Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

January 19, 2014

'You're in my heart'

The Thomases face challenges of Alzheimer's after 60 years of marriage.

By Kelly Lafferty
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Don Thomas knew he had to take up skating when he laid eyes on 14-year-old Velma "Louise" King at a rink in Marion, Ky., many years ago.

Her beauty caught his eye.

He even remembers what she was wearing. It was a white top with a bright red, ruffled skirt. He thought she was the cutest girl he'd ever seen.

"Oh my gosh," he said. "Louise, you were gorgeous in that skirt."

They were both freshmen in a small high school in Crittenden County, Ky. when they first noticed each other, but it wasn't until sophomore year that they started dating.

"I didn't chase her and she didn't chase me," Don said. "It was just simply mutual."

They went to movies, attended church youth group parties and went on a lot of double dates. Don would carry her books as he walked Louise home every day after school.

"We had a lot of fun," Don said.

Don and Louise went on to graduate high school, along with their 30 classmates. The whole time, they both knew they wanted to marry each other, and after four years of dating, they did just that.

"There just came a time when we felt like we could," Don said. "We had things figured out. We just knew we could do it. We dated a long time and we just knew each other."

Don was a sophomore at Evansville College at the time. They were both 18, and were married at Marion Methodist Church in Kentucky on July 4, 1953.

After he graduated college, he went into the Air Force. Louise went with him and during pilot training she even tried her hand at flying a plane by herself. Don watched from the runway.

"She thought every wife whose husband was a pilot ought to know what it’s like," Don said.

Don admits it was a little scary watching her fly solo, but he was very proud. He had always been drawn to her quiet confidence.

"She set her mind to it and she'd get it done," he said.

Once they moved onto a base in Savannah, Ga. they had to get used to being apart for 30 to 45 days at a time. It was a hard adjustment, especially since they had two small children.

"You got children and a life back there and it's a killer," Don said.

After several years in the Air Force, Don chose to leave it after their youngest baby wouldn't come to him and didn't recognize him. The Thomases moved to Kokomo in 1962 where they went on to have two more children. Family has always been a priority for them.

"Nobody takes family more seriously than our clan," Don said. "We've had a really rich life ourselves. A lot of it revolved around our family."

During their years in Kokomo, the Thomases made their mark in the community by helping others with generous donations and by being active in many different organizations.

"Paying back has always been big on our agenda," Don said.

As for their relationship, Don says that he and Louise have always made a good team. She kept them grounded when he said he liked to live life large.

"It was a partnership and it was co-dependence," Don said. "I realized a long time ago she made me better."

He said their marriage was ideal. They had challenges, but they faced them together. They never got to a point that they couldn’t get over together.

“It’s awfully easy to say ‘I’m out of here’ and you can do it,” Don said. “It wasn’t that way for Louise and I. I think you’ve really got to try hard.”

Their relationship now has faced its biggest challenge in 60 years of marriage. Louise was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2005. Don noticed warning signs several years before she was diagnosed, but he didn’t see them then as quickly as he does now, in retrospect.

It started with little things, like the time Louise accidentally paid their taxes twice. Or when she quit bridge because she couldn't remember the suits. Once when she was in downtown Kokomo, she couldn't remember where she had parked her car. The symptoms grew to where she started wandering around, not knowing where she was.

"If I turned my back, she was out the door," Don said.

It's progressed now to the point where she doesn't remember Don or their children. She doesn't remember her past. That means no recollections of growing up in Kentucky, dating through high school, marrying Don, flying a plane, traveling or having a family.

“You can’t go back,” Don said. “It can’t be reversed.”

Two years ago, Don and his family made a hard decision to put Louise in an assisted living home.

“When I took her, knowing it was one way, it was indescribably difficult,” Don said. “It’s like driving someone to the cemetery, but not.”

Even though it was a struggle, Don believes they made the right choice. It had come to a point where he couldn’t help her while she was at home.

“People that I know are sticking with it too long,” he said. “I didn’t realize it. She’s done better here than what I could have done. Good intentions are not always the best.”

Don keeps himself busy these days to keep from getting too depressed. He surrounds himself with people as he volunteers, travels and visits with his family.

“My worst time is if I foolishly drink a coffee later in the day and I can’t fall asleep,” he said. “I’ve got to keep busy.”

When he’s in town, he visits Louise often and feeds her twice a day.

“This woman has got so much to offer,” he said as he looked at Louise. “I wonder if Louise has gone to heaven already. I know she’s not here. It’s kind of like a hard drive that’s not working.”

Once in a while, Don says there will be some awareness on Louise’s part, but it’s been happening less and less as time goes by.

“I wish I could ask the doctors one thing,” he said. “Where is she? Where is Louise? She’s not there.”

He turned, then, to look at his sweetheart.

“You know where you are, Louise?” he asked her. “You’re in my heart.”

“I know that,” Louise whispered as she smiled up at him.