Almost overnight, the toxic waste clean-up on 40th Avenue in South Minneapolis achieved a kind of legendary status at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Dick Kable, who leads the MPCA's Emergency Response Team, took the April 7 phone call. A woman's small voice on the other end worried about chemicals that had been stored, some for decades, in the basement and garage of her property. Kable scheduled an appointment for the following day to check things out at her home. He then called Roger Van Tassel at the city's inspections department and invited him to come along. "We didn't have any idea of what we were getting into," Kable says. In the three decades he'd spent cleaning up poisonous substances and containing spills around the state, nothing had prepared him for what they found.
Kable and Van Tassel located the house at 2808 40th Ave. S. without difficulty. It's a small stucco in the quiet, residential Longfellow neighborhood, a few blocks from Brackett Park and the stately homes along West River Road. Anne Thelander, who owns the house, greeted the inspectors at the front door. She ushered them across a porch piled with books and weeks' worth of newspapers, through a living room stuffed with more books--history, religion, fiction--past the upright piano adorned with photographs of her deceased husband, and waved them toward the basement door.
At the foot of the stairs the team stopped short, taking in the scene. "There were piles and piles of chemicals on the floor in different containers--5-gallon, 1-gallon, quart-sized," Kable recalls. "You couldn't walk around." Old metal shelves ringed the full basement, Van Tassel remembers, all of them laden with dozens of dust-caked and rusted containers--plastic buckets, glass jugs, metal canisters, flasks, beakers, Bunsen dishes. "Oh, my God, there were a lot of chemicals down there," he says. "The thing that got me wondering was this glass vial that was actually melted. And that means some major base elements." Other vessels were severely corroded and leaking. Some displayed labels; some were unmarked. "I have never in 30-plus years run into a private house with this quantity of materials," Kable says. "I expected chemicals, but it was chock-full." After a long moment in awe, he began to worry about his health: "I could feel a sensation, some burning around the lips. That was a warning to remove myself." After forcing the garage door open, the men discovered another cache of chemicals equal to the first.
Kable and Van Tassel quickly determined that Thelander's home was a disaster waiting to happen. (In May, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the entire property an emergency Superfund site). By their estimation, any mishandling of the chemical containers would have quickly turned the basement into a lethal gas chamber. "There were things like cyanide and arsenic," says Kathy Carlson, an MPCA information officer who happens to live down the street from the Thelander house. "A fire would have spread those chemicals all over the neighborhood."
In an industrial warehouse, she goes on, the kinds of substances stockpiled in Thelander's basement are stored in fortified barrels, labeled, and stacked in concrete troughs secured against spills and corrosion. Sprinkler systems and high-tech alarms guard against damage by fire. Regular inspections, meticulous records, and permits required by state law add another layer of safety. "Suffice it to say," Carlson concludes, "there weren't any of these controls in the Thelander's basement."
In a matter of hours, Kable brought in hazardous-material handlers in protective Tyvek suits and respirators who worked for a week to identify, sort, and pack the waste into 55-gallon drums for removal. By week's end they had tabulated a 100-page list of chemicals removed from the property, and filled 67 barrels with an array of dangerous materials: 38 gallons of sulfuric acid; 66 gallons of other acids--hydrofluoric, hydrochloric, phosphoric, and nitric; more than eight gallons of liquid and 50 pounds of solid cyanides; and at least three gallons of mercury compounds. Arsenic, nitrates, phosphates, sulfates, acetates, chlorides, trichlorides--all were trucked off to Hennepin County disposal sites.
Even after the basement had been cleared out, a toxic residue remained. The film of dust and poison didn't bother Thelander, but a city assessor who entered the basement some three weeks later on an unrelated visit developed an irritating rash. That, along with a red-flag alert by the two original inspectors, brought the EPA to town. When the agency's crew ran tests in the basement, they discovered that the ceiling, walls, fixtures, shelves, concrete floor, and even the air was contaminated with cyanide. Workers evacuated Thelander and proceeded to scrape and rinse the basement, sealing it with coats of industrial-strength paint. During the course of the emergency operation, they also came across another stash of chemicals the MPCA had missed, including seven barrels of noxious waste buried in the back yard, four of which contained cyanide sludge. The final price tag for the clean-up--some $100,000 by the time the property was ruled habitable on June 3--was split between federal, state, and county governments.
