Bench at Six Flags Over Georgia dedicated in W. Cleveland Smith’s memory

June 18, 2012

Cleveland Smith’s family gathered at The Riverview Carousel for the bench dedication with the Six Flags family June 16, 2012, the day Six Flags Over Georgia celebrated 45 years. View more photos by clicking here.

Dad could have told us that The Riverview Carousel at Six Flags Over Georgia is special because it’s one of only three five-across carousels still in existence. He kept up with things like that. The carousel, made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, was built in 1908 and was at Riverview Park in Chicago until that park closed. It has been located at Six Flags Over Georgia since the early 1970s, where the hand-carved horses are in constant rotation for refurbishing, three or four per year. The carousel is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The carousel is special, and it’s in a special park. Dad was one of the earliest general managers of Six Flags Over Georgia. Today at the helm is Melinda Ashcraft, one of Dad’s favorite people. She, too, was working at Six Flags Over Georgia the day it opened 45 years ago. She was assigned to Jean Ribaut’s Adventure riverboat ride. Dad had worked on the similar La Salle’s River Adventure at Six Flags Over Texas.

Physically The Riverview Carousel is located near the center of the park, a bit of a hike up hill. Tall trees are all around. Peek through the branches and you can see roller coaster tracks, antique cars, a children’s ride shaped like hot air balloons. Listen and you hear screams and laughter and the noises of the midway games below. Stand still and feel a breeze.

We included Dad’s beloved Six Flags jacket for the ceremony.

It is perhaps the most peaceful, beautiful spot at Six Flags Over Georgia — maybe at any amusement park anywhere. And that’s where the Cleveland Smith Memorial Bench is now located.

So many of you gave donations to make this customized bench a possibility. Thank you. It is a beautiful bench and should last for decades. It’s the only bench located at the carousel, amid several rocking chairs. We think it will get lots of use. The medallion in the center of the bench says, “Life has its ups and downs. Enjoy the ride” — something Dad may well have said but certainly would agree with — and “W. Cleveland Smith, 1941-2011.”

Dad’s family (pictured above) and his Six Flags family came together on June 16, 2012 for a bench dedication service, on the very day that Six Flags Over Georgia celebrated its 45th anniversary. The park came to life and the front gates opened as we wrapped up a brunch (catered, with love, by Wilma Ashcraft) and rode the carousel with Dad. Yes, “with Dad.” I wasn’t the only one who felt his presence at The Riverview Carousel.

Watch the dedication ceremony in this 19 1/2-minute video.

View more pictures from the dedication ceremony.

Hear what Jeff Foxworthy had to say in this 9-minute video.


18 months later: physically healthy — but my how that neuropsychological test was accurate

May 21, 2010

My Dad amiably answered the doctor’s questions, even though the answers he provided were wrong. When asked to extend his arms, or draw shapes on paper, my Dad complied.

On the sidelines of the exam room in this geriatric psychiatrist’s office in October 2008 at a medical center in downtown Dallas, I watched my Dad fail what I have since learned was a neuropsychological test. My Mom sat on my right. My then 10-year-old son sat on my left, and we all watched quietly. We encouraged husband/Dad/Grandpa with reassuring smiles and nods. But we all recognized he was not doing well.

My son stayed with his Grandpa in a waiting room while the doctor gave his assessment. It was most clearly frontotemporal dementia. He explained what that is. He mentioned some signs of Parkinson’s disease, too. He told us Dad would likely live from 18 months to 3 years.

Which kind of knocked the wind out of us.

Physically, my Dad is so healthy. He was then, and he remains so now, 18 months later.

It would be easy–indeed, it was tempting–to dismiss the psychiatrist and the oddball “test” my Dad had “failed.” But the doctor spoke with confidence about signs and symptoms we had not recognized previously. We still think back on things Dad said or did and wonder…was that the beginning of his decline? should that have signaled us that something was wrong with his brain? That gaze in his eyes? The appointments he showed up for a day early? The trouble he had hearing–or was it his comprehension that was off?

I asked the psychiatrist what would kill my Dad. He has this fatal disease, for which there is no treatment, but I wondered what would finally take my father down. Would his heart just stop? Would he just lapse into a coma?

The doctor explained that many people with FTD die after falls, or by choking on food, or by an out-of-control infection. They become incontinent. They forget how to swallow. It was both disconcerting and comforting to hear from a professional what lay ahead. My own subsequent research backed up every word.

