by Charlie and Lucy Wedemeyer
with Gregg Lewis
Charlie and Lucy Wedemeyer
1993, Zondervan Publishing House
Charlie Wedemeyer cannot walk, speak,
or even breathe on his own. A respirator and a feeding tube keep
him alive. He requires 24-hour-a-day nursing care. He's in constant
danger of choking on his own saliva. For more than fifteen years,
he's been unable to hold his wife in his arms, applaud his children's
triumphs, or even lift his own head. Charlie Wedemeyer has ALS
(Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease).
In 1978, Charlie Wedemeyer, the
younger brother of Five-O actor Herman Wedemeyer, was a successful
football coach in Los Gatos, California when he went to see his
doctor about a bothersome weakness in his hands. To his shock,
he was diagnosed with ALS and given a year to live. Amazingly,
despite the relentless progression of his disease, Charlie is
alive today, keeping up a schedule of public appearances that
would daunt most well people and continuing to coach football
too. The subject of both a TV movie and a PBS documentary, Charlie
and his wife Lucy decided to write Charlie's Victory to
tell their story in their own words, the way Hollywood never
The early chapters of Charlie's
Victory contain a lot of interesting information about the
Wedemeyer family. Charlie was born in 1946 in Kalihi Valley,
which he describes as the toughest and poorest area on Oahu.
Charlie was the youngest of nine children-more than 20 years
younger than his brother Herman, who was busy tearing up the
football fields at St. Mary's College. The family included Herman,
Ruth, Jewel, Kenneth, Earl, Winona, Bridget, Penny, and Charlie,
and his extended family of cousins, nieces, and nephews. The
Wedemeyer family heritage includes Hawaiian, German, Irish, English,
Chinese, and French Tahitian ancestry.
Not surprisingly, personal space
was at a premium at the Wedemeyers' tiny two-bedroom, one-bath
house. Charlie remembers sharing a bedroom with all his siblings
(the girls got the bed and the boys slept on the floor). Because
the warped bathroom door didn't close, family members had to
hang a jacket or a towel across it even to have privacy in the
Family lore included stories about
Japanese planes roaring over their home on the morning of December
7, 1941. Fortunately, Charlie's father, a crane operator who
worked on the docks at Pearl Harbor, didn't have to go to work
that fateful Sunday morning, or Charlie might never have been
born. Charlie describes his father as outgoing and boisterous.
To Charlie's embarrassment growing up, his father bragged constantly
on the accomplishments of his many children and would fight anyone
who criticized them.
father also liked to tell tall tales, particularly about his
handicap. As a teenager, Charlie's father had fallen under a
freight train that he and his pals were jumping for a ride into
town. As a result, his left foot was badly mangled. Nevertheless,
Charlie's dad became a great athlete, playing semi-pro baseball
and football as a youth and excelling at softball and golf as
an older man. He told so many stories to the kids about how he
hurt his foot (favorites being wild dogs and vicious toe-eating
sea turtles) that Charlie was grown up before he realized the
train story was the true one.
Above: Charlie Wedemeyer with
Below: The Wedemeyer family in 1973. Charlie is on the far left
in the back row. Herman is on the far right.
Charlie's mom, on the other hand, was quiet and shy. Charlie
recalls peaceful childhood days spent helping her grow beautiful
flowers in the garden. She was a perfectionist who set high expectations
for the family. While the kids never had a lot of clothes, she
made sure that they left the house impeccably groomed and dressed.
She discouraged them from speaking pidgin (Hawaiian street slang),
insisting that they speak correct English at all times. A devout
Catholic, Mrs. Wedemeyer also held her children to strict moral
standards, and taught them never to do anything to bring embarrassment
or unfavorable attention to the family.