All the while, despite her serene demeanor, Anne Thelander was terrified of losing her home. "I was really worried that they would tear down the house," she says. "They took away my house key. They thought it was really serious. I didn't know it was that bad." She explains that her husband, Paul, who died after a heart attack in January 1997, had been hauling chemicals home for the 35 years they'd lived in
the house on 40th Avenue, amassing them in the basement and garage, and, on occasion, burying them in the back yard. For the better part of three decades, he had operated a chemical supply business out of their home. She'd trusted him without reservation--after all, she figured, he was a trained chemist and knew how to handle dangerous materials.
In the few years before his death, he'd taken to wandering from one yard sale to the next, buying worn silverware, and dissolving the utensils in the acids he kept downstairs. He was a fixture at the nearby White Castle fast-food restaurant, where he listened to every hard-luck story and made a habit of bringing home transients to wash up, share a bite, and have a rest. He'd even hire them to sweep the basement floor or tend the chemicals. A neighbor had dubbed him "The Professor" in keeping with his signature pipe and graying beard, his obvious intelligence, and his eccentricity. The nickname fit, though Paul Thelander had held only one professorship in his life, and that was ages ago, in the 1950s, before his mind became as disordered as his basement lab and the chemicals in his brain as unstable as the compounds left behind when he died.
In late 1952 a passenger train crossed the frozen Midwestern plains with a young man seated inside, his melancholy blue eyes staring out the window at nothing. Paul Thelander, 26, hadn't been a brilliant student, but according to one of his professors at the University of Utah where he'd studied chemistry in the late 1940s, he was a solid, creative thinker and a diligent scientist who could have held his ground in the research department at most any postwar university. Even without a graduate degree or publication credentials, the Virginia Military Institute hired him to teach undergraduate chemistry courses.
But as he traveled northward by train, Thelander's academic career was a shambles and every station took him further from the life he had set his sights on. When he told the story of that trip in later years, he had a hard time pinning down the exact cause of his anguish. He blamed a vague confluence of pressures: The military code enforced on campus that he could neither understand nor accept, his friendship with black waiters in the university club that violated the balance of Southern race relations, the young woman he'd courted in vain. Before the end of his first semester at VMI, Thelander had broken step with reality--imagining strange forces allying against him, enemies surrounding him, ugly faces pressing in against the windows of his room. By the time university doctors handed him up and onto the train, Thelander was consumed by the belief that he was Christ.
Somewhere in the confusion of that train ride to Minneapolis, he would recollect later to friends, a Catholic priest came to his seat and bent over him. Thelander was alone, and the puzzled priest couldn't distinguish the facts of his story from his delusions, though he stayed with him for the rest of the trip, watching over the troubled young man and praying. To Thelander, the vigil seemed fitting--his great-grandfather, grandfather, father, brother, and brother-in-law all were ministers. The calm that quieted his nerves became part of the story he composed over the years to make sense of his life.
At the Minneapolis train depot, Thelander and the priest, whom he never saw again, disembarked together. His older brother and his sister's husband were waiting, though his sister Berta had stayed at home, not knowing what to expect. She remembers that he'd phoned her out of the blue from Virginia not long before his departure, asking, "Which one of you jokers is going to pick me up?" She'd thought he was kidding, as he did sometimes, and had chided him back. But when he'd kept talking, she knew something was terribly wrong. The family held a hasty council, and Berta called a psychiatrist friend. "Get him over here right away," she remembers him saying. "You're sitting on a powder keg."
At Station 60, the University of Minnesota's psychiatric ward, doctors diagnosed Thelander with schizophrenia, and began a serial treatment of electroshock. His was a textbook case: onset in the mid-20s, deep paranoia, delusions of grandeur, a Christ complex. Even now, more than four decades later, schizophrenia is often misunderstood. Patients are "sentenced" to the disorder as much as they are diagnosed with it, writes Susan McMullen O'Brian in Holistic Nursing Practice: "It is a disease of unfulfilled dreams, unexpressed emotion, constricted development, loneliness, and despair." In contemporary medicine, schizophrenia is categorized as a complex or syndrome rather than a disease that can be traced to a single source, and encompasses a variety of genetic factors and chemical imbalances, with electroshock therapy applied only in the most extreme cases. But the 1950s "were the dark ages," Berta says. "No one knew anything about mental illness."
