All about attitude: Polio survivor Ginny Henning makes the best of her ability

WILMONT -- When the four Henning sisters -- Nancy, Judy, Ginny and Norma, daughters of Clarence and Elsie Henning -- were growing up in rural Wilmont, it never really occurred to the girls that there was something unique about one of them.

WILMONT -- When the four Henning sisters -- Nancy, Judy, Ginny and Norma, daughters of Clarence and Elsie Henning -- were growing up in rural Wilmont, it never really occurred to the girls that there was something unique about one of them.

"Ginny was no different than we were," reflected Norma Balster. "Our folks raised us all the same. I don't think we realized --whatever I could do, Ginny could do. Now I think how hard that must have been for our parents."

Ginny was only 2 years old -- then the youngest of three with baby Norma on the way -- when she contracted polio. The disease left her disabled, and she's used crutches all her life.

Although she realizes there are limitations to her physical abilities, Ginny has never let her disability limit her capabilities. She lives independently in a house in Wilmont and recently observed her 40th year of employment at the First State Bank of Lismore.

"The only time I complain is when I break my brace," Ginny admitted. "I use a wheelchair around the house ... but when I'm out and about, I usually use crutches."


Ginny retains some vague memories of the time she spent in the hospital, but much of what she now knows about her illness was disclosed when a niece conducted an interview for a school project.

"My daughter had to interview an older person about something in their life, and Mom talked about Ginny," related Norma.

When Ginny fell ill, polio -- infantile paralysis -- was a much-feared disease, so her parents were relieved when the doctor initially said her ailment wasn't polio.

"I guess you had a real high fever and terrible headaches," Ginny described, admitting that she still doesn't know a lot about the disease that afflicted her. "You either lived or died."

Little Ginny fell asleep during the car ride home from the doctor's office, and she was carried inside to continue her nap on the sofa. But when she awoke, she couldn't stand up, confirming the Hennings' worst fears.

"Dad picked her up in a blanket and raced with her back to Adrian," Norma explained. "When they got to the hospital, the doctor was standing in the doorway, crying. All he said was "I hoped it wasn't so.'"

The Hennings were advised to take Ginny to the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, which offered the best hope to polio patients at the time with a revolutionary treatment developed by Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse. When they arrived at the facility, Ginny was whisked away, and her parents were left in an outer waiting room, not knowing anything about their daughter's condition or status.

"Mom said they kept coming out and calling people in, but nobody came and called their name. They just sat and waited," continued Norma. "Somebody finally told them they were lucky that they weren't being called. Those people who were being called, their children were dying."


Ginny was a survivor, although she would remain in the hospital for a year to undergo a strict course of therapy, away from the comfort of her family.

She retains a few memories of that year in the hospital, and one course of therapy is still clear in her mind.

"I remember being wrapped up in these hot, wet towels, and when I'd wake up, they'd be cold and wet, and they smelled, so I suppose they were wool," Ginny recalled.

Her mom and dad could only visit once a week, and with three other children at home, that wasn't easy. But they rarely missed an opportunity to see their little girl.

"They didn't have a choice," said Ginny. "They could see me from 1 to 3 on Sunday afternoon. There was no staying up there, because they couldn't see me anyway. They went through three cars that year, and they'd always buy me something, some little toy or something, although by the time they'd come back the next week, it would have been passed along to some other child. We weren't allowed to have things of our own like that."

The therapy probably helped Ginny retain and redevelop the limited use of her legs, but the Hennings had some issues with the conditions at the institute.

"My mother really resented the way they were treated," shared Norma.

Eventually, when Ginny had been hospitalized for about a year, they sought a second opinion.


"They had taken me to a different doctor, outside of the hospital, and he said, 'I'd take her out of there, take her home and never come back,'" Ginny related.

So that's what they did, bringing Ginny home to grow up with her three protective sisters. They lived north of St. Kilian and attended Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Wilmont.

"They always looked out for me," Ginny said about her siblings.

"We all knew that Ginny was special, that we needed to watch out for her, but that was about it," reflected Norma. "The one memory that has stuck with me all these years is that I remember as teen-agers, we went to a dance -- we went to a lot of dances, that's what you did. But as I went out on the dance floor this one time, she grabbed my hand and said, 'Dance this one for me.'"

After she graduated from high school, Ginny gave college a try, choosing Mankato State University.

"It was a split campus, and there was no handicapped anything there at the time," Ginny said. "I did make it the full year, and I was in the best shape I'd ever been. I walked at least a mile every day. My hands were solid calluses."

Ginny roomed with a friend, who took the same general classes and helped her get to and from the various locations on the sprawling campus.

"But I knew after that that we'd split off, and I wouldn't be able to do it," Ginny explained. "So I decided to go to secretarial school at Nettleton in Sioux Falls."


With that secretarial training, Ginny landed a job at the Lismore bank, where she has handled various duties including working with checking accounts and tallying statements. It's a six-day-a-week job, and only recently has Ginny begun taking two days off each month. It's not necessarily the career she once dreamed of, but she enjoys working in her home territory and dealing with people she knows.

"I was never built for accounting. My job's not very exciting," she admitted. "I wanted to go into psychology, sociology. I thought I wanted to work with people. But this works with my handicap. That's why I'm not working someplace else. I would have done something else.

"I like the safeness and that everybody knows who you are. If I'm on the road and have car trouble, everybody knows my car and will stop to help. It's just like somebody up there has watched out for me all my life."

Ginny now lives in the former OLGC convent in Wilmont -- a building that became her family home when they moved in from the farm.

"My parents were retiring from the farm in 1981, and about that time, they were looking to get rid of the convent, and my dad bought it," Ginny explained. "Mom just about had a heart attack, because it was gloomy, with green institutional walls, no woodwork and all closed in."

Determined to turn it into a home, Clarence Henning spent long hours renovating the convent, removing walls to his wife's and daughter's specifications. After their mother's death, Ginny and sister Judy bought the place, which no longer retained any signs of its institutional past. The large kitchen and renovated floor plan allow Ginny to get around easily.

"This is still home. This is their home, too," said Ginny, referring to her sisters.

Although she's never married, Ginny feels no shortage of family. Norma and Nancy (Brake) still live in the general vicinity, while Judy (Lorenzen) only ventured as far as Sioux Falls. She has six nieces and nephews and seven great-nieces and nephews.


"Our mother was one of those people who you could tell anything, talk to her about anything, and now Ginny has taken that place," said Norma.

"They shared their children with me," added Ginny, pointing to a selection of photographs plastered on the doors of a china cabinet. "Those are my kids."

Much of Ginny's spare time is taken up with maintaining her household, and she even does such chores as mowing with a riding lawnmower and, although she hires someone to do the bulk of the snow removal, even shoveling from her wheelchair.

"It's good exercise," she maintained. "I love the fresh air. And I'm pretty careful. If I can make it through the winter without breaking or spraining something, that's good."

When she does have a few free hours, Ginny enjoys shopping, reading, crossword puzzles and has taken up quilting.

"I'm a pretty happy person. I don't need a million dollars, although it would be nice," she said with a twinkle in her eye. "I think it has to do with your own attitude. This is me, take me or leave me."

What To Read Next
Get Local