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Former Wadena man living with ALS

Former Wadena resident Leroy Vanderpool, 58, returns to town with a story of faith and the everyday challenges of living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at 7 p.m. on Saturday at St. John Lutheran Church in Wadena. ALS is also known as a Lou Gehrig's disease and is a terminal illness causing muscle weakness and gradual paralysis.

Leroy and his family lived in Wadena from 1982 to 1997 when he worked for Wadena Technical College as a safety trainer for municipal utilities across Minnesota. Leroy's daughter, Stacey Neal of Verndale, encouraged her father to come back to Wadena and tell his story after a successful speaking engagement in Springfield, Ill., earlier in the summer. Leroy said he spoke for a group of former coworkers to share with them what has happened to him since his diagnosis with ALS.

Although this Saturday's event is held in his former church, Leroy said his talk will not be too religious and is open to everyone.

"I thought I'd do this just for fun," he said about his upcoming speech. "And let others know about the life of someone with ALS."

Leroy and his wife, Kathryn Vanderpool, said he first noticed symptoms of the disease last summer when he experienced weakness in his hands.

"He couldn't light the firecrackers for the grandbabies on July 4," Kathryn said.

He said he basically diagnosed himself when he looked up his symptoms in a Mayo Clinic medical book before having the diagnosis confirmed by doctors on Aug. 18, 2005.

"They just said I had ALS and there was no cure for it, no reason I had it and we'll give you two to five years," Leroy said, recalling the doctor visit.

He said the disease has progressed to a point where he no longer has any use of his hands or arms.

"I have to have people feed me and dress me and all that kind of stuff," he said. "I can't do much of anything by myself."

Leroy said the progressive nature of his illness requires adjustments everyday.

Kathryn said Leroy's days are up and down and it is very hard for her to watch her husband suffer from the disease. She said he still tries to struggle and do things on his own.

"It's harder for me to watch him than for me to do it myself," Kathryn said. "It's just more of a struggle to watch him try to do stuff for himself and he can't."

Neal said that in spite of all of her father's serious illness, he still enjoys life.

"His attitude is just wonderful," Neal said. "He's got such a great sense of humour for somebody that has this."

She said she is very excited to have her father come back to Wadena and speak. Neal said many people don't know about ALS until it hits close to home.

"It's just such an awful disease," she said. "It's very hard to see this six-foot muscular guy that can't feed himself anymore, itch himself anymore."

Neal said she regrets that Leroy's six other grandchildren won't get to know their fun-loving grandpa. She said the family is taking lots of videos and pictures of Leroy for the children to have. Neal said it has been hard to watch her father go through his illness.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't cry," she said. "When I'm around people I try to pretend that I'm all strong ... and that I'm getting through OK, but I just want to break down and cry."

Neal said when her children see her crying, they know why and have tried to help her.

"My son had told me that when papa dies he would be my daddy," she said. " [And] my six-year-old said, 'When papa dies I'm going to give grandma $100,000 just to make her happy again.' Then the tears flow."

Neal said spending time with her father is one of the most important things in her life right now. She said she hopes people will come and hear her father speak Saturday.

"I just want people to really learn about the disease and how they can help," Neal said.

For more information about the disease, visit