Community rallies around Gary Packer and his family

Packer is currently on hospice care after attempts at stopping a progressive brain cancer.

Gray for Gary night, Monday, Jan. 31, 2022.
The Go Gray for Gary night during the Wadena-Deer Creek girls basketball game on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, brought out the community to rally around the Packer family as Gary fights his battle with brain cancer while on hospice care. Pictured is the Packer family including Brenda and Gary Packer and their daughters Meagan Voll and Madison Packer.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

WADENA — Gary Packer has attended many “parent’s night” events over the years of his talented daughter’s athletic career. None likely met as much for him and his family as the Monday, Jan. 31, event at the Wadena-Deer Creek girl’s basketball game. It’s expected that this will be the last one Gary will attend after brain cancer treatments have failed to stop the spread of the disease in his body.

Gray for Gary night, Monday, Jan. 31, 2022.
The Go Gray for Gary night during the Wadena-Deer Creek girls basketball game on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, brought out the community to rally around the Packer family as Gary fights his battle with brain cancer while on hospice care. Gary, center, is surrounded by the WDC girls basketball team, with his daughter Madison Packer on the right.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

Gary came home for hospice care in recent days, and with the family knowing he may not have much time left, the team moved up parent’s night so Gary and his wife Brenda could attend together. The rivalry between the Wolverines and the Bertha-Hewitt Bears was overshadowed by a huge turnout of fans from several area communities that cheered loudly as Madison handed off a flower to her family and squeezed off several loving hugs.

The attendees were given just a few days notice of the special occasion and WDC activities director Norm Gallant put out the call for everyone to show up wearing gray, in an effort to once more “Go Gray for Gary.” It was a phrase brought forth last year and shirts and signs were made to show support for Gary’s fight against cancer as well as show support to the family watching their dad and husband go through this terrible situation.

Gray for Gary sign.jpg
A large poster is signed by many attending the "Go Gray for Gary" event Monday, Jan. 31, in Wadena.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

The Packer’s have been near constant fixtures in the stands, watching their adopted daughter Madison Packer play out her senior year. As a three-sport athlete, they stay pretty busy keeping up with her.

Meagan Voll, the Packer’s other daughter, said the family was extremely grateful for the outpouring of support. While Gary was wheelchair bound and was unable to show much response, Voll said her dad knew people were wearing gray for him and showing him once more just how much they cared.


“Although he doesn’t know everything going on, he knows people are wearing gray for him,” she said. Madison’s basketball coach Jordan Cresap had said to Gary that the team supports him and will continue to wear the shirts.

Voll said some people have been frustrated that her dad was not healed after he had initially responded well to a treatment. But Voll wants people to know that her dad had his prayers answered – to spend another year being close with his family after his diagnosis in 2020.

“With this type of cancer that’s typically not always the case,” Voll said. In his time at home, Madison was doing distance learning from home and the family pulled closer than ever. Up until recent weeks, Madison’s parents hadn’t missed a game.

Gary started treatment again, hopeful that he could make it to Madison’s graduation. Things changed quickly though, prompting the move to hospice care.

Standing for Gary

The community support was on full display Monday night. Gallant explained the event blew up as school staff, students and community members took the initiative and served in a big way by setting up a silent auction, a chili feed, raffle, and various donation opportunities – with all funds to go to the Packer family. Much of the event unfolded as Coach Cresap and her teammates went to work. As usual, they had her back.

While Gallant was hoping for a dozen silent auction items, by Monday evening, he said there were nearly 50 – plane rides, fishing trips, extravagant cheesecakes and Wolverine gear to name a few. It was just about all from school staff and school board members.

Gray for Gary night, Monday, Jan. 31, 2022.
Madison Packer looks to pass past Bertha-Hewitt Bear Miranda Line on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022.
Michael Johnson / Pioneer Journal

“It really speaks to just how much the Packers and Maddie mean to the school and the community, that this came together like this,” Gallant said. In his 25 years at WDC, he said moments like these remind him how caring people are.

As the community showed up and gave generously, the last count showed that nearly $14,000 were raised in just a few short hours. The giving had already begun in Perham last Friday when someone passed a hat around and raised $800. The “chuck a puck” event at the Wadena Hockey Rink Monday night brought in several hundred dollars too.


“I hope that that’s what high school sports are about, these life lessons,” Gallant said. “We all want to tear each other apart on a Friday night, but in the end, we all work together …”

Seeing the support from the community was heart-warming, but not too surprising to Gallant.

“It is amazing what we can do when we all pull together,” Gallant said. “As I said, I am overwhelmed by the support shown tonight, but not really surprised. We truly have great people in our school district, in our community, and in our area. We make a difference in the lives of our students and our community every day; it was just under a greater spotlight and highly visible tonight.”

Coming together in support for Madison and the Packer family was very emotional for the entire girl’s basketball team. Madison stayed strong through it all. After defeating the Bears 60-32, Madison said she’s doing well with the situation with her dad.

“I just have to take one step at a time, keep the faith,” Packer said. “We know where he’s going.”

She was happy with how the community came together for the event and once again showed her they have her back.

Coach Cresap said feeling the buzz of support around the school and surrounding schools made it a very special night.

"I cannot thank everyone enough for helping make this ‘Gray for Gary’ event a resounding success," Cresap said.


He sees the Packer family as very important members of the community that deserve all this support and more moving forward.

Michael Johnson is the news editor for Agweek. He lives in rural Deer Creek, Minn., where he is starting to homestead with his two children and wife.
You can reach Michael at or 218-640-2312.
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