Doctor cared for tiny babies and played the flute to relax

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2014 - 10:49 PM

After tense days at the hospital, treating the tiniest patients as a neonatal anesthesiologist, Dr. Robert Vaaler would turn to music.

An amateur flute player who loved chamber music and jazz, Vaaler was known for inviting top Twin Cities woodwind musicians to his Lake Calhoun condo, where they’d reach into his unrivaled catalog of sheet music and play.

Vaaler died Jan. 17 from stroke complications. He was 85.

“Bob was so enthusiastic and he had a remarkably extensive collection of printed sheet music,” said John Wilcox, an amateur clarinet player and longtime friend. “We’d have quintet evenings and pick from piles of music.”

Vaaler’s wife of 62 years, Betty, would put out a spread of food for the musicians and those invited to listen. One night, on Dec. 14, 1987, Mitch Miller accepted Vaaler’s invitation and conducted an octet the doctor had arranged while 20 friends enjoyed the music.

Born in Rochester, Vaaler grew up in Cannon Falls, Minn. His father was a small-town doctor. As a boy, Bob befriended a fellow 4-year-old growing up next door. That girl became his wife. Vaaler played violin as a child but picked up the flute at Cannon Falls High School.

After a two-year stint in the Navy, Vaaler earned both undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Minnesota. He interned in Dallas at Parkland Hospital a few years before President Kennedy’s assassination but knew all the doctors who treated the slain president.

After a residency in Cokato, Minn., Vaaler trained as a specialist in pediatric anesthesiology at Abbott Northwestern and Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis.

“He was really known for his ability to take care of just the smallest little preemies and infants in neonatal care, which is a real trick,” said Bryn Vaaler, the oldest of the doctor’s five children.

When toddlers came in for surgery, Vaaler would let them pick a flavor of Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers lip balm, which he’d apply to the inside of the mask to ease their worries.

As an adult, he joined the Minneapolis Civic Symphony and several woodwind chamber groups composed of some of the best professional and amateur musicians in town.

“He was amazing and loved to bring people together to play and he’d invite others to listen,” said Mary Curry, his daughter. “My mother would put together a great feast and everyone had the nicest time.”

Wilcox said he was lucky enough to have been in attendance at the musical soirees at the Vaalers’ home “a thousand times” — including the night Miller came to conduct.

“He put together an evening of really good players that night and Mitch conducted in front of about 20 friends,” Wilcox said. “It was a special night of jazzy, unique octet music — not standard arrangements.”

The grandson of a Lutheran pastor who emigrated from Norway, Vaaler dug into his family’s history and met several cousins on frequent visits to Norway. Vaaler would, in turn, lead cousins visiting from the old country on tours of the United States.

“He was an extremely generous, gentle and patient person and I learned so much from him,” said Wilcox, who arranged a quintet of friends to play at Vaaler’s memorial service recently.

In addition to his wife and children Bryn Vaaler of Minneapolis and Mary Curry of Woodbury, Vaaler is survived by sons John Vaaler of Fredericksburg, Va., Dr. Andrew Vaaler of Minneapolis, Paul Vaaler of Golden Valley and eight grandchildren.

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