Charlie's Victory

by Charlie and Lucy Wedemeyer with Gregg Lewis
1993, Zondervan Publishing House

Charlie and Lucy Wedemeyer

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 could.

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 lua.

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.

Charlie's 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 his parents.
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 as coach.

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 successful adults.

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.

Note: Charlie's Victory can be ordered from the Charlie Wedemeyer Foundation.

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