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The Giving (Family) Tree
Watching the late-July sun set over Little McDonald Lake near Perham, Minn., Henry and Lorraine Wessman take a moment to reflect on their 1957 wedding. Had it really been 60 years of marriage, the couple asked themselves, and 62 years since Henry—who goes by “Bud”—presented his high school sweetheart an engagement ring on the last day of high school in Milaca, Minn., in 1955?
Six decades later the results of the couple’s decision so long ago had been bustling all around them throughout this anniversary gathering at the lake: all five of the couple’s children, 11 of their 15 grandchildren, and even some great-grandchildren—plus spouses—laughing, catching-up, trading stories.
Smiling at the thought, Bud notices that a great many of those stories involve not only the University of North Dakota, but his second home, the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS).
“I was madly in love with Lorraine, and thought that marriage was a pretty important thing to accomplish,” says Bud on the phone from Fargo, recalling how his fateful decision to choose a career in physical therapy instead of medicine in the middle-1950s led to his founding of UND’s physical therapy department a decade later. “The combination of wanting to be with Lorraine and still wanting to help people in a hands-on way sent me towards physical therapy, and I’ve never regretted that.”
Neither has UND.
Lorraine and Bud Wessman with their five children. Left to Right: Desiree Fleming,
Brad Wessman, Bud Wessman, Valerie Hoekstra, Bruce Wessman, Lorraine Wessman,
and Vicki Wilson.
Bud’s physical therapy career at UND notwithstanding, across several generations the Wessmans’ children, grandchildren, and the spouses of each have earned nearly 20 degrees from UND between them, including several from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. So does the gathering almost function as its own mini health conference of physicians, physical therapists, nurses, Ph.D.s, educators, and healthcare system administrators all talking shop. And so do the almost thirty people who have assembled to celebrate the wedding anniversary represent not only a combined one-hundred years of higher education and countless hours of community service, but possibly tens of thousands of lives saved, bodies healed, and minds educated.
Bud and Lorraine’s oldest child Vicki started and ended her formal education at UND, eventually coming away from the university with three degrees. Currently a full professor of Nursing at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Vicki Wilson, who is married to Craig Wilson, MD, earned her BS in nursing, MS in nursing, and Ph.D. in teaching and learning from UND in 1980, 1991, and 1994, respectively.
After Vicki came Bruce, who followed in his father’s footsteps to earn a BS in physical therapy (BSPT) degree from UND in 1981. Bruce has been with the Fargo Veterans’ Administration (VA) Healthcare System almost ever since, earning his master of physical therapy degree from UND in 1993 as part of the school’s “Out of House” MPT program, designed for working therapists.
“All of us kids at one time or another would follow my dad as he worked in the Northwood [N.D.] nursing home in the evenings,” explains Bruce from his Fargo office. “So all of us were exposed to the healthcare field at an earlier age than most. Seeing how well my dad communicated with and helped others was a positive influence on us all.”
For their part, both of Bruce’s daughters attended UND: older daughter Erin earned her DPT from UND SMHS in 2011 and today works for Capernaum Pediatric Therapy, Inc. Younger daughter Katie graduated from UND in 2009 with a BS in elementary education—after playing on the UND’s championship-winning women’s tennis team for four years.
“I don't feel I was ever pressured into the healthcare field,” reflects Erin on her childhood. “But our family set the bar high for us, encouraging us to work hard, do our best, and always demonstrate good character.”
Valerie Hoekstra, Bud’s and Lorraine’s middle child, taught at the Grand forks Air Force Base for many years before moving on to become the Principal of a Charter School (Inwood Academy) in New York City. Although she has gone on to earn graduate degrees from other institutions, Valerie received her BS in education from UND in 1982.
“We were brought up to respect and help all individuals, no matter what their circumstances or who they were,” explains the Wessman’s younger son Brad in an email to North Dakota Medicine. “There was never any pressure from my parents to follow in my dad’s footsteps, they only wanted each of us to enjoy what we were pursuing and do the best we could.”
After graduating from UND with a BS in Social Work in 1984, Brad went on to earn an MS in sociology and today works as a program support assistant in Primary Care and Specialty Medicine at the Fargo VA as well.
Like their grandfather and mother, Kari Wessman, MD, two of Brad’s daughters have taken up medicine: older daughter Laurel Wessman, MD, graduated from UND SMHS with a specialization in dermatology in 2017 while younger daughter Mary is currently a biology/pre-medicine major at UND. Brad’s third daughter Rachael is also a UND graduate (BS in Criminal Justice) and former member of the UND women’s swim team. She works today at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandpa growing up and I especially valued my time with him in rural lakes country. He often asked me how my coursework was going and if there was anything he could do to help. When I told him I wanted to go to medical school, his reply was, ‘Great, so when do we start?’” quips Laurel. “Watching him and learning from his legacy has taught me a thing or two about caring for other people, working ceaselessly for the benefit of others, and leaving the world a better place than it was the day before.”
Or as Mary adds, referring to the anniversary couple, “They are truly remarkable humans and I do believe that I have learned a great deal about myself through them.”
Finally, youngest daughter Desi Fleming, currently the Director of Nursing for Fargo Cass Public Health, received both her BS and MS degrees in nursing from UND, twelve years apart.
According to Desi, both of her parents modeled the behaviors and attitudes that led to their children’s and grandchildren’s personal success and commitment to community service. “UND was a natural fit for all of us not because we had to go there, but because we wanted to,” she says. “We have a strong family—kids and grandkids—with strong values, and many accomplishments collectively, which can all be attributed to the teamwork, love, and support we constantly received from our parents.”
In the end, although Bud is the one who would make a public name for himself—founding a program at UND SMHS, serving as Mayor of Grand Forks, running for Senate, serving as Director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services, and going on to be a Federal Administrative Judge with the Department of Health and Human Services in Baltimore—he credits his spouse with making it all happen.
“Lorraine did not have the opportunity to go beyond high school, but her openness to being a stay-at-home mom is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why our kids turned out as well as they did,” insists Bud. “Frankly, I would never have been able to accomplish anything without her strong, family-oriented care and support.”