Around the same time Paul Thelander arrived in Minneapolis, Anne Berggren was checking herself, again, into Station 60. Anne remembers herself as a child watching her mother's mind just melt away: After Berggren's father died, her mother retreated to an upstairs bedroom for four years, fighting demons, recognizing the devil in everyone who nursed her, her Seventh-day Adventism distorted by what was then considered simple madness. Anne's sister finally committed their mother to the state hospital, where she died before Anne's 16th birthday. By 1952 Anne was enrolled in the nursing program at Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis. But during her training in the operating room, she found she couldn't hold her hands steady. "I was afraid they were going to kick me out of school," she says. That worry led her to check into Station 60. "I had been in three years before when I was really upset. This time I wasn't so upset," she recalls. "Now I think it was destiny that I went in there." She, too, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In her room one afternoon Anne heard a voice. "Where's my pipe? I want my pipe!" And then again: "Where's my thesis? I want my thesis!" It was Paul Thelander. Almost immediately, the two began spending their days in the psychiatric unit together. Their courtship had its ups and downs. When the couple first met, Anne joked to Paul that she wasn't a patient; rather, she was "just there to observe people." Given his paranoid condition, her companion found that easy to believe. Most evenings, they would sit on a screened porch reserved for patients, talking quietly before lights-out. He would tell her about himself--about teaching at VMI, his studies at Utah, his thesis work on the chemical structure of plants. Every morning, electroshock treatments would wipe his memory clean, she remembers, and that night he'd tell her the story of his life all over again.
Anne also recalls his more erratic moods during those months, including the time during a party on the ward when he passed her some scribbled notes she couldn't decipher. Paul became upset, and while the festivities continued, a pair of nurses led him away to locked quarters, where he tore apart the hospital bed and used it to pound holes in the walls. The next morning, Anne carried a breakfast tray into his room. "I can still remember the smile on his face when he saw me," she says. "That was when we both knew that we really loved each other."
Their happiness was short-lived. "I guess the doctors saw that we were interested in each other and they wanted to split us up," she continues, "so they sent him to St. Peter Hospital"--then a psychiatric facility in south central Minnesota. There, he slipped back into a delusionary state that lasted for weeks. On one occasion a friend of his father's, another minister, came to visit. The minister read from the 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. In later years, Paul said those few hours of prayer restored him to sanity.
When staff doctors released him from St. Peter several months later, he went to live with his sister Berta for a time. "We had this nice big parsonage," she says, "so we took him in. His symptoms were very severe. He followed me around wherever I went. It was a roller coaster: He'd be fine one minute, way up, and fun--and then, whammo. I'd feel like I'd been hit in the head with a sledgehammer. I had a new baby then, and he was with us--I don't know if it was even six months. I did a thing I would never do now. I kicked him out. I didn't care what happened to him. I did the best I could at the time, but you just reach a point--a saturation point."
On November 25, 1953, at a small ceremony at the Riverside Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Anne Berggren and Paul Thelander married. Paul's father shared the pulpit with another minister who read from 1 Corinthians 13: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. For now we see in a mirror dimly....
Anne Thelander can't account for much of what happened in the 1950s. Most of her memory was erased by concentrated and repeated doses of electroshock therapy administered during a bout with depression midway through the decade. "They give you three a day," she explains. "You get like you're an infant, a baby. They have to feed you and change you. I just remember when I came out of it. At first I was euphoric, and everything seemed so beautiful and nice. But that didn't last long."
As she tries to remember, she pulls at a lock of her tangled gray hair and squints her mascara-smeared eyes. Although Anne's face looks to be that of a 50-year-old woman, she will be 70 next year. It's easy to mistake her halting speech for simple-mindedness, though she earned a sociology degree at the University of Minnesota even after her first round of shock treatments. She's an insatiable reader; books line the shelves in her living room and balance in stacks next to her reading chair by the window. Her mind is like one of those books: inscribed with stories, facts, and details, but with some of the pages torn out. She shifts in her seat, leafs through what remains, and begins to remember in fits and starts.
Throughout the 1950s, the Thelanders struggled to find work and pay bills, and they both suffered from periodic schizophrenic episodes that disrupted better times. In 1955 Paul was hospitalized again after he became convinced that the FBI was following him. Attending doctors at Station 60 prescribed more than 60 rounds of electroshock therapy, Anne says, reducing the former chemistry instructor to the mental capacity of an infant. Upon his release weeks later, she goes on, "He worked at Goodwill sewing up pants. That's about all he could do. He knew he had been through a hard experience. He had his thesis and his work done, but he hadn't taken his orals yet. After he had all his shock treatments, he had lost a lot of his memory of the chemistry. So he had to go back and study it all over again." The next year saw Anne hospitalized for depression; during her extended stay in the psychiatric unit she underwent a battery of electroshock treatments. After she returned home, she secured work with the Minneapolis Public Library system, where she worked for most of the marriage. It was her steady salary that kept the couple solvent, and financed, at the turn of the decade, a down payment on the small house on 40th Avenue.
