Obituary: Ted Arneson, advocate for the mentally ill

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2011 - 7:42 PM

A bout with severe depression gave the businessman a lifelong devotion to helping those with mental illness.

In the middle of his life, T. J. "Ted" Arneson found himself in a dark and terrible place -- one from which he would emerge to help others.

Severe clinical depression made each day heavy and hellish for the businessman, husband and father of six, more than once landing him in a hospital. It was the 1970s, and mental illness was a topic shrouded in shame and ignorance.

Over time, Arneson got medical care that gave him the tools to transcend his illness. Profoundly grateful, he set out to help other sufferers, family and friends said.

Arneson died Nov. 21 at Breck Homes in Bloomington, where he had lived for about a year. He was 87, and had lived in Minneapolis most of his life.

He was born in Oregon and raised in Minneapolis, where he graduated from West High School in 1942, said his daughter, Nancy McClure of Edina. In 1946, he and a brother founded a manufacturing firm that grew into Professional Instruments Co. of St. Louis Park and Hopkins, which creates high-precision instruments.

The successful company gave Arneson his life's work, and although he stepped back from it in the 1990s, he never officially retired. But his life's passion was helping others overcome mental illness.

The depression that laid him low was wrestled into remission by medication and electroshock therapy. Recovery "was such a profound thing for him -- he had felt so hopeless, and then he found medical care that could help," McClure said. "He wanted others to experience the same relief, and to reduce the stigma around mental illness."

So he spoke out any way he could, always "exuberantly," McClure said. "He'd talk one on one, not just to people suffering from it, but to their families." He became active in the organization now called the National Alliance on Mental Illness and sought to improve pastoral education, because sufferers in that era often turned first to the clergy for help. His efforts won attention: In the 1980s, he was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for a story about business leaders suffering depression.

Leonard Hummel, now professor of pastoral theology and care at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa., was working at the former St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis when the Arnesons asked him how they could help chaplains improve their counsel to the mentally ill. They became friends and allies in advocating for best practices in psychiatric care and research.

Meanwhile, Arneson and his wife gave money to mental health organizations and researchers and helped establish a depression treatment program at St. Mary's and the Dr. T.J. and Ella Arneson Chair in Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, named after Ted's parents.

Arneson "may have been the brightest human being I've ever met, an extraordinarily determined man," Hummel said. "He was a lifelong learner, and saw in everyone he met an opportunity to learn something.

"Make no mistake -- he struggled with his depression, but he also had experienced hope and healing, and he did all he could to spread them," Hummel said.

In addition to his daughter Nancy, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, Ruth; two other daughters, Mary Arneson of Minneapolis and Martha Arneson of Edina; three sons, Jim of Minnetonka, Paul of Edina and Dave of Plymouth; a sister, Alice Ohnesorge of Minneapolis, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday in Gill Brothers Funeral Home, 5801 Lyndale Av. S., Minneapolis. Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday in Gethsemane Lutheran Church, 715 Minnetonka Mills Road, Hopkins.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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