All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for May 2004

New research center salutes a trouper

May 8 2004
David Wecker
The Cincinnati Post

You might say that, when the Waddell Center for Multiple Sclerosis at the University of Cincinnati and Drake Center opened Friday, it was a kind of culmination in the love story that began half a century ago in a sleepy, rural Kentucky town.

Virgilee Casey's father ran the Falmouth Deposit Bank. Oliver Waddell's mother taught fourth grade at Falmouth School. His father died before he was born, but his mother expected great things of him. And he tried to live up to that.

He thought he might be a doctor, but the school in Falmouth didn't offer the classes he'd need for college; Latin, chemistry and the like. So at the age of 15, his mother arranged for him to rent a one-room apartment in the big city of Covington in order for him to attend Holmes High School.

He would come home on breaks and for the summer, staying with his mother and grandmother, who occupied one side of a two-family. The people on the other side owned a boxer named Blitz. When the boy was home, he liked to take Blitz for walks. Or Blitz would take him for walks. He now allows as to how it might have been a comical sight, although he didn't think so at the time.

"I guess I looked like Ichabod Crane with this big dog basically pulling me all over town," he recalled.

"One day, this girl went by in her father's big car, and I could hear her laughing at me. When I got home from taking Blitz for a walk, I told my mother what the Casey girl had done and how, for two cents, I'd call her up and give her a piece of my mind.

"My mother said, 'Why don't you do that?' Well, I did. And what I heard was I think the sexiest voice I'd ever heard. So not only did I not chew her out, I asked her for a date."

They took up together. He had a gentlemanly way that appealed to her. He would often wonder what she saw in him, considering how pretty and bright she was.

He went to Duke University, then to the University of Kentucky for law school. She studied  home ec at the University of Cincinnati. They married his junior year in law school, in 1955, on his birthday.

It was her father, Barnett Casey, who nudged him toward a career in banking. Oliver had fully intended to become a lawyer, although his grandmother was distraught that, by doing so, he would be barred from heaven.

Virgilee's father set him up with an interview at the First National Bank of Cincinnati. He was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn't the mausoleum he'd expected; that the people seemed actually human.

So when the offer came to hire on for an $80-a-week training program, he took it. He did well, both with his career and his marriage. He and Virgilee had three children, Jeffrey, Gregory and Michelle. And he progressed through the ranks at the bank.

In 1981, with their youngest in college, Virgilee was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, MS for short. It's believed to be an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system, stripping away the protective sheathing around nerve fibers. This, in turn, disrupts the ability of the nerves to transmit electrical impulses from the brain. In Virgilee's case, the disease primarily affected her mobility. She went from a cane to a walker to an electric cart.

Oliver kept his promise to her, the one about loving her in sickness and in health. More than that, he admired the grace and dignity with which she responded to her condition.

When he pushed to bring someone into their home to help, she refused. She didn't want anyone doing for her what she could do for herself -- and she insisted on keeping it that way for as long as possible.

It's been 16 years since she was able to walk. Two years later, they built a home without stairs in Anderson Township that Virgilee navigates neatly from her electric cart.

Still, it bothered him to leave her every day to go into work, so he took an early retirement 10 years ago as president, chairman and CEO of the bank -- it was known as Star Bank by then. That way, he could be home with her.

"She thinks of a lot of jobs," he says.

"Every day, it's, 'We're going to do this today' or 'We're going to do that.' She sets the objective; I carry it out. It's what I do now."

She calls him her assistant gardener. "Since having MS, I like to have something planned for each day. That works for me," she says.

It's been two years since he had the idea to do something on a large scale for MS patients in and around Greater Cincinnati. A series of meetings with Dr. John M. Tew, medical director of the Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cincinnati, led to his decision to launch the Waddell Center for Multiple Sclerosis with a $5 million gift.

Attached to the Neuroscience Institute, the Waddell Center is to serve two chief functions:

As a research center to better understand the disease and work toward finding a cure.

As a specialized treatment facility to offer a level of care for MS patients that, until now, has been unavailable in Greater Cincinnati.

He is 73, she is three years younger. He would have to say he and Virgilee have never been closer. He still wonders what she ever saw in him. You should hear him brag on her. She's a trouper, he says. An inspiration.

She doesn't know about that. The way she sees it, her affliction has made her stronger.

"You can't help it," she says. "The disease throws so many curves at you."

Copyright © 2004, The Cincinnati Post