In 1959 the Thelanders drove to the University of Utah, where Paul passed his oral examinations and was awarded a master's degree in chemistry. "When he got back to Minneapolis," Anne says, "he found that the place he had been working"--a lab where he'd been hired on to do menial work--"had gone out of business, so he didn't have a job. He was proud that he had gotten his degree after all those shock treatments and everything. Well, people who were hiring--he would tell them about his illness. He went to over 110 places and got turned down by all of them. That really got to him, and he ended up in the psych ward again."
He came out a few weeks later, and finally landed a job taking part in experimental radiation studies at the Department of Health in St. Paul. Work, however, proved as difficult as looking for work. "They wouldn't give him a key to the lab, so he couldn't go out to get something to eat and come back," Anne explains. "That triggered his paranoia again. He just thought the FBI was after him." At the time, he was under a psychiatrist's order for daily doses of the powerful anti-psychotic Thorazine, but he would often refuse the medication, and the resulting chemical imbalance triggered his bouts of paranoia. Anne remembers her husband talking incessantly about forces out to get him--the FBI, the CIA, passing strangers, even his oldest friends. "I said 'Well, either take this medication or I'll leave you.' I was just desperate for him to get well," Anne says. "He wouldn't take it, so I went to stay with a friend over by the university.
"He had told me before our marriage, 'I love you so much I'd walk barefoot to find you.' So that's what he did. Paul took off his shoes and walked from way out where we were living over to the university. The police picked him up and took him to HCMC"--Hennepin County Medical Center--"where the doctor said he couldn't communicate with him and that I would have to commit him to St. Mary's. He was there for about a month and then he was okay, but the health department fired him."
And so it went, in and out of psychiatric units, desperate for work during periods of relative lucidity. Paul bounced from job to job, even volunteering for a time at a hospital lab rather than sitting idly at home. When he wasn't too depressed, or too manic, or too paranoid, Anne says, he was a joy to be with--funny, charming, intelligent, a good neighbor, friend, and husband.
It was during one of his stable moments, in 1963, that he launched his own business. Thelander founded American Chemical Enterprises in his garage, funding the start-up with money left over from Anne's salary after the bills were paid. He concocted specialized chemical solutions for various industries, like methyline blue, an agent still used in commercial dairies to test milk for bacteria. He eventually raised enough capital to move operations into a small shop near the couple's home, from there into a suburban warehouse, and finally into a downtown Minneapolis office building. But his scientific aptitude didn't extend into the financial side of the business. "He was generous, too generous, and would just give his money away," Anne remembers. "We were kind of on the edge of poverty all the time."
Apart from supplying products to industrial customers, Thelander used his business as a kind of social-service center. He made a habit of hiring chronic alcoholics and drifters. He sought out others who were suffering from mental illness and put them to work tidying up around the lab. For a time, a young schizophrenic man swept the floors; an alcoholic ex-college professor measured out chemicals. His wife got used to seeing him stump up the sidewalk with the homeless, the jobless, the insane--men who needed a shower and a couch to sleep on.
Paul continued to shuttle between work and the psychiatric ward. In 1968 he suffered another paranoid attack which led to commitment in the crisis ward at St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis. Anne remembers his quarters there, a dim room that reeked of urine, bare except for a single mattress on the floor. When Paul heard strong winds blow past the window, he believed they carried the sounds of evil spirits; after 1968, Anne says, he always slept with a light on in his bedroom.
"He was very tense, very paranoid, very frightened," Marylyn Halpern remembers. Halpern was the psychiatric nurse in charge of St. Mary's critical care unit, and later became a family friend of the Thelanders. "Most of the time--and this is a generality--when people are paranoid, it usually starts on some basis in the past where they have had experiences, legitimate ones, that first made them feel that way. I wasn't frightened of him, because his paranoia was based on anxiety and fear." Halpern traces her former patient's paranoia to his strict religious upbringing. In later years, when she and her husband hosted the Thelanders for dinner parties, Paul proved conversant in an impressive range of topics--chemistry, medicine, books both classic and contemporary. "There was a wide variety of things to talk about," she says, "but we couldn't talk about religion. It disturbed him."
