John McCallum believes everything has a purpose — literally, everything. From the wooden strips of flooring he salvaged from a racquetball court at a YMCA and painstakingly laid out in his family’s home to a storm-damaged pontoon he fashioned into a floating place of welcome for friends and family at his home on Knife Lake to scraps of tin and wood and rusty barbed wire he gnarls into beautiful gifts of gratitude for people who have helped him and his family since he was diagnosed with ALS in 2016.
John even believes his disease has a purpose — to bring others to know and love God.
“At first, I was very sad and afraid for my family,” John said. “My father passed away from Alzheimer’s on April 2, 2017, and that actually helped me cope with my disease. I understood that it’s God’s plan and we embrace it. I have been blessed with an amazing life with amazing family and friends. I have the best support and so much prayer in my life from so many people. I think my situation is getting people to pray that don’t usually pray, and that’s awesome.”
John’s friends and family say he has always had a heart for helping. His sister, Sheila McCallum, recalls John’s passion for life as a youth. She said he was a bit of a “hellion.”
“My parents modeled generosity, justice and service, and he picked up all of that from them,” Sheila said, “but I think it developed as he matured. … He was always social and out with friends. … John was intrepid and, in hindsight, I think it was, and is, because he is so intelligent, active and creative.”
In 1989, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and served in a search-and-rescue unit in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Nearly all his life he worked in service industries — from a cheese maker to a dishwasher in a bakery to a truck driver and residential construction worker. Most recently, he was part of a laborers’ union, working at sites like TCF Bank Stadium and US Bank Stadium, until ALS forced his early retirement in 2017.
ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. One of the effects of ALS is that John is not able to speak. His main form of communication is through texting on his cell phone and using a process called voice banking, which allows a person to record a list of phrases with their own voice while they still have the ability to do so. This recording is then converted to create a personal synthetic voice. So, when John types a message into his phone, the phone plays the message aloud in his voice.
Even without his phone, John’s personality and sense of humor comes through his body language and facial expressions. He stays very active — fishing for walleye every day — and keeps especially busy in his wood shop where he builds just about anything and everything, from sasquatches to cowboy boots to holy crosses.
“I have always enjoyed making, designing and building things,” John said. “I never drew up plans because everything is in my head. My whole life I have always enjoyed helping people, just to make them happy and see them smile. I thank God for the drive and ability to do whatever it is that I do. Life is great.”
Jenny, John’s wife since 1992 and his high school sweetheart, said John’s attitude has been so inspiring, not only for them, but even for strangers.
“He makes it so easy for all of us,” she said. “He is just happy all the time. He never complains. People ask me what he’s like behind closed doors and I say, ‘The same.’ He believes this is what he has been dealt and he has no problem saying to people, ‘Don’t cry. Just have faith and pray for me.’”
John received a card in the mail from someone they don’t even know.
“The card said, ‘You are an inspiration.’ He hears that all the time. His strong belief in God is what is keeping him going, and he wants that for others,” Jenny said.
Although Jenny says he hasn’t slowed down at all, a nurse comes once a month to check in and connect to an intravenous port in his shoulder. According to Jenny, the IV medication can slow down the effects of ALS by up to 30%. John then does self-infusions of medication one hour a day for 10 days each month, occasionally while sitting outside on his deck overlooking the lake.
The couple moved to the house on Knife Lake near Mora in 1996 and had their first daughter, Natasha.
“It wasn’t long before we had five beautiful daughters and one handsome boy,” John said.
The family now includes Natasha, 23; Laura, 20; Sophia, 15; William, 13; Genna, 12; and Amelia, 11; and countless wildlife: two colorful chickens, a dog named Shelby and a one-eyed wood duck named Dr. Ducktavius, who rides along in the truck with John almost wherever he goes, except maybe to St. Mary Parish in Mora, where the family attends.
“I have found John to be a very faith-filled man, trusting in God through all things,” said Rita Clasemann, parish life coordinator at St. Mary’s. “He finds God in the beauty of a sunrise, in the wild creatures that have become pets at their home, in friends and family, and expresses his faith in many of his art projects. He loves surprising others with joyful messages. His joy radiates on his face.”
Clasemann said he has astonished many friends and neighbors with his ice sculptures, his old barn wood projects, his use of old objects and even his hay bale creations for the neighbors.
“John and Jennifer have been such welcome members of our Family Faith Formation adult sessions, communicating with written notes or by Smartphone,” she said. “[They] are inspirational to me. I look for them at Mass, love the hugs John gives, and their ‘can-do’ attitude.”
Jenny said that there have been challenges but, overall, they are doing really well.
“But that’s because we have a lot of support and a lot of prayers coming our way,” she said.
John believes the power of prayer is the No. 1 thing that has kept him going this far. As his body fights the effects of ALS, John’s goal is still to help others not only physically, but spiritually, too.
“I ask a lot of people to pray for me. It’s a way that I can get them to talk to God, especially people who might not otherwise pray,” John said. “I really want to inspire people to be strong in their faith and realize that God’s love is unfathomable, no matter what the situation may be. Trust in God and he will take care of you.”