By Mari Smith
After forty years of practice, Tom Willmeng, Vicksburg resident and orthopedic surgeon at Kalamazoo Valley Orthopedics, has hung up his surgical gloves and retired.
He is a frequent sight on the sidelines of Vicksburg and Schoolcraft high school football games. Willmeng performs hundreds of sports physicals at local high schools. He stops by the schools on Monday afternoons to check on student patients. This is only a tip of the iceberg of the unending contributions Willmeng has made to athletes and patients in the Kalamazoo area.
Willmeng, who received his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame and graduated from medical school at the University of Michigan, has been actively involved in sports medicine and treating area athletes at Vicksburg, Portage Central, Three Rivers, Schoolcraft, and Mendon, among others, while practicing at Kalamazoo Valley Orthopedics for the past 40 years.
As Willmeng, who is affectionately called “Doc,” enters his retirement, a reception and roast in his honor was held recently at Indian Run Golf Course with over two hundred in attendance. In the packed venue, there were guests from as far away as Arizona, Georgia and Florida. They included a man who sat next to Willmeng the first day of medical school , who has remained a friend over all the years. Guests also included Al Fracker, former professional boxer and now retired as a colonel from the United States Army. Willmeng sat ring-side to treat Fracker many times during his boxing career.
There was a large family presence as Willmeng, originally from Watervliet, is the oldest of eight children, and his wife of thirty-six years, Maryann, comes from a family of seven children. Also sharing in the recognition were business partners, nurses, school athletic directors, and friends. As the parade of admirers roasted the guest of honor, the guests heard humorous and touching tales, with most ending with the speaker choking back tears.
This is understood by the attendees who have witnessed Willmeng’s small-town doctor practice of still making house calls, meeting patients at locations that are most convenient for them, and allowing patients to come to his home as well. Maryann estimated that her husband made a minimum of three calls per week to others’ homes and, over the course of their marriage, equates that to making not less than seven thousand house calls.
Sometimes the telephone calls to their home for help came at very odd hours. Maryann recounted one event where a woman had fallen off a bar stool in Kalamazoo after a few too many drinks. A friend with the woman told her to, “Call Doc Willmeng.” The woman looked up Willmeng’s number in the telephone book and gave him a call at two o’clock in the morning. With Maryann answering the phone, “Helen Helen” as the woman identified herself, wanted to know what Doc was up to and if he could come to look at her foot which she thought was broken. Although Willmeng did not go to the bar at two o’clock in the morning, he did see her the next day. The woman eventually quit drinking and wanted to be baptized. She asked if she could be baptized in the therapy pool at Kalamazoo Valley Orthopedics and requested Willmeng be there for her baptism, which he did attend.
Willmeng, in his life-long commitment to giving, has also played Santa Claus at area hospitals. With the help of his wife and two children, Kelly Lupis of Florida and Danny Willmeng of Chicago they, as a family, also visit area families in need. Willmeng will drop by as Santa to say hello. Willmeng’s father-in-law passed down this tradition of playing Santa Claus as well as his antique sleigh bells, and this gesture of kindness is now being carried on by Willmeng’s son and Lupis’ husband.
Doc, a man of few words, as he sat in his high school football jersey which still fit him like a glove, ended the roast with a speech of his own. He acknowledged that his success would not have been possible without his faith and the support of his family. He gratefully acknowledged his wife and two children. Noting that while Maryann pursued her own forty-year career as a flight attendant, she let “ . . . me be Tom.” It was apparent that “being Tom” benefited more people in the Kalamazoo area than could ever fit in that room.