Undaunted: Paralysis doesn't stop hunter

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2010 - 10:49 PM

John Whalen finds exhilaration from a fruitful hunt despite his disability, while his peers marvel as much at his prowess as his unwavering attitude.

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John Whalen posed with an 8-point buck he shot from his tractor’s lift-chair. Whalen lost the use of his legs in 2008, but he still hunts deer and wild turkeys.

Photo: Photo courtesy of Todd Vagts , Star Tribune

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John Whalen has had quite a hunting season: He bagged a trophy 8-point buck and arrowed his first-ever wild turkey.

But that's not why the 55-year-old outdoorsman and farmer inspires residents of little Harmony in southeastern Minnesota: It's his attitude and determination after losing the use of his legs 2 1/2 years ago from a rare illness.

The loss didn't diminish his spirit. He continues to farm, hunt and enjoy the outdoors -- and maintains his bright attitude, friends say.

"He is Mr. Cheerful," said Jim Vagts, 67, a longtime friend and neighbor who farmed with Whalen for a dozen years. "He's always smiling. He just has a very positive outlook. The whole community admires him. When he became paralyzed, I knew he would deal with it better than anyone."

Whalen, who has been hunting since he was in high school, even jokes about his situation: "I never took a step outside the house to get a deer this year," he quipped.

Instead, he drove his John Deere tractor (using hand controls) to a spot on Vagts' land, climbed onto a mechanical lift that allows him to access the tractor's cab and hunted about 5 feet above ground. He has a special disability permit that allows him to shoot from a vehicle.

"I sit by my front tire, up in the air like a deer stand," he said.

Using his .50 caliber muzzleloader rifle, (which he prefers over a shotgun) he bagged the big 8-pointer. The deer's antlers have an 18 1/2-inch spread, and the rack likely will score in the 120 range.

"It's my biggest deer," he said proudly. "Thrilled? Oh, yeah."

Vagts' son, Todd, 41, of Preston, helped Whalen retrieve the downed deer and gutted it for him. Whalen hauled it away with his tractor.

Two years ago, sitting in a wheelchair near where Vagts and other friends built a permanent blind for him, he shot a nice buck with his muzzleloader. He bagged his turkey this fall from the elevated blind, which he can wheel himself into.

Whalen's life changed dramatically in 2008, when, unbeknownst to him, a tumor grew near his spinal cord. "It started bleeding and crushed my nerves," he said.

"When it first started, I limped around for a week or two, then it slowly got worse," Whalen said. "I went in for a checkup, assuming it was a pinched nerve."

Doctors found the benign tumor and removed it, but the damage had been done to his nerves, and he lost use of both legs. "There's no feeling from the knees down; absolutely nothing," said Whalen, who is married and has four grown children.

That spelled trouble for a man who depended on his legs for his livelihood and his recreation.

"It shocked me, and I guess it shocked the community," Whalen said.

The community threw a fundraising benefit that fall. "The whole town was there," Jim Vagts said.

Neighbors helped harvest his crops. They erected the fancy hunting blind in a day. And they built a corral for his cattle with special gates that he can operate.

But his love of hunting led him outside that fall.

"Other than farming, my first therapy was hunting," he said. "It got me up in the morning and going."

Still, there are aspects he misses.

"I really miss hunting in the woods. You can't track anything [from his wheelchair]," he said. "You don't see the buck scrapes. Some of the fun is gone."

Whalen is a religious man with strong faith. He has been active in his church, the 4-H and the county fair, Vagts said.

His positive attitude is infectious. Vagts said he has never heard Whalen complain about his fate.

Whalen drives his specially equipped pickup truck to the local grain elevator, a gathering place for farmers, to discuss issues over coffee.

"I'm mobile with the pickup because it has a lift to put the wheelchair in the back," Whalen said. "I'm rarely home. I'm always on the go.

"People tell me I inspire them. I don't know what to say. I'm just trying to do my own thing, to keep going.

"If people can look at me and say their life isn't that bad ... then push on a little happier, that would suit me."

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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