Proud to persevere: Bob Rohrer reflects on life affected by childhood polioWORTHINGTON — As people sometimes do as they approach a milestone birthday, Bob Rohrer recently took some time to reflect on his life. Bob turned 70 on Sept. 13, and what put his lifespan in perspective was a yellowed and tattered newspaper clipping from 60 years prior (above left), when Bob celebrated his 10th birthday in an iron lung at Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — As people sometimes do as they approach a milestone birthday, Bob Rohrer recently took some time to reflect on his life. Bob turned 70 on Sept. 13, and what put his lifespan in perspective was a yellowed and tattered newspaper clipping from 60 years prior (above left), when Bob celebrated his 10th birthday in an iron lung at Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“This anchored everything,” he reflected as he looked at the short article. “This is where you were 60 years ago. If I took inventory of all the things I’ve accomplished, I didn’t feel like what was ahead was hopeless.”
It was the late summer of 1952 when Bob fell victim to the polio outbreak that swept the nation. At the time, it wasn’t known how polio, a deadly infectious disease that has since been eradicated by vaccine, was transmitted, and that caused widespread panic.
Bob had attended a neighborhood picnic with his parents the day his symptoms surfaced, but remembers that he hadn’t felt quite right for a few weeks prior.
“We came home, and I was getting ready for bed. I got as far as my bedroom door when I collapsed,” Bob recalled. “I was taken to the hospital, and as I was lying on the bed with my arms under the pillow, I realize I’m losing the ability to move my arms.”
A painful spinal tap provided the devastating polio diagnosis, and Bob was whisked via ambulance to the Sioux Falls medical center.
“I went into a coma, which I have to say wasn’t unpleasant,” he said. “Have you ever heard people describe what it’s like to trip on LSD? I can still remember parts of the dream —my grandmother was in it, and the mukluks I had on.”
When Bob emerged from the coma, he was encased in an iron lung where he would stay for many weeks to come. That 10th birthday was a particularly memorable part of his hospitalization.
“I’d been promised that I would get a 410 (shotgun) on my 10th birthday and could then go pheasant hunting and duck hunting with my dad,” he explained.
Bob unwrapped the gun, along with a duck call and hunting cap, while confined in the iron lung.
“This (gift) kept hope alive,” he explained. “And hope is an amazing thing. There was the hope that I would go hunting someday.”
At the time of Bob’s hospitalization, his dad, Roger, was manager of the National Five & Dime store in Worthington. He later bought the operation and turned it into a Ben Franklin store franchise. His mother, Nathalie, stayed with her parents in Sioux Falls so she could be by Bob’s bedside every day, while Roger commuted to see his son whenever possible.
“It was nothing painful, except trying to break out of the iron lung and breathe on your own,” recalled Bob about his recovery. “They would pull the end of the iron lung loose and see how long you could breathe on your own.”
As Bob was weaned off the machine, it was decided a different treatment might hasten his progress. In November 1952, he was transferred to the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, where a hot woolen pack therapy was utilized on polio patients.
“I was in a ward with 12 to 15 boys,” Bob said. “Once a week my parents came up to visit me. Every Sunday they got up and made the 185-mile trip. The hope was this therapy would do me more good than being in Sioux Valley, but I dreaded being away from my parents. … A big positive hope thing was at Christmas, my parents got authorization to bring me home. The postmaster, Ray Schisler, had a Nash Rambler with a seat that could lie back. So they drove me home in that. I slept on the davenport, and they had to feed me and dress me. Then they took me back to Sister Kenny, where I stayed another three months.”
While his permanent homecoming was a joyous occasion, it wasn’t without struggles.
“Coming home was difficult,” Bob remembered. “Mother and Dad had to feed me, dress me, I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself. Learning to control my breathing and swallowing, feed myself — mealtime was filled with terror because I choked so much. … I missed the fifth grade, but the school system provided tutors, so I made up fifth grade during the summer.”
The disease had devastated the muscles in Bob’s back, shoulders and arms, but he found ways to compensate for those deficiencies. He finally got to fulfill the promise of the birthday gun, sitting in a blind with his dad and shooting a few ducks and even posting the end of the field during pheasant season.