Although religion remained off-limits with acquaintances, to his wife Paul spoke freely about matters of the spirit and God. Anne recalls that the two spent countless evenings discussing metaphysics, teasing out the ephemeral nature of being, and testing faith against fact, with Paul keeping detailed notes of their dialogues.
For order against the chaos schizophrenia made of his mind, Thelander often turned to science. "He would try to think scientifically, just to try to keep his mind straight," Anne says. He would, for instance, habitually calculate to the penny how much money the couple had at any given moment. Other times he would construct elaborate proofs, as if scientific methodology could dispel the darkness. Anne has preserved a few notes Paul scrawled on the backs of envelopes in his darkened room at St. Mary's--marginalia that map the man's struggle to tether his mind to reality: "Hypothesis: To prove how long my front porch light bulb will last. Given: 1. Front porch light bulb. 2. Switch in living room wall, right side (or east switch). Proof: 1. Time switch turned on approx. 6:40 AM 10/11/68. 2. 6:45 AM Light bulb still on. 3. Check again 7 AM call to report results.... 7. At 7:23 AM looking at clocks on the kitchen wall my wife & I turned off the porch light outside...."
In 1969, after Paul's released from St. Mary's, the Thelanders arranged to adopt a child. "Our little United Nations baby," Anne says, smiling at the memory of seeing for the first time their daughter Hope Elizabeth--whom the adoption agency listed as having Jewish, Black, French Creole, and American Indian ancestry. "Looking back on it, I should have taken off time from work, not just a few days. If I had, everything would have been all right. Paul was taking care of the baby and he got so excited, he just got into this real hyper frame again. He got real manic. He went all over the neighborhood bringing out cigars and stuff. That's not so unusual, but he would just overdo it. You could just tell--he was talking so much and real manicky. So we brought the baby back. Then Paul ended up in the hospital, and I felt so bad that I took an overdose of sleeping pills and ended up in the hospital, too."
Anne sits for a moment in silence, rocking and watching the window fan tick. Then she says, "I think it was for the best. It would have been hard. But even now, I often wonder what happened to her."
On the top shelf of a bookcase in her living room, Anne Thelander keeps a small green bottle with a glass stopper. It stands for her husband's most prestigious achievements in chemistry, and one of the defining passages in their life together.
In the early 1970s Paul approached Maurice Kreevoy, a distinguished chemist at the University of Minnesota, and asked if he might consider taking on a collaborator in his lab. "He was sent around to me by another member of the department who thought I might be sympathetic and willing to do something for him," Kreevoy remembers. "He wanted to do some scientific work and was willing to work without a salary. I had some space in my lab and I took him in." Paul joined Kreevoy's team in 1971.
"Maurice is one of the smartest people I ever met," says Steve Wann, who worked both in Kreevoy's lab and in Thelander's private chemical enterprise. (He currently makes a living cloning trees for the multinational Union Camp lumber company.) "Maurice housed a bunch of misfits. There was Paul, and there was this Yugoslavian student. They had offices up in the chem building. There was always some friction between Maurice and the rest of the chem department, but because of his reputation he could get away with it. Paul--he was really something. He had crazy ideas. A lot of them weren't worth much, but he had some gems. He kind of reminded me of the Keebler elf. He was short and he had this little beard, and he'd be smoking his pipe in the lab. He had the most rancid pipe tobacco imaginable. It wouldn't be atypical to see a bottle of cyanide in one hand and his pipe in the other."
Thelander divided his days and nights between his own business and work in Kreevoy's lab. One night, according to his wife, he was working late at the university conducting experiments with combinations of chemicals. He mixed iodine and phosphoric acid in the green bottle that now sits atop the bookshelf in Anne's living room. Then he poured the mix into another chemical solution that included copper. The iodine-acid solution caused the copper to solidify and drift, almost magically, out of the emulsion. The process he'd happened upon meant Thelander could pour his new chemical cocktail into water saturated with heavy metals, and all the metals--copper, silver, gold, rhodium--would drift out of the solution in solid, and valuable, form.
