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John Thompson

Elizabethton Bureau Chief
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Josh Wandell: A community rallies

March 19th, 2014 4:47 pm by John Thompson

Josh Wandell: A community rallies

East Side Principal Josh Wandell uses a Segway to help him make his daily rounds through the school (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)

ELIZABETHTON — Long before all the political yard signs started appearing in yards around Elizabethton, there was another yard sign that was very common and still spreads its message amid all the candidates running in the May primary. Those signs read “faith > fear” and expressed support for the struggle that East Side Elementary Principal Josh Wandell has been fighting.

Long before the community rallied behind the Elizabethton Lady Cyclones basketball team on their quest for the state basketball championship, the town had already come together to support Wandell, with its emotional support, its financial support in several highly successful fundraisers, and it its spiritual support though its prayers.

All the support is needed because Wandell has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Through it all, Wandell’s uncle, Kelly Geagley, has become the unofficial publicist and organizer for the community’s various efforts to provide support.

Geagley has also been with Wandell from the start of his ordeal. He has also been close to his nephew since he was born. Geagley said Wandell was the first nephew in the family and it was natural to shower his love on the new member of the family.

It was easy to continue the love as Wandell grew into a strong and graceful athlete who was an all-state football player at Elizabethton High School and played for East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee.

Geagley said Wandell was extremely strong. “He loved running and working out.” But his uncle said that was not his greatest strength. “Spiritually and mentally, he is the strongest person I know.” His mental strength was evident when he obtained his doctorate. It is also shown by his determination to continue serving his community as a principal for as long as he can. He has made few concessions to the disease. Geagley said one of the few is that he now rides a Segway personal transport that was donated to him.

His spiritual strength is now being shown to Geagley when he accompanies his nephew for visits to specialists in Kentucky.

For Geagley, the visits have been difficult. “There is no cure. All the testing and stuff they do is just to see how much more muscle control has been lost and to help you to slow down the progression of the disease.” Geagley admits he was so depressed after one visit he didn’t feel like eating, but Wandell’s spirits were still high and he encouraged Geagley to eat.

Geagley said progress is being made by scientists and he has hope there will be a cure soon. He said Wandell takes his fate much more serenely. “He told me it would be nice to be cured, but if he is not, he will have a perfect body in heaven.”

As a faculty member in the Elizabetehton City School System, Geagley said Wandell has good medical insurance, but there is so much that isn’t covered by the insurance. It was that reason that the first fundraiser was held last September, a foot race to commemorate Wandell’s love for running. The response from the community was incredible and the first-time event became the largest foot race in the history of Elizabethton, with between 1,000 and 1,500 runners.

There have been several fundraisers since then, including a musical event a few weeks ago at T.A. Dugger Jr. High called “Jamming for Josh.”

Through it all, Wandell has inspired others with his struggle just as much as he has inspired his uncle. Geagley said Wandell has expressed the opinion that it shouldn’t be all about him. Geagley told him “people love you Josh, and they want to help you.”

With the warming weather, there are several events in the works over the next several months. There is a “Blues and BBQ” concert in May in which several barbecue restaurants will take part. Geagley said it will be an all-day family event with inflatables for children and good food and music for the entire family.

Another event is being planned by Alex Campbell, a teacher at Elizabethton High School and weightlifter. Geagley said the event is being called “Grunt and Grill” and will feature lifting weights and lifting forks.

The second annual foot race is being planned for Saturday, Sept. 20. It promises to be another success. Geagley said “so many people have come to me and said ‘we want to do this for Josh.’”

“I am blown away by all the support this community has given me,” Wandell said. “All the mail, all the words of encouragement I have received from people I don’t even know. It is what keeps me going.”

As he continues to serve as principal, Wandell said he is proud of his community. “This is what makes Elizabethton a special place. It is the love and support of the people. The Lord has used this to restore faith.”

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