Terry DeVine column: Walt Willis has been battling on two fronts

Life has been a bit of a struggle for Walt Willis for a long time now. It isn't much fun when your health is failing. It makes going to work difficult, even if you love your job and have been doing it for a very long time.

Life has been a bit of a struggle for Walt Willis for a long time now.

It isn't much fun when your health is failing. It makes going to work difficult, even if you love your job and have been doing it for a very long time. Some days it makes just getting out of bed a challenge.

Willis, who has been administrator of the Cass County jail for nearly 25 years now, and has been under fire in recent months, said he has formally applied for Social Security disability.

He hasn't decided whether he'll walk if the disability is approved but has strongly indicated that might be the case.

A Marine Corps combat veteran of Vietnam, Willis also disclosed he is a 100 percent disabled veteran, something only his direct superior, Cass County Sheriff Don Rudnick -- the man who hired him -- knew before he told this columnist last week.


He served in an area in Vietnam saturated with Agent Orange. The defoliant has been directed linked to Type II diabetes, which the 56-year-old Willis developed and has been battling for some time.

The diabetes was so serious last fall that doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fargo gave him a choice -- get off his ulcerated foot or lose it. He took 60 days of medical leave. That leave expired late in December, and he applied for and received another 60 days of medical leave.

The foot finally healed -- sort of -- after a raging infection was cleared up. Now it's a constant struggle to regulate his insulin dosages.

The diabetes has caused neuropathy of both hands and both legs, among other things, and a cataract in one eye, which was surgically corrected. He's also had heart bypass surgery.

"I also have peripheral artery disease and can only walk about a half a block before my muscles start cramping up because they aren't getting enough oxygen," said Willis.

Unfortunately, his health problems accelerated at a time when the new Cass County Jail was being planned and constructed. He headed the transition team and came under fire because he missed most of the transition committee meetings over a two-year period. They were being held on days when he had scheduled doctor appointments at the VA.

Willis, an exempt employee, claimed last fall that Cass County Coordinator Bonnie Johnson, who is the human resources director for the 365 county employees, was out to get his job, an allegation she denied.

Willis reiterated that claim last week. "Absolutely," he said. "I'm being targeted by Bonnie Johnson, who wants to get rid of me. I challenged her power during the transition to the new jail."


Johnson said she wouldn't even dignify an allegation like that with an answer when asked if there was any truth to it.

Willis also feels Cass County Commissioner Scott Wagner, who carried the jail portfolio in 2002, was out to get him. Wagner denied that last fall and continues to deny it.

"All I'm concerned about is that there be leadership in that $18 million taxpayer-owned facility," said Wagner. "I'm not out to get Walt and never was. I want to see consistent policies out there for all jail employees so we don't have a repeat of the vandalism that occurred after the jail opened." Wagner said he's merely echoing what jail consultants have also said.

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, said Wagner, county employees can bank up to eight hours of sick leave each month. Willis had 930 hours of sick leave -- more than 116 days, or 23 weeks -- banked when he took his first 60-day medical leave. He also has more than 300 hours -- close to eight weeks -- of unused vacation on the books.

Rudnick said he's never had any complaints about his jail administrator's work. "If a guy's on sick leave, he's on sick leave. I'm somewhat perplexed that some people are that concerned with it."

Rudnick, in his seventh four-year term as sheriff, has assumed the duties of jail administrator for the time being. He said things are going well.

If Willis does decide to go out on disability, Rudnick said he'll look for qualified candidates to replace him among his staff of 110, and may also talk to outside applicants.

If he does take disability, Willis, a Bottineau, N.D., native, said, "I'll probably spend a good deal of time trying to save my legs."


He and his wife of 32 years, Dianne, a Dunseith, N.D., native, have four grown children and six grandchildren.

Willis has a high regard for Rudnick. "We don't always agree, but he lets you speak your mind," said Willis. "He delegates authority, then lets people do their jobs. Everyone is accountable to him. He lets me run the jail."

At this point, he plans to return to his job, at least until a ruling on his disability application is forthcoming, he said.

Readers can reach Terry DeVine at (701) 241-5515 or

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