New U center honors Wellstones’ concern for muscular disease

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

University officials, researchers, families and a Republican lobbyist watched as the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Center was dedicated Friday in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Building.

The new center will work on developments in muscular dystrophy research. It will also work with patients and their families to connect those affected by muscular dystrophy.

The center will be funded through a combination of University money, National Institutes of Health faculty grants, Muscular Dystrophy Association funds and other fund raising.

Throughout the ceremony, speakers honored the Wellstones for their advocacy for the children and families affected by muscular dystrophy.

In 2001, Paul Wellstone introduced the Muscular Dystrophy Community Assistance, Research and Education Amendments to increase federal investment in muscular dystrophy research. The bill was signed into law in December 2001.

Jacob Gunvalson, who has a rare and fatal form of the disease called Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, was one of the reasons the Wellstones became advocates for curing the disease.

“My little friend Jacob told me his only wish in the universe is a cure for his muscular dystrophy,” Paul Wellstone said in a May 2001 speech inscribed on a plaque in the center. “It’s not a question of whether, but when, it will be conquered. Let it be for this generation.”

Understanding of the disease is in place, said Dr. John Day, co-director of the Wellstone center.

“The engineering is the question, but we have enough knowledge to cure this,” Day said.

Twelve-year-old Gunvalson spoke publicly for the first time at the dedication, sobbing as he read a thank-you to Paul Wellstone.

“He was aware of boys who needed a helping hand,” he said, reading a statement written around the time of the Wellstones’ deaths. “He was not captive to the desires of the wildly successful. This wisdom makes the world a better place.”

Cheri Gunvalson, Jacob’s mother and a proponent of the center, also spoke at the dedication.

“The depth of my gratitude is the depth of my love for my son,” she said.

Cheri Gunvalson first spoke with the Wellstones about muscular dystrophy six years ago. Throughout her speech, she repeatedly alluded to the Wellstones’ concern and effort toward children with muscular dystrophy.

The center, Gunvalson said, is a continuation of their work.

Speaker Joel Wood, a Republican lobbyist, said he was one of the last people likely to be a Wellstone admirer.

Wood said he became involved with muscular dystrophy when his 6-year-old son James developed the disease three years ago.

“I’m a Republican lobbyist in Washington who regards Paul Wellstone as my personal savior and best friend,” he said.

Day also thanked Academic Health Center Senior Vice President Frank Cerra for his help in making the center a reality.

“Under the guise of the mild-mannered administrator, there lies the heart of a beast,” Day said. “He appreciates that we need to take muscular dystrophy seriously.”

Cerra also said the dedication reminded everyone of Paul Wellstone’s work.

“Paul said, ‘Politics is about the deed.’ That means it doesn’t matter how much you know if you don’t help,” Cerra said. “That is what we are doing today.”