Updated: Celebration of past, present, future held at former Willmar Regional Treatment Center

Updated: Added links to slideshows of WRTC Celebration and WRTC History; and PDF of handout distributed at the event. Emily Mikes shook a lot of hands and got a lot of hugs on Wednesday. With nearly 30 years as a registered nurse at the Willmar R...

Updated: Added links to slideshows of WRTC Celebration and WRTC History; and PDF of handout distributed at the event.

Emily Mikes shook a lot of hands and got a lot of hugs on Wednesday. With nearly 30 years as a registered nurse at the Willmar Regional Treatment Center and, more recently, at the new community behavioral health hospital in Cold Spring, Mikes has worked with many people. On Wednesday, she did duty as the official greeter at the old Willmar treatment center campus as several hundred current and former hospital employees came through the door for a celebration honoring the past, present and future of the WRTC.

"Welcome back, very nice to see you," said Mikes as she grasped the hand of a former colleague.

"It's been a lot of fun to see all the folks," said Mikes in a quick aside before another familiar face came her way. "There have been a lot of retirees."

On Wednesday, the history of the campus, and the people who served Minnesota's "most vulnerable" citizens, were honored during a two-hour event that included memorabilia -- like a canvass straightjacket, photos, speeches and a slide show that traced the changes of the hospital over the years.


"It's so critical we acknowledge the care of the state's most vulnerable," said Mike Tessneer, director of the Department of Human Services State Operated Services. "You've dedicated yourself to that," he said. "Today, we're here to honor that."

Throughout the 95 years of changes at the campus, Tessneer said the "time, energy and compassion" the employees have shown to the clients has never wavered.

This was the fourth celebration that the state has held to recognize the value of the four regional treatment centers that are closing as a transition is made in Minnesota to provide mental health treatment in smaller, community-based settings.

The crowd at the Willmar event was by far the largest, said Rod Kornrumpf, regional administrator for State Operated Services.

The crowd included women like Gladys Palm, who started working at the hospital in 1946 and stayed there for 46 years, alongside her husband, Donald, who worked there for 47 years. She remembered working in admissions and seeing people coming in "helpless and hopeless" and leaving "much better, physically and mentally."

Sometimes, however, "Once a person was committed to a place like this, they never left," said Eleanor Wentzel, who worked at the hospital for 36 years. Sometimes families "forgot about them," and the employees were their only companions.

"We were their friends. We were their family," said Wentzel.

Monroe Wallin and George Couleur were buddies who worked together in the kitchen of the campus.


Wallin, the head cook, put in 35 years at the hospital, and Couleur, the meat cutter, worked there 37 years.

While chatting after the formal presentation, they practically finished each other's sentences while talking about the made-from-scratch meals they prepared during longs days that began at 4 a.m.

Couleur and his crew, which included patients in the early years, would slaughter 600 hogs a year and make bacon and ham.

Wallin had eight cooks and two bakers on his crew. They used 30- to 100-gallon kettles to cook food, including fresh vegetables from the garden and ice cream using cream from the hospital's 85 milk cows.

"It was good times," said Wallin, who found satisfaction in feeding 1,300 patients and several hundred staff.

"We had fun and we worked hard," said Couleur. "I loved what I was doing."

Couleur recalls, with a dose of disgust, when frozen and prepared foods took the place of the homemade items.

Lester Johnson, who served as CEO of the hospital from 1961 to 1986, said the Willmar campus was a "busy hospital" that he tried to improve by implementing strong standards and the idea that the patients should be treated and go home, and not "be warehoused."


During his stint, many positive changes were made in the treatment of mental illness. "No matter what you did, it was better," said Johnson. "I was here in the glory years and I was grateful."

Johnson, who now lives in Stillwater, credits the employees "who made me look good" and a group of 400 volunteers who did activities with the patients.

One of the biggest benefits the volunteers did was help remove the negative stigma the community had about mental illness because volunteers would speak positively about the hospital.

Along with sharing memories of working at the hospital, many of the former employees took advantage of guided tours of the new MinnWest Technology Campus, which now occupies most of the buildings and grounds.

Seeing the new businesses and hearing about the new mental health system, which includes construction of a community behavioral health hospital in Willmar, helped many of the former employees accept the new set of changes.

"We go on with the future," said Mikes. "And that's going well too."

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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