Four decades ago, 20-something Jon Woltz turned to his wife, Karen — the mother of his children, the daughter of his boss at John Deere and a 24-karat gem in the mom and wife department — and said:
“Somebody, somewhere, is working a 40-hour week and liking it,’’ said Woltz, a Waverly, Iowa, mainstay, and physical therapy legend, who is in the home stretch of three-plus decade career as a physical therapist, certified athletic trainer, friend, mentor and sounding board for countless patients, students and giants in the world of physical therapy.
Today, at age 66 and on the cusp of retirement, Jon Woltz is forever grateful and that day many years ago, Karen Woltz allowed him to seek a new career, pave a new path, and leave a mark only few have left in the world of physical therapy.
“I was lucky,’’ Woltz — as he reflected in rather humorous fashion — said of his long and storied career, which will end this week. “Everything worked, fell into place. Oh there were struggles, but things turned out fine.’’
Making $26,000 at the time and working six days a week for the farm implement-making giant, Woltz — engaging and humble to a fault — wanted to go to college. Married young, Karen and John Woltz were in full family mode when he sought his bride’s guidance on such an adventurous and uncertain step at the time.
“I went to school and she went to work,’’ Woltz said. “She made it work. It helped that Wartburg (College), where I did my undergraduate work, was where I was from. Being a non-traditional student was unique, but it allowed me some freedoms and we had great support from so many.’’
Today, after treating thousands of patients, guiding countless athletic training and PT hopefuls, having an impact on so many and building a successful practice, Jon and Karen Woltz are open-road bound.
The day after he bids Rock Valley Physical Therapy’s Waverly clinic farewell, the two will begin criss-crossing the United States (Texas first) and enjoy the sights and post-pandemic (hopefully) sounds of all that comes their way.
“We are hopping in the car and are out of here,’’ Woltz said. ‘Warm weather. My wife has a brother in Texas and that’s the first place for two weeks. From there we are going to learn more about the United States; travel some. We’ll just see where it takes us. Maybe I can reintroduce myself to my wife.’’
It is a trip much deserved on so many fronts.
“It was unique in that I worked for my wife’s dad at John Deere,’’ said Woltz, who rattled off a list of many — personally and professionally — who have helped him along the way. “He understood. And I gained approval from my dad, Jim, who earned his master’s degree while I was growing up. He knew something about having a family and going to school. He earned his master’s while raising four kids.’’
So four decades ago, off Woltz went, looking — with help from his high school guidance counselor — and finding — a career that on average nationally — would pay $8,000 less annually than what he was making at the time at John Deere.
This after post-graduate work.
“The average salary of a therapist at that time was $18,000,’’ said Woltz, who received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Wartburg College in 1984 and graduated from the University of Iowa Physical Therapy program in 1986. Woltz has been a Certified Athletic Trainer since 1988 and is an active member of the Private Practice and Sports Sections of the American Physical Therapy Association. For three-plus decades, Woltz has been a lecturer and presenter for the nationally acclaimed continuing education three-day course for health care professionals called “When The Feet Hit The Ground, Everything Changes,’’ a program designed to teach physical therapists the biomechanics of the foot, knee and hip in the running athlete or the everyday walker.
“But it was a career that intrigued me,’’ Woltz said of physical therapy. “ That guidance counselor I sought help from shared with me eight potential careers at the time and I loved the idea of become a therapist.’’
After doing his postgraduate work, Woltz landed in Chicago, where he spent two years before returning home, plying his trade at a Waterloo hospital and as the athletic trainer at Wartburg College.
Each day, to say the least, was full.
“I think it amounted to $4.50 an hour,’’ Woltz said of working at the Waterloo hospital as a therapist from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and handling training duties at Wartburg from 2 until 7 p.m. — and many times beyond.
“I know it wasn’t over $5,’’ he added. “I was makin $29,000 in Chicago and thought I had hit the lottery back then.’’
It was at Wartburg where Woltz — with respect to his many years in private practice — left a lifetime impression on those seeking careers either as a physical therapist or as certified athletic trainers.
“Jon’s impact on my career is immeasurable. As a student at Wartburg, watching Jon work full-time in the training room while starting his own PT business, exposed me to the wonders of the profession and the behaviors of a professional,’’ Mike Horsfield, CEO, Rock Valley Physical Therapy, said of Woltz. Rock Valley is the largest therapist-led physical therapy company in the nation, featuring 52 clinics over seven regions about Iowa and Illinois.
“He was instrumental in me choosing this career path that has brought so many blessings,’’ added Horsfield. “I will forever be grateful to have worked for him and alongside him.’’
Woltz also played a monumental, career-guiding role with Rock Valley COO Eric Sacia.
“I met Jon during my time at Wartburg from 1987 through 1991,’’ said Sacia, who like Horsfield, is a Rock Valley cornerstone and a Wartburg College grad. “Mike and I both worked in the training room with Jon and he showed us how you can be many things in life from being an athletic trainer at Wartburg, to a successful PT and business owner, all the while being dedicated to his family’s needs. He demonstrated a passion to continue learning as evidenced by his teaching of students and other PTs through continuing education. Jon always loved taking care of patients and wanting the best for them and I consider him one of my most influential role models that set me on my path.’
It was in 1990 that Woltz — with Karen’s blessings and a leap of professional faith — took another life-altering chance. With only one physical therapist serving Waverly at the time, the two opened Woltz Physical Therapy. As Jon addressed and cared for patients, Karen covered every nut and bolt it would take to keep the practice open and running successfully.
“It really was a leap of faith,’’ Woltz said of the early years as a clinic owner. “We were winging it and learned a lot on the fly. The insurance people were always explaining things to us.’’
Jon and Karen — who would return to college and earn her nursing degree at age 42 — would guide the fortunes of Woltz Physical Therapy for nearly 20 years. In 2008, they joined the Rock Valley family, bringing Woltz and many he guided through the infant stages of their careers — full circle.
“I started shadowing and observing Jon when I was a student at Wartburg in 2009,’’ said Jennifer Peters, Level II Physical Therapist, PT, DPT, Clinic Manager at Rock Valley Physical Therapy’s Waverly, Iowa-based clinic. “I was unsure of my career path at the time and he definitely helped me find my way. It was during that year I decided to go into physical therapy so that I could help change and influence patient’s lives forever, just as Jon had done. I observed the effect that Jon had on his patients and the positive impact that he made in their lives. He developed a trusting relationship with them and was able to convey an important message of healing and self-empowerment.
After graduating from P.T. school, I decided to come back to Waverly to work with Jon and his staff,’’ added Peters. “Over the last eight years with Rock Valley, I have been able to continuously learn different treatment techniques and acquire new perspectives on ways to communicate with and motivate my patients with the mentorship and leadership of Jon Woltz.
The community of Waverly and surrounding areas have greatly benefitted from what Jon has built over the years. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have worked with him and to have learned from him. He is a wonderful leader, mentor and colleague and I wish him the very best in his retirement. He will be missed by many.’’
When Jon Woltz returns to Waverly from his much-anticipated and much-deserved road trip, there will be plenty to keep him busy. For over 50 years, he has assisted those in need with lawn care, snow-removal and assorted home repairs.
“Some are second and third generation,’’ he said. ‘It began as a youngster, I was always mowing lawns and shoveling snow. I need to look after some folks.’
Looking after folks…
It’s what Jon Woltz is about.
By: Johnny Marx, Storyteller