Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Eagle is personal for Vail’s Knowlton family | VailDaily.com

Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Eagle is personal for Vail’s Knowlton family

EAGLE COUNTY — Julie Wham has a deeply personal stake in Alzheimer's disease. That's why she's dedicating so much of her life to finding ways to fight it.

Wham, who lives in the Denver area, is the daughter of Vail residents Dick and Nancy Knowlton. The family has for decades had a home in Vail.

The Knowltons met at the University of Colorado Boulder in the 1950s, when both were students there.

Dick was a standout guard on the football team and turned down a contract to play professionally with the Philadelphia Eagles. Nancy was on the school's long-dominant ski team.

The Knowltons spent their professional lives in Austin, Minnesota, where Dick eventually rose to the role of CEO of the Hormel meat company.

But Nancy had grown up in the Denver area, and the family vacationed often in Colorado, spending Christmas in Vail from the resort's earliest days.

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The family's first home was on Vail Valley Drive in a duplex shared between the Knowltons and other people from Hormel. After Dick retired, the Knowltons built a home near the Vail Golf Club.

Strong people

That's where Dick and Nancy are now. But Dick is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease these days. Nancy is his primary caregiver.

"Every day my dad declines, my mom gets a little stronger, a little more capable," Wham said.

Since last November, though, the family has brought in Boyd Williams to help care for Dick. It's been a life-changer for Nancy, Wham said.

Seeing Alzheimer's up close has driven the family's desire to help find answers about the disease.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, there are 5.7 million people in the United States who have the disease, including about 71,000 in Colorado. As many as 50 million people worldwide are afflicted.

Alzheimer's is the only disease among this country's leading causes of death that doesn't have a cure, or even a treatment.

"It's an uphill battle," Wham said.

But, Wham said, she's excited that the town of Eagle will host a version of the annual Walk to End Alzheimer's, set for Saturday, Oct. 20.

One of many

This year's inaugural walk in Eagle is one of 11 similar events around the state.

"The decision to bring the Walk to End Alzheimer's to the high country is an indication that we want to elevate our presence in this community and a sign that we recognize the growing need for our services and programs in the area," Alzheimer's Association Colorado Development Coordinator Kate Dochelli wrote in an email.

"We hope the Walk to End Alzheimer's will raise awareness about this devastating disease and raise awareness about our organization, as well as the work that we do in the community. Importantly, we hope the Walk to End Alzheimer's will serve to unite all those families who are affected."

The Colorado Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association last year donated $1 million to research. The group will donate a similar amount this year.

The Knowltons have helped in that effort, recently donating $500,000 to the cause.

"Having known the Knowlton family for many years, I am not surprised by their leadership and generosity in making this gift," Don Bechter, chairman of the Colorado board of the Alzheimer's Association, wrote in a news release. "Every donation brings us closer to finding a cure for Alzheimer's, but this is a huge step that we hope will inspires others.

Speaking on her phone from the Denver area, Wham said the fight against Alzheimer's in Colorado has been boosted by Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen's acknowledgment he, too, is fighting the disease.

"My dad never wanted to be the poster boy (for Alzheimer's)," Wham said. "When Pat Bowlen stepped forward, he took the stigma out of it.

"I have so much respect for the (Bowlen) family," Wham added. "They have a platform. … They've used it to further the fight."

While Pat Bowlen, Dick Knowlton and 71,000 other state residents continue their fight, there are countless others counting on a cure or treatment for a disease they don't yet have.

The Alzheimer's Association estimates the disease could strike as many as 14 million people in the United States by 2050.

Unless a way is found to keep the disease at bay, it could bankrupt not just families, but medical systems, as well, Wham said.

It's for current research, and future victims, that Wham said she's urging everyone to come out, or contribute, or both.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com and 970-748-2930.

If you go …

What: Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

When: Saturday, Oct. 20.

Where: Brush Creek Pavilion, Eagle.

Cost: There is no fee for Walk to End Alzheimer’s events; participants are asked to set their own fundraising goals.

More information: Edward Jones is the presenting sponsor. Learn more at http://www.alz.org/walk.