Blanchette Rockefeller’s family knew about her love of music and art, and played recordings of Beethoven and Bach for her long after Alzheimer’s disease had robbed her of her ability to recognize it.
“She didn’t hear, but it didn’t matter,” her son, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, said Thursday. “She was at home and in her element.”
Rockefeller watched his mother succumb to Alzheimer’s over the course of eight years. Blanchette Rockefeller passed away in 1992, and according to Rockefeller, her experience with Alzheimer’s was a galvanizing force for him.
“As strong as she was, and as resolved and resourceful as she was, she disappeared,” Rockefeller said. “It’s what happens ... I chose to believe that my mother’s death was not in vain.”
After years of fundraising and planning, the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute opened in Morgantown in 1999. It’s the world’s only nonprofit institute dedicated exclusively to the study of memory and the diseases that affect it, including Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Rockefeller has also worked on the legislative level to advance Alzheimer’s research, and has supported the Alzheimer’s Association for more than two decades.
The Alzheimer’s Association’s West Virginia chapter recognized Rockefeller for his contributions to Alzheimer’s research during its 13th annual Thanks for the Memories luncheon, held Thursday in Charleston. Rockefeller was presented with the Legacy Award, created to honor those who have offered long-standing support in the fight against Alzheimer’s.
“Senator Rockefeller has been the prodding voice that has taken the awareness and research needs to the next level,” said Teresa Miller, president of the board of directors for the Alzheimer’s Association West Virginia Chapter.
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is a progressive degenerative brain disease that affects 5.4 million Americans, including about 30,000 West Virginians. It causes cognitive decline and a loss in the ability to perform routine tasks and is most common in those more than 65 years old, although about 10 percent of those diagnosed have early-onset Alzheimer’s and are in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Rockefeller has served as state delegate, secretary of state, governor and U.S. senator for West Virginia over the course of nearly 50 years; he is retiring from the Senate at the end of the year. Born in New York to the grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jay Rockefeller graduated from Harvard College in 1961. In 1964, he arrived in Kanawha County as a VISTA volunteer, and said much of what he learned there drove him to serve the state for the next five decades.
“Every night for two years I wrote endless diaries, which then became a big tome, and I couldn’t read it — couldn’t bring myself to — until this past summer,” Rockefeller said of his time in Emmons. “But my experience there, and the nature of the people there, working so hard against such odds as though, in their own thinking, God had fore-ordained their lives would not turn out well. I was changed forever, and happily.”
Rachel Torlone was also recognized Thursday with the Sylvia Watkins Volunteer of the Year, named in honor of longtime Charleston Walk to End Alzheimer’s volunteer Sylvia Watkins. The award is voted upon by Walk to End Alzheimer’s committee members from across the state and is given to one Walk volunteer who exemplifies steadfast dedication to increasing awareness to the mission of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Torlone’s grandmother, Erma Jean Reed, succumbed to Alzheimer’s in December 2010. In 2011, Torlone participated in her first Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Huntington in her honor, and her team raised $3,400 in their first year.
She and her brother Jay established Erma’s Angels, a non-profit organization, and doubled their fundraising efforts in 2012, pulling in $7,200. They created events like the Ride to End Alzheimer’s and Golf to End Alzheimer’s, and again doubled their money in 2013, raising $14,450, the highest fundraising team for the year in West Virginia.
Annette Teel, a Charleston woman diagnosed with the disease six months ago, and her husband, Carl, were at the luncheon to offer words of encouragement to supporters of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“I’m here on behalf of many people and their caregivers, separated by a fence of not knowing or not understanding,” Teel said. “On the other side of the fence stand many people who want to reach out and have the knowledge to help us. We’re reaching out to them as they reach out to us — let’s tear down that fence and unite.”
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.