Huntington’s disease took its toll on Wade Wallen over the course of more than 12 years, leaving the former Bloomington Jefferson High School hockey star unable to walk, talk, think or eat normally.
Still, family members, friends and caregivers say he never complained. His motto was to keep moving and experience all that life had to offer.
“To him, any day was a good day to live and there was so much to fight for,” said Brianna Wallen, his daughter and primary caregiver.
The 57-year-old sports buff and former youth hockey coach known to many as “Wade-O” played collegiate hockey at Mankato State and tried out unsuccessfully for the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team of 1980. His single-season school scoring record at Jefferson in the mid-1970s stood until the mid-1990s, when it was broken by Mark Parrish, who went on to play in the NHL, said Michael Wallen, Wade’s son.
“He lived for sports and athletics,” Michael Wallen said. “He was a tough coach. He wasn’t afraid to yell. But his heart was always in the right place.”
Friends organized Wade’s Golf Classic for 11 straight years, which helped support Wallen’s family and the larger community of people who suffer from the genetic, degenerative brain disorder.
Dr. Martha Nance, director of the Huntington’s Disease Center of Excellence at Hennepin County Medical Center, said Wallen’s story is remarkable in a couple of ways, including his willingness to help others who live with the disease. In 2007, Wallen won the Huntington’s Disease Society of America’s Minnesota Leadership Award.
Also compelling was the way in which Wallen’s high school hockey buddies showed up for him 30 years after their playing days were over, said Nance, Wallen’s doctor. They took turns helping him out in various ways and kept the golf tournament running strong, she said. Even though there was “great sadness underneath,” no one wallowed in it, and Wallen invited them to ride along with him.
“What a cool thing,” Nance said.
John Bianchi, a chief organizer of the golf tourney and a former assistant hockey coach at Jefferson, said Wallen’s enthusiasm for life was irrepressible. He had been a salesman who sold Budweiser beer, children’s toys, cellphones and driveway sealant. When it came time to promote the golf fundraiser, Bianchi said Wallen would “call as many people as we had phone numbers for.” Wallen loved to speak at the event and cherished the large turnout for its sense of community, not necessarily the money, Bianchi said. His two favorite things to talk about were Brianna, 23, and Michael, 21, his children, Bianchi said.
Described by Nance as impish, “sort of boyish” and charismatic, Wallen was a constant listener of KFAN (1130 AM) sports radio. Brianna Wallen said you couldn’t get him to turn the radio off at home, even while he simultaneously watched sporting channels on two large-screen TVs. She also said one of her dad’s greatest joys was coaching midget, Pee-Wee and bantam youth hockey teams in Bloomington and Apple Valley. He had to quit those activities shortly after being diagnosed in 2004.
Wallen was born in Fort Francis, Ontario, and grew up in International Falls, Minn., until he moved to Bloomington in the fourth grade. He married Mylene Bartz in 1988; they divorced in 1996. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Richfield United Methodist Church, 5835 Lyndale Av. S., Minneapolis.