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Legendary wrestler Verne Gagne and a tragic tale

Verne Gagne circa 1965
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Verne Gagne circa 1965

Verne Gagne, 82, is a former wrestling champion who has attained folk legend status in Minnesota. And Helmut R. Gutmann, 97, was a former cancer researcher who came to this country after fleeing Hitler's Nazi Germany.

Both have suffered from Alzheimer's-related dementia and had been residing in a Bloomington facility housing people with Alzheimer's and dementia.

In a tragic moment on Jan. 26, Gagne apparently threw Gutmann to the floor. Gutmann was taken to the hospital and died 20 days later.

It's not known what precipitated the incident between the two men at the memory loss unit of the Friendship Village retirement community. But according to Gutmann's widow, Betty Gutmann, Gagne picked up the diminutive and frail man and hurled him violently to the floor, breaking his hip.


While police were not immediately called, an ambulance was summoned and Gutmann was taken to a hospital for treatment. He was released days later, but his condition deteriorated and he later died in hospice care.

Betty Gutmann, who also lives at Friendship Village, said she was notified immediately after the assault and rushed over to find her husband lying on the floor in tremendous pain.

She said that while she is sad and upset about the attack, those feelings are tempered by the realization that Gagne probably did not understand what he was doing at the time, and apparently does not remember it.  

"You can't blame the person that did it," she said. "[Gagne] doesn't know what he's doing. I feel so sorry for his family, because they are faced with a terrible problem of what to do."

A woman who answered the phone at Gagne's Eden Prairie home, identifying herself as Gagne's daughter, declined to discuss the incident in detail. She expressed shock and anger that a reporter was pursuing what she considers a personal family matter. She did, however, confirm that Gagne has Alzheimer's.

"He has only one minute of memory retention," the woman said. "And even though nobody is saying that this is the reason that this man died, you're going to publish this? Unbelievable. You take a man who has given nothing but his time and his energy to this state, he loses his mind, and you're going to do this?"

For a brief period Tuesday afternoon, the incident was described in the Wikipedia.com entry about Verne Gagne. The description was deleted about two-and-one-half hours after it was posted. It's not known who posted and later deleted the material.

Police were not called to the scene at the time of the incident. However, Bloomington Deputy Police Chief Perry Heles said that police were notified later of an incident involving two vulnerable adults at Friendship Village on Jan. 26.

Heles would neither confirm nor deny the identities of the people involved in that incident, but said an investigation is under way on "a limited inquiry" basis, in order to determine exactly what happened. Heles said the results of that inquiry would probably not be made public unless someone is charged with a crime.

According to several residents at Friendship Village who asked not to be named, Gagne had a history of violent outbursts during his time at the facility. He is no longer a resident at Friendship Village, they said.

Verne Gagne in 1953 wearing United States Heavyweight Championship belt.
Minnesota Historical Society
Verne Gagne in 1953 wears his U.S. Heavyweight Championship belt.

Betty Gutmann said that the ex-wrestler had a run-in with her husband once before, after Gutmann created a disturbance by shouting at people in a lounge at the residence. She did not give the date of the prior incident. In that case, she said, Gagne put Gutmann in a chokehold. Her husband was frightened but uninjured, she said.

Gagne also was involved in a third incident at Friendship Village, according to residents, and was asked to leave the facility. He later was allowed to return.

Ron Donacik, assistant director of Friendship Village, would not comment on or acknowledge the case, citing federal health-care privacy regulations.

Before the latest incident, Gutmann continued his weekly attendance at the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship church that he co-founded in 1966. He had been scheduled to perform a piano piece at a church classical concert that took place one week after the assault.

Gagne, a much beloved pro athlete in Minnesota, was known throughout his career for his many charitable contributions. But he was lionized as a pro wrestler who competed from 1949 to 1981, when he was in his late 50s. In 1960, Gagne launched the "All Star Wrestling" TV show, participating as an athlete and producer. As a result, he was voted a member of Minnesota's Museum of Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

Gagne was a star even before he turned pro, winning NCAA titles while wrestling for the University of Minnesota. In 1947, the Chicago Bears of the National Football League drafted him but he never played for the team.

Gutmann, too, made important contributions during his long life.