So here we are, 18 months later. Dad very distinctly has that Parkison’s gait. On most days, he is unaware of his loved ones, and I doubt that any pictures or memory cards I have sent him make any sense to him anymore–or that he can find them. I bet he still has his sweet tooth, but maybe not, (since some dementias steal taste, too.)

He used to fight the caregivers who tried to undress him for showers; now several of the female residents are on his arm. When we visited him once at Silverado where he lives now, Dad emphatically pointed out baboons in the trees outside his window. Since he managed a wildlife amusement park for several years, this “delusion” made sense. Sometimes I wonder if he still sees them. Or if FTD has replaced those delusions with others. He’s also incontinent, a progression that adds $500 to the monthly bill.

And even though all of this was predicted by the doctor, even though we watched “Away From Her” and read Lisa Genova’s “Still Alice,” even though we prepared ourselves in the best ways possible…. sometimes I want to go back in time to that exam room and hear the doctor blame my Dad’s confusion on his hearing, or a brain tumor. Something that could be fixed. Or if not fixed, treated. Or if not treated, immediately fatal. Anything but this lengthy deterioration that seems to be playing out just as the doctor predicted.

Dementia destroys the father-daughter bond

May 11, 2010

“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked me. He was about 84 years old and interested in a date.

Sitting before him with my young son on my lap, I gave him the bad news: “No, but I have a husband and two kids. And I am your daughter, Dad.”

My father’s confusion was the consequence of his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. One day he recognized me, the next, maybe not. Though my brain could process that, my heart could not. No matter how realistic I tried to be about my father’s decline and our awkward exchanges, I found it impossible to accept that he really didn’t know me.

Kathy Tyrer writes in the Los Angeles Times about realizing that the father-daughter connection she had with her dad is gone. That’s something to which I can relate.

In my case, it has been a gradual realization. Did our relationship disintegrate when he could no longer safely drive, and I was the one driving his car? Was it when he stopped saying my name or recognizing my voice? Or when I knew I could no longer seek his guidance?

If I lived close enough to visit at his memory care center, would that just prolong the process, make it more evident, more painful? Probably. Though, distance doesn’t seem to make it easy. If I lived near my Dad, I could have transitioned if not from daughter to caregiver, at least to care helper or care over-seer, or even to daughter who dutifully visits.

From afar, I’m just daughter who reads about frontotemporal dementia and feels frustration and anger at how the disease has taken my Dad away from me.

Amusement parks as a metaphor for life

April 24, 2010

Whenever we visited amusement parks together–whether at a park he ran, or one at which he was a visitor like everyone else–my Dad always picked up trash. He could not help himself.

If someone had discarded a cigarette butt, a drinking cup, a candy wrapper onto the ground, my Dad would pick it up and carry the trash in his hands until he found a proper receptacle.

Having a father in the amusement industry meant my brother and I got to spend lots and lots of time at amusement parks. We would go to Six Flags over Texas after school each day. One summer, when Dad ran Old Chicago, we spent the summer riding rides and playing carnival games. Another summer we stayed in Knoxville, Tennessee for the World’s Fair, since Dad ran the midway there. My brother has followed Dad’s footsteps into the amusement industry. I’ve watched from the sidelines.

I’ve watched, over the years, how Dad pays attention to keeping the lines moving. There’s a whole science to those queues we stand in to ride roller coasters. Park managers don’t want us standing in line all day; if we’re standing in line, we’re not buying lemonades and souvenir T-shirts and balloons. I’ve watched how Dad pays the same respect to the parking lot attendant as to the visiting dignitary. And, of course, how he picks up trash without qualm, in order to keep the park–his or someone else’s–looking nice.

I suspect he loved his industry from the very first job he had as a ride operator. I know he loved roller coasters and thrill rides; I inherited that gene from him. He told me he wants to be cremated rather than buried because he would rather have cemetery land available for an amusement park.

When I was a baby, above, he would carry me through the park on his shoulders or in his arms. Two years ago, on our last trip to an amusement park together, I tried to hold hands so he would not wander. Eventually, we came to The Scream, below.

And of course my Dad could not help himself. He rode that ride with gusto, like the grandchild sitting next to him, not dwelling on the ups and downs or what lays ahead, but just enjoying the moment.

