a plaque for his years of service amid his battle with ALS. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Collette Turcotte (right) presents flowers and other gifts to JP Whalen and his wife Donna during a surprise gathering at Whalens' house Tuesday, Oct. 13, in Baxter. Turcotte and other former co-workers of Whalen's at Nystrom and Associates honored him with a plaque for his years of service amid his battle with ALS. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.

Sidebar:

ALS support

JP Whalen wants to support others with ALS who need it and invites them to reach out at jpwhalen.phd@gmail.com.

Further resources are available through the ALS Association-Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Chapter at https://bit.ly/371YXK5.