Alzheimer's Research Advocate Tom DeBaggio Dies Tom DeBaggio was 57 when he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. Over the years, he shared his experience with NPR and wrote two books about coping with the disease. He died Monday at the age of 69.

Alzheimer's Research Advocate Tom DeBaggio Dies

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Tom DeBaggio died yesterday at age 69. He was 57 when he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease, and quite fearlessly shared his experience with us over the years - first with our colleague Noah Adams, and later with our co-host, Melissa Block, who offers this appreciation.

MELISSA BLOCK: Tom DeBaggio lived for plants and the garden.

NORRIS: There's some Italian dandelion there, a couple of radicchios, another Italian salad green.

BLOCK: Tom started out selling tomato plants in Styrofoam cups from his driveway in Arlington, Virginia, 25 cents apiece. That backyard business grew into a thriving herb farm and nursery with 100 varieties of tomato plants, three dozen kinds of basil - everything leafy and beautifully strong and fragrant.

NORRIS: This is one of the great scents, the scent of geraniums, and this is - apple-scented geranium.

BLOCK: He called Alzheimer's an uncontrolled evil - the closest thing to being eaten alive slowly. And he started telling his story here, on this program. As he put it, he wanted to break through the sense of shame and silence Alzheimer's has engendered.

NORRIS: That's one of the great things about this. You can hug people that you never thought you could hug before. And they hug you back, and it's just changed the whole - in many ways, it's changed the whole relationship. There's an openness and a freedom that goes with this when you open yourself up to other people and tell them your secrets.

BLOCK: That was back in 1999, soon after Tom was diagnosed. Noah Adams visited him out at the herb farm in Virginia.

NOAH ADAMS: In any part of the day, can you forget that you have Alzheimer's now?

NORRIS: No. It's the only thing I haven't been able to forget. I guess it's because part of my life is excavating my mind, and I'm conscious of that. I'm conscious of Alzheimer's being there. And in fact, I'm working it like a vein of gold, to try and get something out of it for humanity. I don't know whether I'm going to be able to do that or not.

BLOCK: Over the years, we heard from many listeners who grew to care deeply about Tom DeBaggio and his family - his son, Francesco, and his wife of 47 years, Joyce, who spoke with me in 2007.

NORRIS: He wanted to be out there. He wanted people to see him really bad. He wanted it all recorded. He said: Even if I can't talk, I want people to see.

NORRIS: And I want to let them know that I was going to die, and this is what I say.

BLOCK: Tom DeBaggio died yesterday at age 69. Besides his family, he leaves his two books on Alzheimer's, an encyclopedia of herbs he co-authored, and a number of herb cultivars he introduced, including one named for his wife: Golden Rain Rosemary Joyce DeBaggio.

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