When he was honored by the Michigan State Medical Society for 50 years of outstanding service, Dr. Norman Westlund described his job as “listening for a living.” His career added up to a lot more than that.
His father, John, came to the United States from Sweden as a teenager and worked in the Colorado coal mines. Hating mining, he moved to Osage, Kansas, married and became a barber. Norman was born June 26, 1904, and both parents were determined that he would go to college and make something of himself. Growing up, Norman worked in a clothing store, a meat market, an ice house and as a section hand on the Santa Fe Railroad. He learned to speak Swedish, took piano lessons and learned to play the organ and clarinet. A standout all his life, he was in school plays, played quarterback on the football team, forward on the basketball team and went out for track. He was valedictorian of his high school class.
He got to know the two doctors in town and became interested in medicine. At the University of Kansas, he worked his way through college and medical school by playing in hotels and on the radio with a group he called “Swede Westlund’s Dance Band.“ He was graduated from medical school in 1928 and interned at the Louisville (Kentucky) City Hospital. Since he couldn’t afford to set up a private practice, he turned to public health.
He married his high school sweetheart, Opal Smith, in 1928. While he had studied to become a doctor, she had become a nurse.
After public health work in Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, in 1931 they moved to the Traverse City (Michigan) State Psychiatric Hospital where Dr. Westlund became chief of outpatient services. Their two children, John and Anne, were born in Traverse City. For the next four years, he travelled to Saginaw, Bay City, Midland, Muskegon and Alpena to provide outpatient psychiatric services.
At the time, there were no psychiatrists outside of state hospitals. Realizing he had a lot to learn, he studied at a Boston clinic and, deciding to specialize in the needs of children, he spent two years at the Children’s Center in Detroit. It was there that he learned “that listening is the best therapeutic tool. I would ask general questions in the areas of difficulty,“ he said, “…and they would tell me about it and it would become a part of their understanding instead of just my interpretation. This has continued to be my form of treatment and it works.”
In 1942, when the state of Michigan opened child guidance clinics across the state, Dr. Westlund became the first director of the center in Saginaw. The staff consisted of one psychiatrist, one psychiatric social worker and one psychologist and they served ten counties. “We saw bed wetters, thumb suckers, sibling rivalry and many other similar problems of childhood,” he recalled. Some of their first cases were retarded children and at the time, there was little understanding of retardation.
Over the years, problems changed and by the late ‘60s, they would see more and more drug-related problems. At first, the center was located in the old Arthur Hill building, then in the Mershon home, which was torn down to make a parking lot for St. Luke’s, and then a house on the east side. After 20 years of these temporary quarters, they were able to build their own offices at 3253 Congress.
In 1946, tragedy struck as Opal Westlund died of cancer. Relatives helped the doctor care for their children. Then in 1947, he met Jean Osborne, a nurse who had trained at Harper Hospital and served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II. They were married a few months later. They had two children, Richard and Wendy. After the children were grown, Jean worked at the clinic by her husband’s side and developed a parent-education program after training under the famed child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginot. She also wrote an immensely popular parenting column for the Saginaw News for 20 years.
Dr. Westlund was a charter and life member of the American Academy of Child Psychiatrists, a group he helped to establish in 1953. He was also a life fellow of the American Ortho-Psychiatric Association, a life member of the American Medical Association, the State Medical Society and the Saginaw County Medical Society. He served on a national committee in Washington D.C., that studied areas of education and on another committee that studied changes in psychiatric nomenclature.
He was a council member of the American Association of Psychiatric Services for Children and was a guest speaker at the first Mental Health Institute of the American Psychiatric Association. He was president of the Arthur Hill PTA, president of the Saginaw County Public Health Association and president of the Saginaw Valley Chapter of Torch International. Despite his many honors, Mary Rockwell, a Child Guidance board member for 30 years, described him as “a quiet, unassuming man who dedicated his life to the mental health of children.”
The Child Guidance Center was officially named the Norman Westlund Child Guidance Center in 1973. A few of his many accomplishments at the clinic included founding Michigan’s first classroom for emotionally disturbed children, providing for the implementation of Saginaw’s first classroom for autistic children and the creation of the Saginaw Child Abuse and Neglect Council. He and his staff promoted strong collaborations with the schools, the juvenile court, the Child Receiving Home, St. Vincent’s Orphans’ Home and area pediatricians. In 1970, he created the post of Administrative Director to share the management of the Clinic and served as its medical director until his retirement.
Speaking of the center in 1981, Dr. Westlund explained its success. “We have maintained a quality staff through the years and also a board that is second to none. We have made changes in keeping with the changing needs of children. We have always considered parents as part of the treatment of children. We use different modes of treatment that seem indicated in each individual case.”
Dr. Westlund died in 1989.
At his induction into the Saginaw Hall of Fame, long-time colleague Betty Nagel said, “As the first psychiatrist in Saginaw County, Dr. Westlund set the stage for mental health services in our community. His down-to-earth, always listening, compassionate approach and his focus on children within the family earned him much respect among his colleagues and client families.”
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