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VOL. 116 | NO. 67 | Friday, April 5, 2002

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By JENNIFER MURLEY Alzheimers Evening to Remember celebrates past, future By JENNIFER MURLEY The Daily News A few decades ago, an ambitious young runner decided to match his physical prowess against that of his athletic father. No matter how fast he raced along the Long Island shoreline, the determined 15-year-old just couldnt outpace his dad. "He was incredibly fast, and I never beat him," said local celebrity and TV news anchor Joe Birch, laughing sentimentally about that summer long ago. But, by the end of his life, Birchs dad would do well to remember the beach or his son, much less that story. From the beginning, Joseph Birch Sr. was an avid runner, running the half-mile in high school, and later joining the track team at Villanova University. After earning a degree in economics, Birch continued his sprint ahead of the crowd, getting in on the ground floor of the computer age in the 1950s. As data processing manager for a New York-based company, Birch soared to the executive level before retiring as general auditor in 1992. It wasnt until his late 50s that things began to change. He would make silly mistakes such as sending the utility bill to the shoe repair guy. The uncharacteristic confusion and muddled forgetfulness streaming from a man the younger Birch describes as "brilliant" eventually led to a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimers disease in 1994. He was 64. After an eight-year struggle with the disease, Birch passed away Jan. 7. It wasnt the first time the Birch family dealt with the disease. Joes grandmother was diagnosed with the illness years before. Now, on the four-month anniversary of his death, the local Alzheimers Association will honor Joseph Birch at its third annual gala, "An Evening to Remember." The event is 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday at Jay Etkin Art Gallery, 409 S. Main St. "Even though the disease stripped away a lot of his memory and his ability to articulate words, you always saw the big, broad smile and his bright blue eyes," Birch said. "His essence remained right through the end." Conservatively estimated, as many as 28,000 Shelby County residents have the disease, and 4 million nationally, according to the Alzheimers Association. But, those numbers are misleading. After including the number of people affected by the disease, they nearly double. Officials estimate at least 45,000 people locally are impacted by the illness. And, as Americas largest generation, baby boomers, move into the risk age, roughly 14 million people are expected to be affected by the disease by mid-century. "People are finally starting to not associate it with mental illness, because its not. Its actually damage to the brain. Theres no way to predict whos going to get it, and theres no way to avoid getting it," said Jodi Ball, Alzheimers Association regional development director. "We just tell everyone to exercise your brain read, do crossword puzzles, learn another language, take classes just keep your brain active." Contrary to popular belief, heredity plays a small role in development of Alzheimers. Having a relative with the disease increases the chance of developing it by 15 percent, officials said. Last years gala raised about $20,000, a good response considering it was only the second year of the event, Ball said. But, the proceeds were modest compared to the $200,000 necessary to keep the local Alzheimers Association chapter up and running. While ticket prices will remain the same as last year at $50 per person, this year organizers hope to increase the money raised by doubling the number of items in the live and silent auctions, Ball said. Items ranging from massages, pedicures and museum memberships, to an ES 135 "Blueburst" Gibson guitar, airline tickets and a three-night trip to Las Vegas are lined up for the silent auction, she said. Unique packages including personal coaching lessons from University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari and football coach Tommy West are reserved for the live auction, she said. "The Kathy Gardner Swing Band" will set a festive tone for the evening doling out jazz and swing tunes, while Hueys catering will host an "elegant" buffet, including smoked trout and various pates, she said. Organizers are expecting as many as 400 guests, Ball said. All proceeds will go toward Alzheimers Association endeavors including research, outreach education and caregiver support programs. As for Joe Birch, hell be there, switching hats from broadcast journalist to auctioneer, leading the live auction a highlight of the gala. But, more importantly, hell be wearing the hat of "proud son," as a community honors the father he just couldnt beat. "In a strange way, I feel so connected to him now, and I feel like hes watching over us," he said. "I think hell be there in spirit on Sunday night."
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