Born in Germany in 1911, he fled Nazi Germany under threat from the Hitler regime, serving as a captain in the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service in World War II. For 40 years, he worked as a cancer research scientist based at the Minneapolis V.A. Hospital, publishing many papers. He retired in 1992, when he was already in his 80s. Gutmann was also a classical musician, playing violin for 12 years with the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra.

His wife Betty, who co-founded the Bloomington church along with her husband and who continues to play a prominent role there, is dealing with the tragedy stoically.

"It's a little rough," she said. "We've been married for almost 63 years, you know. And this is a big thing out of my life."

Kevin Featherly, a former managing editor at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, is a longtime Twin Cities freelance writer who lives in Bloomington.

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Comments (16)

This article is not at all about me. But my heart hurts for everyone involved. I absolutely cannot imagine the anguish of Vern Gagne's family, and his daughter's reaction is not surprising. Celebrity or not, there is a cross-over point that has been breached here, I think.

And of course, there's the anguish of the Gutmann family as well.

When some of the pain has subsided (and that will likely take a long, long time), this terrible episode may serve/may have served to shine light in a very real, in-our-faces way on this loathesome disease.

Am I suggesting that Vern Gagne's family say, "Oh, yippee, Dad can be poster person for Alzheimer's awareness and research"? I am not. But this is a man who's life and very visible face was steeped in generosity and no small amount of kindness. What a tragedy that his descent into this disease stole all of that from him, his family, his friends, his fans. There are many victims in this, not least among them Helmut Gutmann.

Please give these folks some space. They are reeling from this. Their grief must be overwhelming. Some day they may be willing to talk about it. Some day. Or not. Let it be their choice.

I think that Kevin Featherly's report is excessively long and over-detailed. Do you pay your freelance writers by the word?

As a counterpoint to Samarra, I happen to think this is an exceptionally well-reported and well-written piece. Thanks, Kevin.

I watched a member of my family decline due to dementia and had to live with the shock that an otherwise peaceful person had became prone to episodes of violence against fellow nursing home patients. Sadly, this is a common development with dementia, and so I was dismayed to see KMSP cover this story this morning, and now MinnPost. If this story had involved someone who was never in the public eye, I don't believe it would have been covered.

My heart goes out to the Gagne family. Alzheimer's is hard enough in private; I can't imagine what they are going through now.

@Samarra Semanczyk

Your complaint of "reported too-well" is unusual. This is a story about a sensitive subject and a Minnesota legend that hasn't been confirmed by officials. I am not sure that the initial story about it could be "over-detailed." Also, I cannot recall the last time anyone accused a local reporter's story of being too detailed.

I have a feeling that if the story was shorter or lighter on the details you would have accused Featherly of sloppiness or incompleteness. If your quibble is with the story itself being published, and not Featherly's reporting and writing, you should just say so.

Alzheimer's Disease clearly does not discriminate in who it attacks. Just yesterday, I eulogized a beloved friend, Evelyn Huffman, who died after several years spent in a memory unit of a nursing home suffering from dementia.

My husband's aunt, a member of the "living lost," will spend the rest of her life revisiting a time in her life that apparently causes her unbearable emotional and physical pain, leaving her weeping much of the time and us feeling absolutely helpless to comfort her.

Now a Minnesota icon, Verne Gagne, "forgets" his actions that may have caused the death of another.

My heart goes out to all the families touched by this heinous disease, as well as to its direct victims. To abate our feelings of impotence to change the reality for these folks, my husband and I have planned an Alzheimer's fund-raiser for this March 21 to try and do our small part to facilitate research that may someday prevent or cure this disease. We've called it the "Geezer Gala" in part because we'll be celebrating my husband's 50th birthday (with anyone else who is turning 50 in 2009) that evening as well. Everyone is welcome. It's going to be a '50s-style sock hop dance featuring Rich and the Resistors.

Anyone who would like to help contribute to this cause is invited to join us. Go to www.tworightfeetdance.com and click on Geezer Gala for more information.

And in the meanwhile, keep these families and their afflicted loved ones in your thoughts and prayers.

Paul Sand: I did not say that the story was "reported too well." Quite the contrary. Note that others have commented negatively about the story and its contents.

Samarra,

Does "over-detailed" not equal "reported too well"? I fail to see how many, many details in a story -- arranged in a compelling way -- does not make a story reported well.

You still have not said whether you're upset with the story or with the way it is written, but you've found time to needle me over my comment. I don't understand that impulse.