*** UPDATE ***
The morning after I posted this article, I was brushing my teeth. That picture you see at the very top of this post sits in that porcelain frame atop a high shelf in my bathroom. Very securely, I might add.

Well, it leapt from its perch, landing on my arm. It did not break. And, though heavy, did not hurt me.

Of course I risk sounding loony, but…I suspect the frame was my dad, somehow, reaching out to me.

New York considers expanding "Amber Alert" to seniors with Alzheimers, dementia

April 9, 2010

New York’s governor wants to expand the “Amber Alert” system, created to mobilize the public and law enforcement in the search for a missing child, to include missing adults with Alzheimer’s.

Under the governor’s proposal, the same system now used to disseminate missing child alerts to police agencies, broadcast networks, Thruway service areas, lottery terminals, airports and bus terminals would be deployed when adults at particular risk go missing. His bill is intended for adults who have a mental disability, cognitive disorder or physical disability that prevents them from assisting in their own recovery, as well as missing adults who have disappeared under circumstances that indicate they are in imminent danger of harm, such as those were abducted or who are suicidal.

The CNY Alzheimer’s Association supports such a change, and points to cases like that of Frank Wlosinski that could have been helped by such an alert system. The group’s chief operating officer, Cathy James, told news channel 9 that Amber Alerts in the first 24 hours can make a big difference. “An alert can go out, and information and search and rescue can start immediately.”

Eleven other states already have similar programs, called Silver Alerts. U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer last fall introduced a bill to integrate such systems nationwide.

Read the story from news channel 9

Read Paterson’s bill.

Big money going toward new therapies for FTD

April 7, 2010

Three scientists will receive $1.2 million in research grants over four years to help accelerate the development of novel therapies for Frontotemporal Dementias. The money comes from the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation and the Association for Frontotemporal Dementias.

“This year’s recipients are all engaged in the type of research that offers both caregivers and patients the optimism they need to face the chalenges of living with FTD,” Phil Lovett, a foundation board member and research liaison, said in a news release.

Recipients include:

* Dr. Philip Van Damme of Leuven University in Belgium.

Recently he was involved in research published in the Annals of Neurology that examined mutations that lead to a loss of progranulin, or PGRN, in a “considerable portion” of frontotemporal lobar degeneration.

* Einar M. Sigurdsson, Ph.D., of New York University School of Medicine.

His recent work in the journal, Current Alzheimer Research explains the challenge of getting immunotherapies that target the amyloid-beta peptide in Alzheimer’s disease ready for clinical trials.

* W. Haung Yu, Ph.D., of The Taub Institute of Columbia University Medical Center.

The Journal of Neuroscience recently featured work from Yu about protein processing at the cellular/molecular level.

Happy 69th birthday to my Dad

April 3, 2010

I can’t recall missing one of my Dad’s birthdays since my adulthood. Growing up, we celebrated his special day the way we did everyone in the family. The birthday person got to choose their favorite restaurant, and we had homemade cake at home. Once I was out of the house, the milestones were celebrated via U.S. Postal Service–a small gift and a carefully selected card.

This year, I sent a card. I doubt he will understand who it is from. He probably will not realize today is his birthday. But I sent it just in case. What if the frontal temporal lobe dementia that’s got him in its grip gives him a good day? Some days are, after all, better than others.

My Dad didn’t age until dementia took over, in 2008. He always looked younger than he really was. In this picture, he is 64. He is standing infront of the little clinic in Jacksboro, Texas where he was born. At the time, his family lived in nearby Archer City, (home, too, to author Larry McMurtry.)It was important to my Dad that we travel back to Archer City on Fourth of July weekend every five years for a family reunion that pulls together kin from all over the United States.

When we were there in 2005, we stayed at the Spur Hotel, at the intersection bearing the city’s single stoplight, checked out the still-in-renovation Royal Theater, and looked through all of McMurtry’s book stores. (Even running into McMurtry, himself, in one of them.) We ate at the Dairy Queen, even though the city boasted a brand new Sonic. Dad showed us the rodeo yards, and the house where he grew up. We visited the cemetery where our ancestors are buried. And we toured the Archer County Museum and Jail, a sandstone building from 1910. A docent warned us to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes as we showed ourselves around the property and climbed to the third floor to see the hanging gallows.

Dad enjoyed showing his grandchildren his roots. And I’m glad he got to revisit them, himself, for one last time.