When life delivers lemons, we are told to make lemonade. Yet sometimes the obstacles are so life-altering that, to those watching, it becomes an incomprehensible amount of challenge and change. When this happens to a person in Caledonia, the town circles the wagons and gets ready to help the family through the long haul.
This is why Mike Werner accepted the invitation to be the 2013 Winter Wonderland parade marshal; because Caledonia, along with the medical community, embraced his family in a time of great need.
Werner is the former branch manger of Bank of the West in Caledonia. He is a father of three teenagers and husband to Michelle. A health crisis has left him completely blind.
In a recent interview he said, “Being the parade marshal is more about how the community came together and helped my family. It was really something. I knew we were in a great community, but when we went through this, it really showed how great it was.”
Werner is a familiar face in town, not only from his time at the bank, but also because of his community involvement and active children.
He, to this day, sits on the Rotary, the city’s economic development board and the convention and tourism board. His children’s activities also have him running. Luke is a freshman at the University of Minnesota majoring in engineering; Brenna is 16 and plays basketball; and Austin is 14 and wrestles.
His work at the bank brought him to Caledonia in 2000, though he grew up in Washington State.
During a wrestling meet the weekend of Winter Wonderland last year, Werner went into cardiac arrest and had a heart attack.
“Basically my heart wouldn’t pump,” Werner explained.
This all happened when he was already undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and preparing for a stem cell transplant.
Werner was in Madison for a month fighting to recover from the incident while also digesting the fact that he could no longer see.
Other than the first couple of days, he remembers everything that happened.
“The medical community, the nurses and nurses aids are just living angels because they were so great to me and helped me. One nurse, in particular, on her day off went to a store for the blind and brought in a 1980s-era walkman and books to listen to. They are a very special group of people,” Werner said.
On Christmas Day, the nurses came into his ICU room caroling, much to the delight of Werner, who said they sounded like angels. Not too long thereafter, a local gentleman by the name of Merle Becker rang Werner to make sure he heard a few carols from home.
“It didn’t sound that great – he must have been calling from a local watering hole – but it made me laugh and kind of cry. It was special,” Werner said.
People in town think Werner is special, too. Winter Wonderland board member Sue Bauer said: “Mike was our choice based on his outstanding community service he has done for Caledonia. He was a driving force in our chamber and president for years. Mike assisted our new Caledonia Community Celebrations group to get up and running. He also helped get our tourism board off the ground and has been involved with Rotary and sports. We are honored he has accepted.”
The road to recovery has not been easy. Werner said he could barely walk when he first left the hospital. Friends and community members stepped in to drive him three times a week to therapy appointments. Through the state agency for the blind, he is learning to read braille and how to walk with a cane. As far as he knows, he is the only blind person in Caledonia under the age of 70, which has helped those close to him learn more about helping a blind person.
“It’s really becoming a teaching role because blindness is very rare,” he said.
At home, Werner says he functions quite well.
“I can cook about as good as before it happened, which isn’t very good,” he said.
People in town say Werner was always a role model, but that designation has jumped to knew heights today.
“I take the attitude that you can mope and be angry, but the reality is that it’s not going to change anything. I want people to still look at me as someone trying their best to support the community.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days – I have bad days – but it’s a choice every day to be mad at the world or wake up and be happy. I want to be a role model for my kids; to know that if you get adversity, you have to face it.”
Werner also keeps his sense of humor – like when people ask him for help finding their car in a parking ramp, which has happened twice at medical appointments, or when someone waves at him while he practices walking with a cane, which has also happened and was reported to him by his trainer.
Werner said, “Everybody has been great, and I’m the same person; I just can’t see. People feel like, ‘Oh, I better not say can you see this,’ but it’s all right. It’s a compliment that people see me as a person instead of handicapped. That’s just the type of community we’re in.”
Werner said he is also thankful for his St. Mary’s church family.
“The church and my faith – I couldn’t have gotten through this without it. God has a purpose for me, and he had plenty of chances to take me, but, hey, I’m still here,” he said.
And although Werner admits to being apprehensive about accepting the role of parade marshal, he said, “I’m doing it more so the community can see their prayers and efforts have made a difference, and we’re still here a year later.”