Facing fate with faith
By Peggy Fletcher Stack The Salt Lake Tribune ArticleBy Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
Posted: 9:31 AM-While his teenage son beats on a set of drums in the background, Ernie Wallengren looks straight into the camera and says, "I'm bored."
Not a surprising sentiment for any active person with a progressive, fatal disease that requires him to use a wheelchair, but for a living dynamo such as Wallengren, boredom was excruciating.
Wallengren, a Heber City native, hadn't stopped moving since he began his television career as a writing apprentice on "Little House on the Prairie" straight out of college. As a recently returned LDS missionary, he wrote the 1980 teleplay "Mr. Krueger's Christmas," a light tale featuring Jimmy Stewart as a housebound janitor
"Rolling," an American Public Television documentary featuring Heber City native Ernie Wallengren, will air on KUED Channel 7 Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 27 at 4 p.m. who fantasizes about conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Later, he wrote and produced dozens of episodes of television series such as "Doc," "Touched by an Angel," "The New Adventures of Flipper," "Life Goes On" and "Falcon Crest." He produced the first episode of "Baywatch," but backed away from the show after seeing the bawdy direction it was taking.
Father to five children, Wallengren willingly divided his time among work, home, studios and computers. An avid basketball fan and player, Wallengren coached his sons' high-school teams, barking out commands while pacing the sidelines.
His life was one continuous motion - until a 2001 diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
During his fierce 2 1/2-year battle with the disease, Wallengren's Mormon faith grew stronger and more clear. His priorities shifted from making money, driving fancy cars or going on exotic vacations to finding peace. He learned to live in the moment, spending only a few minutes a day thinking about the past or the future.
In an unexpected way, Wallengren said, "I became more spiritually oriented. My inner sense of peace increased. . . . Taken as a whole, body and spirit have never been in better health in my entire adult life."
Part of his therapy was work, which he continued almost to the end.
He wrote an episode of "Touched" in which a man with ALS tries to find a reason to live. He consulted with LDS officials on a proposed film biography of church founder Joseph Smith, using Morse code on a headset to produce dialogue. A Christian production company interviewed him for a television series on death and dying that never materialized.
And Wallengren participated in an award-winning documentary by physician-filmmaker Gretchen Berland called "Rolling." It tracks the efforts of three Americans who use wheelchairs to navigate the world from a waist-high view, trying to maintain a sense of independence and dignity.
Berland compressed more than 200 hours of footage into the one-hour documentary, due to air in Utah on Jan. 24 and 27. She affixed the camera to the tops of the wheelchairs, allowing viewers to experience a life on wheels. These frank self-portraits reveal the humiliations and triumphs common to more than 1.6 million Americans.
Remarkably, one thing they all share is a wicked sense of humor.
"I am a high-tech gimp," Wallengren jokes. "It's put a little crimp in my ability to defend the fast break. I'll just have to run over them with my wheelchair."
Galen Buckwalter broke his neck in a diving accident while in high school about 30 years ago. He eventually earned a doctorate and is now a clinical psychologist in Southern California. He films himself playing lead guitar in his band, Ziggy.
"I put in a half-day's work just getting dressed in the morning and getting in and out of the car," Buckwalter says. "I always envisioned myself as a proud gimp . . . but my blessings don't stop it from hurting."
Vicki Elman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 22 years ago and has been in a wheelchair for eight. At one point in the film, a driver leaves her in front of her house and her wheelchair breaks. Her cell phone doesn't work and no one offers to help her. Daylight grows dim as she is left, sobbing, in the dark. Finally a neighbor stops to help drag her inside.
Unlike the others, Wallengren knows he will not survive. The film details his diminished muscle control, his wife's yeoman efforts to get him out of bed and into the shower, and eventually, his loss of speech.
In the end, Wallengren decided to forgo a respirator, knowing the effort and expense would be too overwhelming to his wife and kids.
Claire Peterson, Wallengren's mother and a screenwriter in her own right, was among the standing-room-only crowd gathered at his bedside on May 27, 2003.
She looked deep into her son's eyes and watched as the life seeped out of him. He did not seem frightened or panicked, she says. He was at peace.
Mormons, Buddhists, Catholics, producers, writers, "Falcon Crest" actors, African dancers and many other of Wallengren's assorted friends filled an LDS meetinghouse in Southern California for the funeral. Family members distributed copies of Wallengren's beliefs about God, religion and his church.
"I was born a Mormon and I'll die a Mormon, but it won't be because of some blind adherence to cultural tradition," Wallengren wrote. "It will be because, as the prophet Jeremiah said, 'God's word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones.' "
In the statement, he described his youth growing up in Heber in the large and loving extended Whitaker family, which owned The Homestead, a Midway resort hotel. He told of Mormon activities, his baptism and patriarchal blessing, a unique promise offered to Latter-day Saints about their future.
The assigned patriarch told young Ernie his life would be filled with the usual activities such as missionary work and family. But one thing was missing - no guarantee of a long life.
"Instead, I was told that I would live long enough to fulfill that enigmatic mission which I won't know about fully in this life. For that reason, I believe that my current situation - my affliction with Lou Gehrig's disease - is part of that mission."
As Wallengren left, the patriarch's eyes seemed to hold a deep sadness, "as if he'd seen something or knew something that he hadn't shared with me. This was no imagined sadness. It was real, palpable - conveyed from his heart to mine."
Wallengren went on to describe several spiritual episodes from his two-year mission to Central America, though later, he wasn't always involved in the church.
"The world is a slippery place," Wallengren wrote in his statement, recounting a life-changing dream of a mountain covered with "slick ooze [reeking] of raw sewage" and surrounded by steep chasms.
"I have done more than my share of sliding to the bottom, but I have also learned the value of picking myself up and tackling the mountain all over again," Wallengren wrote. "I have learned that the mountain flattens out considerably if I don't try it alone. God's hand is always extended to us. All we have to do is take it in our own."