Thursday, September 20, 2001

Jerry Schmitz

One last pitch for ALS cure

        An engineer to the end. That was Jerry Schmitz.

        “My sphere of influence,” he said cheerfully about a year ago, “is about a foot square.” He was sitting in a wheelchair, his fingers curled into loose fists, his hands and arms nearly useless. His plan, he said, was to get things going for other people “before I leave.”

        Jerome J. Schmitz, 52, “left” Sunday morning, dying in his sleep at his home in Montgomery. Husband, father, golfer, 30-year Procter & Gamble employee, gardener, micro-manager, relentless kibitzer, person with ALS.

        A chemical engineer by training, he vigorously engineered his day-to-day life, not to mention his day-to-day people.

        Two years ago, Jerry was still golfing, still mowing his yard in Montgomery, still skiing with his boys. It started with a slight limp, then raced cruelly through his body. From the begining, his wife, Judy, says, “He took this disease on as a challenge, not an affliction.”

A people magnet

        About 5,000 people in this country are diagnosed each year, about the same as multiple sclerosis, but “there aren't as many of us because we don't live as long, usually two to five years,” Jerry had said matter-of-factly.

        Funny and abrupt and demanding, he drew people to him like a magnet. Once they were attached, they stayed. People from grade school, high school, work. And he pulled them into his cause. Insistently.

        Jerry was a smart guy, but he badly underestimated his sphere of influence.

        His friend Bill Winkler wrote a eulogy, noting similarities between Jerry and his University of Kentucky mascot. “Wildcats are extremely feisty and very cunning. They are small, quick and live in very rough terrain.”

        Judy Phillips Schmitz has been with Jerry on every inch of that “very rough terrain.” She is, I suppose, not a saint. For all I know, she eats ice cream directly from the carton or cheats at cards. Or something.

        But she has been the most admirable partner you could imagine. A gifted teacher, she took a leave of absence from her job as principal of Mariemont Junior High School to be with Jerry.

        Not wanting to miss a minute, she says.

        This lovely man — this outspoken, aggressive, bright person — was attacked and killed by a terrible disease, one he meant to defeat. With no illusions that he would be the beneficiary, he used the last days of his life raising money for research.

Posthumous orders

        ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — has no known cause, prevention or cure. It is rarely hereditary, so this campaign was not for his beloved sons, Scott and Joe. It was for strangers, for family in the larger sense. Just as he was an engineer in the larger sense.

        His wishes — his demands — were made toward the end with blinks of his eyes, pain-stakingly spelling out words. My marching orders, delivered posthumously through Judy, are to let people know about the ALS Walk on Sunday, Oct. 7, at Miami Whitewater Forest. It begins at 11 a.m., and information is available at (513) 891-1191.

        A lot of people will be there with his name on their T-shirts. He probably approved the lettering.

        Engineering right up to the end. And expanding his sphere of influence.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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