At any rate, if you're offended because the story is about a sensitive subject, I understand. I had a close family member taken by Alzheimer's in 2000. He lost his memory first, and he later became agitated and physical with those taking care him.

Even with this personal connection to Alzheimer's, I still think MinnPost did its readers a service by publishing this story. Like it or not, it appears that Mr. Guttman unfortunately lost his life due to the actions of a person with Alzheimer's-related dementia. If the public understands Alzheimer's/Dementia a bit more after this story -- and can appreciate the severity of its symptoms -- perhaps that will help build more momentum for finding a treatment or cure for the disease.

Bracket the personalities for a minute.

Resident A attacked Resident B in a local facility. Resident B subsequently dies. The extent of the relation of the death to the prior attack is unknown at this point.

You think this isn't newsworthy? What if you had a family member or friend in the facility. Is it newsworthy now?

Outstanding reporting, deftly handled - especially compared to the Strib's sorry effort.

Verne Gagne was a class act, and had to deal with liberals confiscating his property on Lake Minnetonka and turning it into what is now a three rivers district park, effectively bankrupting the AWA by removing a source of collateral for loans, and taking his attention away from running his business.

It is sad to learn he is now suffering from memory loss, and that the liberals are still nipping at his heels by printing news stories not even fit for the national enquirer.

Re: Post #10 -- Holy non sequitur, Batman.

A well-written, somewhat provocative piece about Alzheimer's disease and how it has impacted a beloved public figure, a relatively civil discussion of whether the piece is newsworthy, and then . . . a rant against "liberals." Wow.

I was stationed in Hawaii in the military in 1970. I saw Vern on the local wrestling show. Being a Minnesota resident I called down to the station and asked to talk to him. He was out but I said I was a fan from Minn. and left my number never really expecting to hear back from him. To my surprise he called back later in the day. He didn't shine me on and was a gentlemen. That's the kind of guy he was.

Re: Post #11

Give me a brake. There is very little evidence that the man's death was related to his scuffle with Gagne, but yet minnpost and other left wing sources are running with circumstantial evidence.

It's almost as bad as the Star/Tribunes obituary of Percy Ross, another good guy the liberals hated.

For William Wallace-

Any doctor will tell you that when a 90 y/o breaks his hip (quite a scuffle), the odds are quite high he will die, and even if he survives, his quality of life is likely to be severly compromised. So to suggest that there is "little evidence" that his death is related to this is just wrong. Breaking a major bone is severe enough that when death occurs within a certain amount of time (I believe 90 days), it is mandatory to report the death to the county medical examiner for possible investigation. Michael Fraase is right on- anyone who has a loved one in a nursing home or other facility needs to be aware of these sorts of things, especially during times when funding cuts are looming. I'd also add that drawing attention to the plight of former athletes (especially in contact sports) whose brains don't work as well as they should, is not a bad thing. Just reminds me to try hard to sterr my kids away from football, boxing, and anything else that involves their brains being repeatedly battered.

Re: post # 13 -- OK, Mr. Wallace, I get it, I get it. Left wing conspiracy. Liberals are evil. Enough already.

But what in the name of Marty O'Neil does Percy Ross have to do with this? I suppose it does raise one interesting juxtaposition -- the Gagne family (as I understand it) has done some very fine charitable work in this community, but mostly in a quiet, dignified way. Mr. Ross rode limos in parades and tossed silver dollars to the less fortunate. He also did some very fine charity work, but the image of a vain, grandiose, self-promoter is not a liberal media fiction; it is the image he created for himself.

A truly sad story indeed, and a reminder that a person is not his or her disease. Mr. Gagne was a gentleman in every respect of which I am aware. While I met him only once I recall him as polite and generous to a fault, a great surprise to me as at the time I didn't think much of anyone connected to professional wrestling. Mr. Gagne helped me to look beyond surface impressions, and I remain grateful to him.

Mr. Gagne did not perform the acts described in this article--a disease process which has destroyed much of his mind did. A sad footnote to the life of a man who in my memory was truly larger than life.

Since some insist on politicizing the matter, I may as well mention the decades-long efforts of self-righteous "conservatives" to block research into the use of stem cells and other human cell components which will eventually alleviate and cure diseases like Azheimer's and other forms of dementia. I wonder how many, when such cures reach the general populace, will out of moral outrage refuse them and entrust their health to the care of God.