All of the Wedemeyer siblings were
athletic. In addition to swimming, surfing, and diving, all of
them competed in team and individual sports. The boys played
football, baseball, and basketball and the girls excelled in
judo and other sports. Family outings included big volleyball
games between all the siblings and their spouses, along with
that other favorite Hawaiian activity, eating. A typical potluck
picnic on the beach included teriyaki, sushi, manapua (filled
dumplings), sweet and sour spareribs, Korean BBQ, corned beef
and cabbage, and the island staple, beans and rice.
In sports-crazy Hawaii, the Wedemeyer
kids became local celebrities. Because there wasn't much in the
way of pro or college athletics in Hawaii, high school football
was tremendously popular, with big games drawing huge crowds
to the old Honolulu Stadium. Charlie was slated to play football
for the all-Hawaiian Kamehameha School, but at Herman's urging,
he accepted an athletic scholarship to the exclusive Punahou
school instead. This was very controversial in the Hawaiian community,
and Charlie even received a telephone threat before one big game.
Although he didn't take it seriously, Herman did, and made Charlie
stay at his house the week before the game instead of returning
to the family home in Windward Oahu each night.
Like his brother before him, Charlie
was an exciting, audacious athlete who thrilled the fans. He
became a huge star at Punahou. There, he also met his future
wife, Lucy Dangler, the daughter of a successful businessman.
For Lucy and Charlie, it was love at first sight. They soon became
inseparable. Although they came from different racial and socio-economic
backgrounds, both families admired and respected each other and
approved of the match. Charlie and Lucy loved to go down to Waikiki,
just to walk on the beach or slip into one of the showrooms to
hear a song or two. Lucy recalls that they seldom had to pay,
as most of the musicians knew either Charlie or Herman or were
somehow related to the Wedemeyers.
When it came time to go to college,
Charlie had a lot of choices. He selected Michigan State because
of their strong program in hotel and restaurant management. He
notes, "I hoped to one day follow my brother Herman into
that field." Although he was lonely at first, he was soon
joined by Lucy. They got married and started their family right
away. Charlie continued his success on the football field, winning
honors as part of Michigan State's national championship team.
Charlie decided to continue his
career in football by becoming a coach. By the 1970's, he and
his family (now including daughter Carrie and son Kale) moved
to California where Charlie became a high school teacher and
coach for Los Gatos High School. His pro-style coaching and demanding,
perfectionist standards helped make the team a powerhouse.
When he was 30, Charlie started
to notice a weakness in his hands. A nuisance at first, he gradually
began having trouble writing on the blackboard at school and
shaving in the morning. Even unlocking his car at the end of
the day became a difficult task. At first he and Lucy tried to
dismiss the scary symptoms as just fallout from old football
injuries. Finally, Charlie underwent a battery of tests. When
the tests were in, he received a death sentence from his doctors.
He had ALS, a degenerative and terminal disease (perhaps best-known
today as the disease of physicist Stephen Hawking). At the rate
that Charlie's condition was progressing, the doctor told the
Wedemeyers that Charlie would probably die within a year.
The young couple was stunned. At
first, they were in denial, and just tried to go on with life
as usual. Then, since there was no cure or treatment for ALS,
they began to try a battery of alternative treatments, from acupuncture
to consulting a Hawaiian healer. Although some of the treatments
made Charlie feel better, none of them slowed the relentless
progression of the ALS. Gradually, Charlie lost the use of his
arms completely. A proud perfectionist, he was humiliated when
he took several bad falls in public. He had trouble eating, and
lost an alarming amount of weight. Despite his determination
to keep walking, his body failed him, and he had to start using
a wheelchair. Lucy developed painful back problems from having
to wrestle his immobile body around the house and to the football
field. Their financial resources were completely drained; nonetheless,
Charlie was so proud that he wouldn't even let his brother Herman
organize a fundraiser in Hawaii, even though Herman's political,
business, and entertainment connections would have made it a
guaranteed success. Life was a daily, painful struggle.