He put the invention to use immediately, with chemistry student Steve Wann as his assistant. "We had a little route and a panel truck," Wann remembers, "and we'd drive to dental offices, vet offices, Film in the Cities--any place with spent photographic solutions." In Thelander's garage the two of them would then precipitate silver out of the soup of spent solutions they would mix in an old cheese-making bowl. Thelander used the rendered silver in materials he supplied to dairy operations or, better yet, sold it to precious metals dealers. The market for silver in the mid-1970s was strong, with an ounce selling for as much as $50. "We paid 50 cents a gallon, and each gallon had an ounce of silver in it," Wann says. "Every time I worked I was making $30 to $50 an hour."
Thelander's innovation caught the attention of Byron Thomson, a local consultant who scoped out small, local businesses and marketed inventions to corporate firms. He wasn't as interested in salvaging metals from barrels of waste as he was in the unadulterated water left behind. "Paul's was an environmental invention of great importance," Thomson says. "Circuit-board plants, they have heavy metals in their wastewater that are very difficult to deal with. What Paul did was simply find a way to bind them so tightly with nontoxic materials that they became land-fillable."
Thelander applied for and was granted U.S. and European patents for his invention. With Thomson's help he adapted his process for industrial-scale use. Their demonstration projects, a plating factory in southern Minnesota and another on the East Coast, proved more successful than either man had imagined possible. "Congress had just passed a bill requiring very low wastewater discharge," Thomson recalls. "We succeeded in meeting and exceeding that tough, low-level requirement. I think that is his greatest contribution. He was working hard and was dedicated to making this happen. He hoped to save the world."
Between the success of their test projects and the strict new rules for waste management, the two men stood to become wealthy entrepreneurs. They drew up plans to outfit thousands of small factories across the country with Thelander's invention, but in the end, Thomson says, no one cared: The federal legislation had no provisions for enforcing industrial clean-up, and factories continued with business as usual. Without penalties for polluting, there was no market for the process; and without a market, Thomson reasons, "we went under."
In the early 1980s, he asked Kreevoy for permission to transfer his business into the university lab. "I told him he couldn't do that because we weren't allowed to use university lab space for private work," Kreevoy says. "He felt that he was making a contribution. He'd also gone to an administrator and demanded space. This man didn't know Paul nearly as well as I did and was alarmed at his conversation. I thought that not only was the demand for space unreasonable, but also that going to the administration was likely to get me in trouble. It wasn't anything terribly dramatic. We clearly disagreed, and he became angry. We quarreled over it, and he left."
"He took that pretty hard," Anne recalls. "He never got over that." Thelander, by then, was collecting Social Security, so he shut down his business and dismantled his space at the university lab, carting all of his chemicals and equipment back to the couple's house on 40th Avenue. The man whose most promising invention was designed to purify the nation's wastewater began in earnest to amass an inventory of toxic chemicals and poisons in his private basement.
In time Thelander expanded his silver reclamation to include other metals, using his patented process on cadmium, chromium, zinc, nickel, lead, tin, platinum, rhodium, even gold. He extracted precious metals out of anything he could think of. With caustic acids, he would melt circuitry, scrap metal, and garbage to extract their precious metals. He could take an old circuit board out of a radio, drop it in an acid bath, and precipitate gold out of the liquid. From silverware he would distill rhodium, a rare and ultrastable element used in metal alloys that was then valued higher than gold. All day, and sometimes through the night, he'd smoke his pipe while fussing over the accumulation of chemicals in his basement--pouring, mixing, measuring, experimenting. "Part of the game was to extract precious metals from various sources," Thomson recalls. "He could get iridium. He could get copper. He could get silver. He could get gold. Paul was a modern-day alchemist."
His productive period in the lab of professor Kreevoy was over; his work with the consultant Byron Thomson had turned into a disappointing dead end. Paul poured his energies and imagination into his alchemy. But his mental health began to deteriorate. "All during 1983 it was really bad." Anne says. "It was a crazy year. That was when he was calling the police all the time. He thought the FBI was after him, and the CIA. He thought our thermostat was sending signals to the FBI and he wanted to tear it out. He thought they were trying to run over me. And he would talk a lot, without ceasing. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.
"Then it was New Year's time, the first part of January. It was real snowy out. Paul went out in the snow with a scissors. He was trying to defend us. He was barefoot, holding these scissors out in the snow, talking constantly. I called our doctor, and asked if we could get him into the hospital. Then I called 911. They knew all about Paul because he'd been calling the police all the time. They tied Paul to a board and took him away in the ambulance."