At age 14, however, it was determined that his spinal column was caving in because of the lack of muscle support, so Bob underwent an experimental surgery in the Twin Cities.
“Dr. Moe at Fairview Hospital pulled the disc between my vertebrae and fused my spine,” Bob said. “So from November of ’57 to early ’58, part of ninth grade, I was in a full body cast. But I went ice skating every day. The skating rink was close to my house, and one good thing about being in a body cast, if you fall down you don’t break anything.”
After a few less eventful years and a stint at the local junior college where he compiled enought credits for a math minor, Bob was accepted to the University of Minnesota, where he lived in Centennial Hall.
“I became one of the minor student leaders on campus, which got me that Ski-U-Mah award,” he said, pointing to a framed certificate hanging on the wall of his Worthington apartment. “I graduated with a BS/BA in business and minors in math, business law, economics and accounting.”
With the thought of pursuing a career in hospital administration, Bob secured a job at Rochester Methodist Hospital, where he received his first experience in data processing. Having found his niche, Bob went on to work for the Kahler Corp., where he gained experience in programming, punch card equipment and then did all the company’s system design and programming for IBM’s first small business computer.
“I cut my teeth on that. They sent me to IBM school in Minneapolis to learn that. I wasn’t the best student, but I was thorough.”
Bob’s career in computers expanded through stints at several different jobs in Rochester and the Fargo-Moorhead area, and his own enterprises, which included marketing diskettes and a national mail-order business. He also married (now divorced) and started a family and wanted to be closer to his parents.
“So I took a job here in Worthington, writing software for taxes for the county, but after a year they cancelled that,” Bob explained. “Then, during an evaluation at the Mayo Clinic, I was told I had to quit working if I wanted to live more than six months. I became one of the 47 percent at that point, so I began looking around for things that would be prideful to do.”
He helped to form a local computer club, called the Compunuts, and became part of an initiative to bring Internet services to the local area. He taught himself website design by creating sites for the club, Indian Lake Baptist Church and the local Extension service. He developed an online reference of available hard disks and their costs that was utilized globally. He also broached the idea of a community website that eventually became www.wgtn.net — envisioned as a one-stop reference source for the community.
“During the design phase, I visited over 140 Minnesota city websites to gather ideas and concepts,” explained Bob. “When it came to designing a website, the most stunning one was for Alexandria, which was put up by their newspaper … and the most informative was Winona, also done by its newspaper. So I wanted my site to be as stunning as Alexandria’s and as much of a cornucopia of information as Winona’s.”
Today, wgtn.net is Bob’s business. He designs and maintains the site, updating information, graphics and photographs as he deems necessary.
“I saw value for the community and personal pride in applying my talents promoting Worthington as a great place to host a meeting or convention, a great place to come to shop, a great place to come for recreation, a great place to come to work, a great place to come to live and raise a family or a great place to site a business,” wrote Bob in an explanation of his enterprise.
When Bob isn’t working on wgtn.net or related undertakings, he can often be found at the local Perkins restaurant or sitting in one of his favorite lakeside parks. He’s particularly interested in the history of the lake and its recreational areas and has incorporated that interest into the website with photos and historical information gleaned from his research.
Bob also takes a lot of pride in his three children: Roger, 24, an electrician apprentice in northern Minnesota; Michelle, 22, a student in the math program at Bemidji State University who wants to be an actuary; and Ross, 19, also in the electrician apprentice program.
Health issues related to polio have continued to plague Bob throughout his life. In 1990, he was put on daily oxygen, and a canister — refilled daily from a “keg” he keeps at home — is his constant companion. But throughout all his physical struggles, Bob tries to maintain an upbeat attitude, and hope and perseverance have been key words throughout his life.
“I am at my best when I am outgoing and at my worst when I sit in my shell,” he said. “If there’s one word that explains a lot of my life, it’s perseverance, and hope is what’s pushing the perseverance. You want to achieve something, and in order to achieve something, you’ve got to keep at it.”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.