As usual, John Sonnentag was sitting in the last row of his history class at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, trying not to get called on, when a tour group of prospective students walked in.
"One girl had this bushy blond hairdo — just a beautiful woman — and I couldn't take my eyes off her," he remembers.
After the tour, the girl enrolled. It turned out that their families lived in the same area near Wausau, Wisconsin, and John's sister knew this girl. Her name — Carolyn.
"I found out he had a car and was taking people home on weekends," Carolyn says. "I got a hold of him and said, 'I'd like a ride home.' "
"So, she really needed my car," John recalls. "She didn't really want to meet me."
At first, Carolyn chose the seat right behind John — "about as far away from me as she could get," he chuckles of the days when cars sat six adults comfortably. "Then, as she got to know me a little bit better, she's sitting in the middle. Then she's sitting in the back seat over there. Then a month later, she's sitting by the door in the front seat. Then she's sitting right next to me."
After one of the weekend trips home, they parked outside her house and talked for an hour.
Then, she invited him inside to meet her parents.
"After that time," John says, "It's been the story of Carolyn and John."
So there's the boy and the girl — but no wedding dance yet. They married while still busy college students, and their parents helped plan the wedding, but it just didn't work out to have a dance.
John graduated a year after the wedding and joined the small concrete business his father had started with just a truck and a block machine back in 1946. Carolyn graduated and worked as a medical technologist for six years before joining John in the family business. Together, they transformed the small business with just two employees into a national company with more than 2,000 employees and nearly 50 plants across the United States.
They also raised a family, became grandparents, eventually handing over most of the family business to their sons. Along the way they became ballroom dancers, twirling across the floor in each other's arms.
50 years later
John was trimming a bamboo tree outside their home in Mount Dora, Florida. As he pulled the bag of branches to the road, it snagged on a sprinkler head and twisted his back.
"I felt fine until I lay down," John says. "Within two minutes, I knew something was wrong."
Fine when standing, but in agony when lying down, John became sleep-deprived and gradually lost his ability to walk. He went from doctor to doctor, even neurosurgeons, trying to figure out what was wrong. Carolyn was by his side throughout.
"Over two years, I progressively got worse to the point I could not walk unless I had her beside me and I put my hand on her shoulder, and that's how I walked," John says.
Finally, a Tampa surgery group identified a tumor entwined in his spinal cord but was not able to operate due to the tumor's location. He was told only three neurosurgeons in the state could do it — and two were at Mayo Clinic's campus in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Sonnentags had never been to Mayo Clinic, and John had his reservations about a surgery on his spinal cord. But with encouragement from friends, they drove to Jacksonville on a Sunday, walked into the clinic on Monday and told the receptionist about John's problem.
"First, I saw a generalist, and he said, 'I think I'd better get someone else in here.' "
That someone was Robert E. Wharen Jr., M.D., longtime chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus.
"Dr. Wharen happened to be in his office that day and not operating on people, so that was my first stroke of luck," John says. "He looked at me and looked at the X-rays, and of course, he knew exactly what the problem was."
Dr. Wharen told them he was doing the same procedure on another patient the next day and could remove John's tumor after that. Carolyn remembers John telling Dr. Wharen, "Whatever you do, just make sure when this is all over that I can dance again."
John's tumor was the size of a golf ball and may have been growing for 20 years. "John was almost to the point that he was in a wheelchair," Carolyn says. "If we would not have come here and had Dr. Wharen, my husband would have been a paraplegic."
After surgery, John started the process of recovery, including physical therapy.
"I'm walking and dancing," John says. "I'm improving every day. It's been over three years since I had the operation, but it's taken me that long to get the balance back in my legs. It was a harrowing experience for a while, but I walked into the right place and got the right surgeon. I was very lucky."
Then the Sonnentags asked how they could help other families like theirs who one day may need the expertise of a neurosurgeon like Dr. Wharen. Dr. Wharen had a ready answer: education.
The cost of training one future neurosurgeon for seven years has risen to nearly $1 million. Despite the increase, the government capped medical education funding several years ago. So beginning a new training program is financially challenging even though the rate of retiring neurosurgeons is expected to increase.
"There's a tremendous need for training neurosurgeons in this country," Dr. Wharen says. "There is now a shortage of neurosurgeons, and that shortage is actually going to get worse."
Despite the challenges, Mayo Clinic's Florida campus became the first institution in several years to launch a new residency program to help address the nationwide shortage of specialists in head and spine procedures. However, the fledgling neurosurgery residency program needed support beyond what Mayo Clinic and traditional educational funding could provide. John and Carolyn Sonnentag stepped in with a $10 million endowment to support the education of neurosurgery residents in perpetuity.
"Mayo Clinic is extremely blessed to have such grateful patients," Dr. Wharen says. "When I heard the Sonnentags were interested in funding the neurosurgery residency program, I felt very blessed because I knew in the future, medical education is going to be a bigger and bigger challenge as health care funding becomes tighter and tighter.
"To have a grateful patient that's willing to give us a gift that will endow a residency program in perpetuity, for generation after generation of neurosurgeons, is just unbelievable."
When fully developed, the residency program will educate seven residents in various stages of their training. As one graduates, another will enter the program. Its impact will be felt well beyond Mayo Clinic, as most graduates will take their Mayo knowledge to positions throughout the country and around the world.
The Sonnentags gave their gift in honor of Dr. Wharen.
"We're happy to do that, because maybe there's somebody out there that needs that care," John says. "Dr. Wharen wants to further his vision, and I want to help him."
About that dance
With the tumor gone and future generations helped through caring and generosity, there's that story about a boy and a girl and — finally! — a wedding dance.
In August 2015, John and Carolyn celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They invited Dr. Wharen and his wife to the celebration with a seven-piece band, a big party and, this time, a dance.
And that's where it happened.
"My granddaughter wanted me to put my wedding dress on because I had it displayed there at the party," Carolyn says. About 10 p.m., she decided to put on the dress. It still fit perfectly. With her granddaughter holding her train, Carolyn's grandson escorted her into the celebration and over to John. They stepped into each other's arms in their wedding attire, and danced.
"When I was done dancing with him, I happened to think, 'What if he couldn't dance?' " Carolyn recalls, breaking into tears. "So I went to the microphone and I said: 'Everyone here tonight, you're very, very special, but there's one person here that is so extra special — Dr. Robert Wharen. He is here from Mayo Clinic, and he is the man who saved my husband's life, and he is the reason that John and I were able to dance tonight.
" 'Dr. Wharen, could you please come to the dance floor?'
"And I danced with him, and John danced with his wife. And I cry every time I say this, but it was just so emotional. We're so blessed. All that emotion, and everything that happened to us, is why we elected to do what we're doing."
Through generous philanthropy like the Sonnentags, Mayo Clinic can educate future medical leader and provide life-changing outcomes. Thank you for your gifts.
Jan. 11, 2017