More MS news articles for Nov 2001

Vidmer: Giving up battle with disease was a blessing

Friday, November 23, 2001
By Matthew Junker

Sitting in his dining room five years ago, then-Westmoreland County Commissioner Dick Vidmer contemplated suicide as multiple sclerosis began to make his last movable appendage useless.

Today, Vidmer, 56, is a quadriplegic who no longer holds a job. He requires a staff of four to help him with life's most basic tasks.

He says he has given up hope, and he couldn't be happier.

"Giving up (hope for a cure) is the best thing that ever happened to me. I fought this like the ... Germans fought the Russian Army - yard by yard. It only gave me insight into my stupidity and stubbornness.

Multiple sclerosis, he continued, "has been a great gift for me. My disease stopped me cold. I would have liked nothing better than to run for re-election and to go on to other offices. But in my case, it was a God-given opportunity to stop, wake up and look around," Vidmer said, sitting in his motorized wheelchair next to the same dining room table where he considered ending it all.

"It would have been a disaster to go campaign after campaign and never awaken - to never see what a privilege it is to be a human being," he added.

Multiple sclerosis is a disabling disease of the central nervous system. The body's own immune system attacks the insulating material surrounding the nerves that carry signals to and from various body parts.

As the nerves are short-circuited or severed in the auto-immune attacks, scars form, sometimes eliminating various functions of the body.

Vidmer was a record-setting quarterback at Hempfield Area High School and the University of Michigan in the 1960s. He got his master's degree, then began a career in public service in Washington, D.C., as an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Don Bailey of Greensburg.

When Bailey lost his re-election bid in 1982 after a redistricting, Vidmer returned to the area to run for office and also coordinated Bailey's successful run for state auditor general in 1983.

That same year, Vidmer was diagnosed with MS.

He was appointed county commissioner in 1985 after John Regoli left to work with Bailey.

Vidmer was able to hide his disease in its early years, but was forced to go public shortly after his successful election campaign in 1988. The news was released to counter rumors that sprang up after he was seen stumbling at a campaign event.

Otherwise, Vidmer remained defiant.

The former athlete exercised harder than he ever had in an effort to stop the disease's progress. He tried long-shot alternative measures like not eating meat or cheese - for seven years.

The disease slowly broke him down until he could no longer stand or dress himself - and he was left at his dining room table with a choice.

"In the transition - in that no-man's land - I thought about (suicide) more than once, that it was the best way out of this. I laid my head right on that table a couple times.

"It wasn't easy. I've done a lot of soul-searching and a lot of pain and (contemplated) suicide - looking for something to get me out of this vest that was squeezing the life out of me. It took me awhile to realize that that was a life boat - that I'd been rescued.

"It seems so long ago. It wasn't in terms of years, but it was a long time ago in terms of my own development. In many ways, I'm an improved product," he said.

Vidmer now sees the disease as a gift, not a curse.

"Without it, I would be far worse off than I am now. If I had a case where I could have got by using a cane, I never would have stopped to reflect.

"I have been awakened. Before, it truly would have been a boring existence. To go through this whole life without knowing who you are would have truly been a tragedy," he said.

Vidmer considered writing a book to relate his experiences to others, but has since dropped the idea. He wants to use the time to mature further and to contemplate his situation.

"It's now my challenge to make something of this awakening. I need more time to think about it, and I am," he explained.

Vidmer decided not to seek re-election in 1999 because of his disability. In the public announcement, he said the rigors of another campaign would have been too much of a strain.

Vidmer still had some use of his right hand, but little other mobility. He already had to be tied into his wheelchair to remain in a sitting position, and had difficulty with public speaking because he was losing the ability to breathe deeply.

Today, Vidmer has grown a mustache and long sideburns. He has gained weight.

His time since retirement has been spent reading, exercising his mind and contemplating the world around him.

During an afternoon interview, he quoted poet e. e. cummings and talked of the pleasure of looking at a tree while lying in bed.

"I never would have been able to see these things if it had not been for this so-called disability. I can't run, I can't win an election or throw a forward pass anymore, but because of it I'm seeing a new world that I never saw - a world that was right in front of me.

"This has fundamentally transformed the person that I was. I look the same, but I'm really not," he said.

Most of his old associates no longer come by to visit - and he likes it that way.

"I don't need people; it's bothersome. I need time to think. I like people, but I'm in a different place," he said.

Partially because he is concentrating on his development, and partially because it strains him, Vidmer no longer tries to keep up with the day-to-day happenings of county government.

Still, he likes what he sees from the current board of county commissioners.

"They're capable and competent. While there may be a lot of smoke and mirrors of politics and party, they are all wrestling with the problems of county government. They've done very well. The county is a good place to live and work and raise your kids. The county government has been a big part of that," he said.

Vidmer even had kind words for his former nemesis Tom Balya, who criticized Vidmer during his 1995 election campaign for working with then-Commissioner Terry Marolt, a Republican.

Balya "gave me a lot of grief" for working with Marolt, Vidmer recalled. Balya's alliance with Republican P. Scott Connor these days "shows that you can't always believe what they say," he continued. "I think that expediency and opportunism are the appendages of many politicians.

"Things were said years ago. That's part of politics, and I know that. I don't have any hard feelings," he said.

In his political heyday, Vidmer was as powerful as he was unapologetic, a dealmaker who simply ignored his critics. Those critics claimed he skirted laws on purchasing and contracts to steer profitable business to his friends.

According to Vidmer, he didn't do anything wrong.

"Everything that I did was in the best interest of Westmoreland County. There may have been so-called friends that may have profited from doing the job. But they were completely professional and well-capable of doing the job," he said.

In any case, it's all behind him. Vidmer said he's happier as a disabled man in early retirement than he ever was as a working politician.

"They can run around and have their little meetings. I wouldn't go back now if I could. It's just not where the action is," he said.

According to Vidmer, his new-found spiritual thinking would not have come about without a severe, debilitating case of MS.

"I'm sorry to say, but the average person in good health ... is crippled. I can see now more than I ever could. And it never would have happened unless I was thrown a real cross-body block. And that would have been a tragedy.

"I used to think of who I am and who I wanted to be - who my heroes are. And it was all wrong. It was all phony. I was a very ego-driven person, which is a huge inadequacy and handicap," he said.

Toward the end of the interview, Vidmer fought for breath while considering his time in office and the life he led until 1999. His gaze went to a window, and his struggles eased.

Holding office was "not really that vital," he said. "Being able to love, to show compassion, to be grateful for what you have is so much more important. For me this was the better arrangement.

"I would have gone through life blind - blind. And I wouldn't have appreciated it."

Matthew Junker can be reached at (724) 425-2338.

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