Paul Thelander spent the last decade of his life scrapping for precious metals, while, in his basement hideaway, signs of corrosion and dissolution were beginning to show in the containers of his stockpiled chemicals and toxic compounds. He still made friends at the nearby White Castle; he still opened his home to friends and strangers who shared his burden of mental illness. But during the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, he began to turn inward, and his schizophrenia seemed, at last, to ease.
Everyone who knew the couple understood their abiding love for each other, and recognized its tonic effect on Paul's illness, particularly in their last decade together. "He was lucky he found a way, and a person to live with who was accepting of him," says Marylyn Halpern, the psychiatric nurse who befriended the Thelanders. "A lot of people with his condition don't have that luck." Even as he found some respite from the driving paranoia of his younger years, his physical health worsened. Doctors had noted his weak heart back in 1968. At the time, he'd refused a pacemaker, thinking the physicians were conspiring to kill him. Over the years, he'd suffered what he assumed to be mild heart attacks, one following a car accident in the 1980s and another in his home. But he avoided hospitals whenever possible.
Depression set in during Thelander's final years--a chronic affliction, like his schizophrenia, that would descend upon him without warning, leaving him nearly mute and sucking an unlit pipe. "One time he was just sitting there and he looked like he was crying, but no tears were coming out," remembers one family friend. "I said, 'I love you, Paul' and I thought he didn't hear me, because he had a hearing aid he would sometimes turn down. But after about a minute he looked over at me, so I knew he heard me."
Anne Thelander didn't believe her husband was dying, but looking back on it she thinks he knew. She says he had premonitions of his own death starting in 1996. One night he awoke to the presence of an angel in the living room, clear and substantial as a corporeal being. At his 70th birthday party on October 3, 1996, his wife invited several friends to mark the day at their house. For the better part of that evening, Paul seemed enlivened by the fierce joy he sometimes felt, like the time he'd jumped with an echoing whoop down a playground slide. "But he was sad, too, because he knew that would be his last birthday," Anne says. Later that month he ran into an old friend, a minister, and urgently requested that he preach at his funeral.
Three months after his birthday, in early January 1997, Thelander contracted pneumonia. His doctor prescribed a course of oral medication, and sent him home to recuperate. "Oh, he had a terrible time that night," Anne says. "He didn't want to go to emergency. He just had a real bad time breathing. In the morning I called the doctor and said, 'Can't we get some oxygen over here?' But he couldn't. I called my neighbor and she said she had a humidifier to bring over.
"Paul and I were just sitting up there in the bedroom. I was sitting on a stool and he was sitting up in the bed. It was morning. We were just talking. Then he had this attack where he quit breathing for a while. He came out of it and he said, 'Oh, I just had this dream that I was being taken to the hospital.' Then we were talking about life and death and God and Jesus. He said he believed in Jesus. And then the last thing he said was, 'I believe in reincarnation.'" Anne called for an ambulance. The emergency room staff at what was then Riverside Medical Center in Minneapolis attempted to resuscitate him, to no avail. At 20 minutes past two in the afternoon on January 22, his heart stopped.
Some 70 friends and family members came to pay their respects at his funeral. At the graveside, Anne read from The Prophet, a book of mystical writings by Kahlil Gibran that she had owned since childhood: How shall you find the secret of death unless you seek it in life? Life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one. What is it to die but to stand naked in the wind?
After the EPA supervisor returned her house key this past June, Anne moved back home. In the empty basement, she set up an old table that had survived the purge, one that her husband used to mix his solutions on. She's placed his favorite pipe on it, she says, "so he can see the change." Along with the dozens of barrels and tons of lethal chemicals removed from the house during the emergency clean-up were his scientific data, his meticulous records, his research notebooks, and the pages filled over the decades with notes. She has just a few cards, his thesis, an envelope of photographs, his pipe, and a few personal effects to remember him by.
Among the keepsakes is a card Paul Thelander gave to his wife on their 35th wedding anniversary, scribbled with notes in his distinctive cursive: The Good Lord has been with us including God within Ourselves. I think we see a Pattern of Destiny & Hope Interwoven in All we have done since perhaps Birth itself. Where God guides & leads us from Here we will have to use our intuition and wait direction from God to figure out. Without You, Life would be empty and unbearable. You have saved me Time & Time Again. May I be able to continue to give You The Life You Deserve. I trust Things will get Better!!! This is My Hope.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.