John Wodele: Experience dealing with hearing problems make him good fit for state commission duties

John Wodele: "Society has come a long way in the effort to understand and accommodate the needs of the disabled, and specifically of deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing citizens."

The newest member of the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans is John Wodele, who had been spokesman for former spokesman Gov. Jesse Ventura from 1999 to2003.

Wodele previously worked as then Ramsey County Attorney Tom Foley’s manager of media, criminal justice policy, legislative relations, and eventually, chief of staff. He was Bill Clinton’s Minnesota campaign manager in 1992 and was later appointed by Clinton to the Federal Home Loan Bank.

And Wodele was on the Minneapolis Planning Commission for eight years and ran for mayor in Minneapolis in 1993.

We asked him about the new appointment and his recent activities, and here are his email responses, edited for style and clarity.

MinnPost: What brought you to a spot on the commission?

John Wodele: I spent my years in high school and college dealing with the anxiety of not being able to hear as well as my classmates. It had a real effect on my ability to be successful in the classroom. At the University of Minnesota, I would often complain to my counselor about soft-spoken professors that had no access to amplification. Even if I would sit in the front row of the classroom, my anxiety level would be high and, as a result, my retention level low. When I was working in Gov. Ventura’s office, I became aware of the important work of this commission and was appreciative of their work on behalf of the deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing.

MP: What do you hope to bring to the group?

JW: Society has come a long way in the effort to understand and accommodate the needs of the disabled, and specifically of deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing citizens. However, it is important that we continue to seek every opportunity, not only to improve these accommodations, but to make sure that we make every effort to make known to the hearing impaired that there is help for them. I am hopeful that my background in communications and public policy, along with my life experience of hearing loss, will be helpful to the commission as it seeks to meet its objectives.

MP: Tell me more about your hearing disability.

JW: I have had a progressive hearing loss since I was a young child that wasn’t diagnosed until my mid-30s. In 1985, doctors at the University of Minnesota performed a stepedectomy in my right ear that made a significant improvement to my ability to hear in that ear.

 (A stapedectomy is used to treat progressive hearing caused by otosclerosis. This condition fixes the stapes to the opening of the inner ear, so that the stapes no longer vibrates properly; therefore, the transmission of sound to the inner ear is disrupted. Untreated otosclerosis eventually results in total deafness, usually in both ears.)

My left ear hasn’t been treated, but with the successful surgery in one ear, and the addition of hearing aids in both ears, I am now able to hear quite well and do not consider myself to be disabled.

MP: Why your involvement now?

JW: Over the past four decades I have spent a large amount of my free time in the world of elected and appointed service, politics and political campaigns. Going forward, [my wife] Susan [Gaertner, former Ramsey County attorney] and I have talked more about wanting to remain active in our communities, but choose avenues that are less focused on politics and more directly on the basic needs of people who are hungry and poor.

MP: Is society making progress with how we accommodate people with disabilities?

JW: I can answer that question best by my own father’s experience: He was a paraplegic at age 47 and lived to his late 80s with the aid of a wheelchair. I can tell you that navigating that wheelchair in the 1960s was a whole lot more difficult than it was 40 years later.

MP: It’s been 10 years since you were spokesman for Gov. Jesse Ventura. What other things are you doing now?

JW: After [my time working with] Governor Ventura, I started Wodele Creative, a marketing communications business with an office in downtown St. Paul. Early on, I had a mix of political and business clients but, for the last four years, have only worked for businesses and nonprofit associations. I also have an agent who arranges occasional speaking engagements. Life has been good to me.

MP: Any further forays into politics?

JW: Like a lot of folks, I am very frustrated with today’s politics. However, I haven’t lost faith. That faith is based on the hope that a new generation of children will learn from our current inability to accomplish much and refocus the purpose of elective office to one of sacrifice and dedication to what is good for future generations in general and not a specific short-term political purpose.

MP: How about for your wife, Susan Gaertner, former Ramsey County attorney and a candidate for governor in 2010?

JW: We recently sold our house in White Bear Lake, and as kid who grew up on the working class streets of the East Side of St. Paul, Susan was adamant that we move to St. Paul. We ended up in Minneapolis — it’s not a perfect fit, but she’s adjusting well. Other than that, she is enjoying her new job as a lawyer at Gray Plant Mooty and is perfectly satisfied with her 26 years of public service and, near as I can tell, has no intention of adding to it.

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