Thursday, October 26, 2000

PULFER: Jerry Schmitz

P&G exec pitching for a cure

        The little girl, a second-grader at Fairfax Elementary, was touched by the story of Jerry Schmitz. She wiggled a perilously loose front tooth and said she'd donate her Tooth Fairy money. Maybe as much as a dollar.

        Offer gratefully accepted.

        Jerry Schmitz knows it won't help him, but his plan is to get things going for other people before he “leaves,” as he puts it. So he will talk about excruciatingly personal matters. And his wife, Judy, will figure out ways to wrestle him into their van and off they'll go. Telling his story. He thinks she tries to do too much. She thinks he is the bravest person she has ever known.

        I believe them both.

        A researcher with Procter & Gamble, Jerry woke up one day with a limp. He'd once blown his knee playing racquetball, thought maybe he'd aggravated it. Nope. But his doctor noticed some muscle weakness. So Jerry stepped up the exercise. Basketball, push-ups.

        It didn't help.

        More tests. Then, about a year ago, the day before his 51st birthday, Jerry got a death sentence. ALS. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Lou Gehrig's Disease. No known cause, prevention or cure.

        About 5,000 people in this country are diagnosed each year. “About the same as MS,” Jerry says. “There aren't as many of us because we don't live as long, usually two to five years.”

        Last year, Jerry was still golfing, still mowing his big yard in Montgomery. Today, he is in a wheelchair, as ALS makes its inexorable way up his body. Too quickly. “This is one time I hate being an overachiever.” Fingers curl into loose fists. He can't use his hands and arms much. “My sphere of influence is about a foot square,” he says cheerfully.

        “Right before you came, the Gate of Heaven guy left, so we got that out of the way.” I think he is trying to figure out what will be hardest to handle for the wife “who tries to do too much.”

        A little plastic disc is affixed to his elaborate $20,000 chair. The word “whining” inside a red circle with a slash. The universal sign. He does not seem to need the reminder. Nor does Judy, on leave from her job as principal of Mariemont Junior High School.

        They get some of their lift, they say, from the support group that meets the second Monday of every month at Brookwood Retirement Community in Sycamore Township. Jerry fixes me with a firm gaze — he can be kind of bossy, if you want to know the truth — and makes me promise to list the phone number of the Ohio ALS Chapter, (614) 273-2572. “Best place to get good information.”

        Jerry pushes. He wants relief for people fighting for insurance money. He wants money for research. Help for ALS caregivers. So he keeps getting in that silver van, specially equipped with a lift and a wife who does everything she can to ease this heartbreakingly bumpy ride.

        People from Fairfax, Terrace Park and Mariemont will meet Saturday at 11 a.m. at Mariemont's bell tower on Wooster Pike. Officially, it's Make a Difference Day. These communities have chosen to “Strike Out ALS.” Youngsters — like the one with the gap in her front teeth — probably have never heard of Lou Gehrig. I'm guessing the baseball symbolism escapes them. But they know about Jerry, and they will be there for him.

        So will Judy.

        She will also be there the next day. And the day after that.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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