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.

hide

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

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

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 himelf 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

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

San Francisco 7 Top 8th Inning
Pittsburgh 0
Minnesota 10/2/14 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Detroit
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Tampa Bay 10/5/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Houston 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Dallas
Baltimore 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Pittsburgh 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Arizona 10/5/14 3:05 PM
Denver
Kansas City 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
NY Jets 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
Seattle 10/6/14 7:30 PM
Washington
Washington 1 FINAL
Buffalo 6
Carolina 3 FINAL
Columbus 6
Pittsburgh 2 FINAL
Detroit 0
Montreal 2 3rd Prd 3:18
Chicago 1
Arizona 2 3rd Prd
Edmonton 2
Fla Atlantic 10/2/14 6:00 PM
FIU
UCF 10/2/14 6:00 PM
Houston
Arizona 10/2/14 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Syracuse
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Army
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Maryland
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Tennessee
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Indiana
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Texas
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Clemson
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Colorado
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rutgers
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rice
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Kentucky
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Virginia
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa
Calgary 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Saskatchewan
Edmonton 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hamilton
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close