The only satisfaction Charlie had
through his coaching. Though he'd been forced to give up teaching,
he continued as head coach of the Los Gatos Wildcats. But by
1983, coaching became increasingly difficult. Not only was he
growing weaker every day, but he was losing his voice. It was
then that Lucy joined him on the sidelines at Los Gatos games,
driving him up and down the sidelines in a golf cart and interpreting
his whispered commands for the players and the rest of the coaching
staff. It was this development that led to Charlie becoming a
focus of media attention that at times became a frenzy.
Charlie's Victory has some interesting things to say about
the media. As Charlie's condition became more obvious, media
in both California and Hawaii began to speculate that he had
cancer. Although Charlie wasn't ready to go public with his illness,
he was forced to do so to clear up the rumors. He was surprised
and gratified by the outpouring of support. A PBS station did
a segment on him that brought more attention to his battle with
ALS. Charlie and Lucy heard from countless strangers who said
that they'd found hope and encouragement in Charlie's example.
Eventually a documentary called One More Season and a
TV movie called Quiet Victory would also tell their story.
But the attention had a downside
too. The attention that Charlie received became a distraction
during football games, particularly when Los Gatos competed in
championship games. And it caused resentment among the staff
of the school. Already suffering from "compassion fatigue"
as Charlie's illness dragged on and on, the staff that had been
so supportive for years seemed sometimes to wish that Charlie's
struggle would just be over-one way or another. After the team
won the championship in 1985, Charlie was asked to step down
Like his staff, Charlie was growing
weary of the battle. He was keenly aware that he had become a
terrible burden to his wife and his children. He now required
round-the-clock nursing care. He had horrific choking fits that
threatened to snuff out his life at any time. He could not eat
or sleep. He felt that Lucy and the children would be better
off if he died. And indeed, although he had already lived years
past the doctor's original prediction, it appeared that time
was running out for Charlie Wedemeyer.
Two things happened that changed
Charlie's life forever. The first was a religious conversion.
Although he was always a devout Catholic, Charlie and his wife
now embarked on a new spiritual journey to develop a personal
relationship with God. Readers of Charlie's Victory will
find that Charlie and Lucy's "born-again" Christianity
plays a major role in their lives. Charlie found that his strengthened
religious faith took away his dread of dying and gave him more
determination to find a purpose in each day, although he could
no longer coach.
Second, the Wedemeyers learned that
Charlie's terrifying breathing problems could be solved by putting
Charlie on a portable respirator. Interestingly, they learned
of this option by accident, not from their doctor. While Charlie
did not want to live in a hospital room, this machine could be
part of his wheelchair equipment. Charlie was given a tracheotomy
and a breathing tube inserted for the respirator. Because of
this operation, he could no longer eat by mouth, so a feeding
tube had to be inserted as well.
Some ALS patients have sought assisted
suicide. Charlie and Lucy strongly feel that ALS patients should
be made aware of the option of the portable respirator which
makes life possible. Now that he could comfortably breathe and
was able to get enough nourishment, Charlie's overall health
improved. Once shy and reserved, he began to accept engagements
for public appearances, in Hawaii, California, and now all over
the country. Charlie and Lucy consider this "second chance"
the reason why God has kept Charlie alive all these years. Although
he could still die at any time, he and Lucy don't dwell on the
possibility. They have touched thousands of lives at their numerous
public appearances, as advocates for the disabled, as motivational
"speakers" (Lucy lip-reads for Charlie), and as part
of a Christian ministry. In addition, Charlie was invited back
to assist in the coaching of the underclassmen at Los Gatos High.
And most important to him, he's lived to see his children become
Charlie Wedemeyer wants people to
realize that we're all terminal: tomorrow is not promised to
anyone. Pain and suffering, Charlie says, are inescapable in
one way or another. It's up to us to decide whether we're going
to be miserable or try to make the most of our lives. Certainly
Charlie Wedemeyer has made the most of his. Charlie's Victory
is a remarkable story by an amazing couple.
Victory can be ordered from the Charlie