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About Ernie

Ernie Wallengren
When he fell during a pickup basketball game his teammates teased him about being a “middle-aged jock”.  When the resulting limp didn’t go away, when it became worse, when the foot drop developed, the teasing stopped and the long ordeal began.  He had fallen in the process of developing a devastating neurological illness which would forever sideline him from basketball, the game he was most passionate about.

He had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

His name was Ernest Wallengren – Coach Ernie, his players called him.  Before that he had had a long successful career as E.F. Wallengren, gifted writer and/or producer of dozens of television series – everything from “The Waltons” to “Baywatch”.  When his teenage sons began playing league basketball he became aware of talented but less fortunate boys who couldn’t afford the fees, the uniform, the travel expenses, and he decided to put his career on hold and do something about that.

What he did was to found a league that included not only the privileged kids of the west San Fernando Valley, but troubled kids, kids he pulled off the streets, kids with no place to go and no one to counsel them.  If they couldn’t afford uniforms and trips, he provided them.  If they didn’t have a place to stay they were welcome to bunk at his house.  His doors were open at all hours to kids of all ages and talents and colors.  With the support of his wife Cheryl there was always plenty of food for them, a place to study and swim and hang out with his own five children.  And as a long-time Lakers fan, he was always willing to share his season tickets with them.

The Blue Eagles won their share of trophies but beyond that they learned teamwork and discipline.  Their grades improved.  When ALS relegated Coach Ernie to a wheelchair on the sidelines they listened as respectfully as though he still stood among them.  Even after he became totally paralyzed and could no longer speak he traveled with them to all local and out of town games.

He was the subject of three documentaries; one of them, “Rolling”, won several film festivals and earned its producer a McArthur Genius Grant. He was awarded the “Courage Award” at the annual pre-Jerry Lewis telethon gala.  Two basketball tournaments have been renamed in his honor – one of them the “Ernie Tourney” – and during a playoff game the Calabasas School District honored him at halftime and invited everyone who had played under him to come onto the floor.  It almost emptied the stands.
 

In spite of his deteriorating condition his players, their friends and families continued to fill his life with laughter and encouragement, as he had filled theirs, and they were there – standing room only around his bed – the night he died.  Seven hundred people attended the funeral, showbiz friends and fellow coaches, and everywhere in the crowd you could see red-eyed kids in Blue Eagles uniforms.

He would be embarrassed at the terms applied to him since his death.  “Beloved,” the valley newspapers call him.  “Hero”, he is referred to by his kids, many of them in college basketball now, and all of them lifelong fans of the sport.  He was that quiet kind of hero whose heroism becomes more apparent after his death.

Today he is a hero in the battle to find a cure for ALS.  The ALS Association has established a research fund in his name and a basketball tournament run by fellow coaches is dedicated to raising money for the fund.  Next month will be the fourth annual “E.F. Wallengren Hoopfest”, which has been enjoyed by players of all ages, many of whom come from all over the west to attend.  We invite you to join Ernie and those of us who loved and admired him to help in the struggle to find a cure for a disease that all too often hits gifted athletes, and takes from us our brightest and most talented men and women.

Ernie’s life can be summed up in the e-mail Martha Williamson, creator and executive producer and of “Touched by an Angel” and a close friend of Ernie’s, sent out the morning following his death:  “Dear Friends, Ernie’s fight with Lou Gehrig’s ended last night.  And Ernie won.”  She went on to add that he won because: “When I saw him last, sitting straight in his wheelchair, smiling, making jokes with his computer voice and his eyes twinkling, waiting for me to laugh – well, I saw a man who had taken control of his life even if disease had taken control of his body….”

Thank you for reading this.  We look forward to hearing from you.

Dreams Don't Die 

This site celebrates the life of Ernie Wallengren, an ordinary guy who fought an extraordinary battle.  In spite of a disease that paralyzed him, robbed him of speech and eventually took his life, he never stopped believing that Dreams Don't Die.  We share his dreams - a cure for ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) - and on this site we introduce you to Ernie and the campaign his life inspired.

We want you to laugh with us, cry with us, dream with us, and join us in banishing ALS to history.  Even as you read this someone is being diagnosed with ALS, a disease that for now is a one-way street to a dead end.  Thirty thousand people - men and women, young and old - are praying right now for a cure with many, like Ernie
, taking an active part in raising awareness of their disease, participating in research trials, and along the way living their lives with humor and dignity and acceptance.

Please explore this site.  Get to know Ernie and witness his struggle.  Become his friend.  Help us keep his dream alive.
 
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