East Side Principal Josh Wandell and his wife, Tabitha, give applause during Saturday's concert at T.A. Dugger Junior High School. (All photos by Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
Some people will never know what it’s like to have someone tell them that their own body is killing them.
Last year, East Side Elementary principal Josh Wandell heard exactly that.
On June 4, Wandell was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. According to the ALS Association, a person’s average life expectancy after receiving the diagnosis is anywhere from two to five years.
As time has passed, Wandell said he has felt the effects the disease has inflicted on him.
“The disease obviously is progressing,” Wandell said. “My balance isn’t quite what it was. At times, my speech can be thick. There’s also probably some weakness in my left leg.”
While he has noticed the effects of his disease, Wandell still said he is doing well, and can still function as East Side’s principal.
“I’ve not missed a day of work due to ALS, other than doctor’s appointments,” Wandell said. “Thank God the main part of this disease is still in my extremities. All things considered ... I’m doing very well.”
Wandell’s positivity does not go unnoticed. He will greet strangers with a handshake and a smile; he’ll boast about his favorite men’s basketball team, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels; and he will tell you how grateful he is to God that he lives the life he does.
When asked how he has maintained in the face of a terminal diagnosis, Wandell gave credit to God, but also to the community around him.
“The reason I’m sitting in front of you today doing so well is because this community is really pulling for me,” Wandell said. “I feel their prayers each and every day.”
Members of the communities of Carter and Washington counties have shown their support with signs reading, “Faith > Fear / Prayers for Josh Wandell.” In addition to prayer, supporters organized the Race for Wandell, a 3K run-and-walk that was held on Sept. 14 to raise money for Wandell’s treatment and to raise the community’s awareness about ALS.
This weekend, Wandell’s supporters decided to hold yet another event in honor of their sick friend.
On Saturday night, a benefit concert in his honor, known as “Jammin’ for Josh and ALS,” was conducted at T.A. Dugger Junior High School.
The concert featured music from the likes of the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass Band and the T.A. Dugger school chorus. Donations of $5 or more were accepted for admission, all of which would later be given to Wandell to pay for medical expenses. In addition to Wandell, the concert also featured Nickie Strickland — who was also diagnosed with ALS — as a guest speaker.
T.A. Dugger principal Randy Little, whom Wandell credited with arranging the event, said he wanted to do something that would not only provide people with entertainment, but also to help his friend and colleague.
“We’ve worked together through some pretty tough situations,” Little said. “To me, this is the toughest situation of all. He’s riding a lonely, long way, and I just wanted to do something.”
Even though the concert was thrown in his honor — and named after him — Wandell said the event was about more than just him.
“This is really not about Josh Wandell,” he said. “This is really about a sense of hope in a community and, really, a sense of our fellow man, (and) that we’ll pull together for something good.”
If you asked those in attendance, however, they might have disagreed with him.
John Kelley, who played football with Wandell during their time together at Elizabethton High School, volunteered to sell concessions at the concert because of “knowing the person that he is.”
“He’s a class-act guy,” he said.
Kingsport resident Dave Lawhead, who was also in attendance, said that supporting Wandell in his time of need was something the community needed to do.
“It’s something hard to go through,” Lawhead said. “He needs support from everybody to help him get through it, and help get him to where he can somewhat get a normal life again.”
Wandell identified with Lawhead’s notion of community support, citing the community’s spirituality as one of its prime motivators.
“These are people who believe in God and what we’re called to do, which is serve those in need,” Wandell said. “They saw that I was a person in need.”
In addition to just being a “person in need,” however, others felt that the event, and the community, were there for more than a sense of obligation. T.J. Brown, who works as East Side’s school librarian, disagreed with Wandell’s assessment that the event, and the support from the community, are not about him.
“I think it boils down to Josh, even though he would never admit it,” Brown said. “Josh is just a great guy.”
Whether the community gathered to support Wandell, Strickland, ALS awareness, or all of the above, Wandell said he is grateful for whatever support is offered, and that he hoped, ultimately, everyone was able to enjoy themselves.
“I think the focus (of the concert) is to bring awareness to this terrible disease, but also to get together and to have a good time,” he said.