'Spirit of life' filled icon of Isle sports Wedemeyer's heroics went far beyond the football field
• Photo gallery: Charlie Wedemeyer
By Curtis Murayama
Advertiser Sports Editor
In the end, heaven couldn't wait.
Charlie Wedemeyer, one of Hawai'i's finest athletes, who defied the medical world with his 34-year battle with Lou Gehrig's disease, died yesterday morning in California.
He was 64.
As always, as she had done throughout their ordeal, Lucy, his wife and high school sweetheart at Punahou School, was at his side, joined by their two children, Kale and Carri, and their seven grandchildren — keiki Wedemeyer never expected to see.
"He's free. He's got some big game going on in heaven," Lucy said yesterday. "He looks so peaceful. He just couldn't resist heaven."
While Wedemeyer was one of Hawai'i's most storied high school athletes, he earned his greatest accolades for his dogged fight against Lou Gehrig's disease.
Wedemeyer's inspirational life story has been well chronicled, spawning a PBS documentary, "One More Season," a CBS movie, "Quiet Victory — The Charlie Wedemeyer Story," and a book the couple wrote, "Charlie's Victory."
Part of his legacy as a remarkable fighter grew from his time as a high school coach in Los Gatos, Calif., where in 1985 his team won the Central Coast Section Championship with Lucy, on the sidelines, reading his lips and relaying his plays to the assistant coaches.
"What do you say?" said Wedemeyer's nephew, Blane Gaison, a former star athlete at Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawai'i who also played in the NFL. "He's been a role model for so many people, a testimony of faith, not just him, but he and my Aunt Lucy as a life partner. That's a true testament to the spirit of life."
Wedemeyer's room at Kaiser Santa Teresa Community Hospital in San Jose was a reminder of that. He was surrounded by photos "that evoked the spirit of life," according to Gaison.
In the last few weeks when the family sensed Wedemeyer was nearing his time, he was visited often by friends and relatives.
"God's presence is palatable. In that room you could feel it," Lucy said. "Nurses would come in and say that. It's quite remarkable."
Wedemeyer had undergone five surgeries over the past weeks and continued to "astound doctors. They kept using the words, 'Miraculous,' " Lucy said.
Wedemeyer was so revered in the area that Dr. Val Selivanov, who performed what would be Wedemeyer's last surgery, had a photo of Wedemeyer put up during the operation.
"I think I'm in a foggy time now," Lucy said. "But the joy of knowing that he's out of any more pain, any more surgery, any more discomfort ... we just had so much time (together) this past two weeks."
"We knew it was going to come," Gaison said. "There's so many good things we're going to remember and so many wonderful things that we won't forget. His legacy will live on through those he touched."
Wedemeyer attended Michigan State, where he was a receiver for the No. 2-ranked 1966 team that played No. 1 Notre Dame in college football's famed "Game of the Century." It was a match-up also famous locally because it was the first game televised live in the state.
Wedemeyer played in the East-West Shrine Game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, then came back home to play in the 1969 Hula Bowl. He played two years of semi-pro football for the Lansing (Mich.) All-Stars.
In high school, he was the star athlete, playing quarterback and halfback, and Lucy Dangler was a cheerleader.
Wedemeyer was a multi-sport athlete at Punahou, where he earned nine varsity letters in a brilliant high school career. He was a three-time all-star football player, was a first-team all-star with teammate Norm Chow when Punahou won the ILH basketball title in 1964, and played second base on the school's 1965 ILH championship baseball team.
"Of all the high school athletes, Charlie was the best I've ever seen," Bill Kwon, a sports writer for 52 years for both The Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, said yesterday.
In 1960, Wedemeyer was voted the Prep Athlete of the Decade. Last year, he was named one of Hawai'i's top 50 sports people in the 50 years of statehood.
"Other than my dad, he was my role model — for everybody in the family in my generation," said Gaison, 52, associate director of athletics at Kamehameha Schools.
"He was everything that we wanted to be, not just on the field but off the field as well ... probably the most humble person you would have ever met. You don't get too many of those today."
After the Wedemeyers married, they settled in Los Gatos, about 15 miles southeast of San Jose. They had two children and Wedemeyer began a successful career as a math teacher and football coach at Los Gatos High.
Then came 1976, when Wedemeyer began having difficulties with his hands, such as trying to write math problems on the board in his classroom but dropping the chalk.
He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, an ailment the killed baseball's "Ironman" at age 37 on June 2, 1941.
ALS, which affects one out of every 50,000 people, is an incurable neurodegenerative disorder that attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord. The result is a loss of muscle control and movement. It usually is fatal within three years and only 10 percent of those afflicted live beyond eight years.
In Wedemeyer's case, he was given only one year.
Despite his illness, Wedemeyer continued to coach at Los Gatos, where he helped the school win seven league titles while compiling a 78-18-1 record — after he was afflicted with ALS.
After his team won the Central Coast Section Championship with Lucy's help on the sidelines, the Wedemeyers would share their faith at speaking engagements with Lucy delivering Charlie's message by reading his lips and eye movement.
Through it all, Lucy's strength was as amazing as Wedemeyer's fight for life.
"She's an angel," Gaison said. "She's always been an angel, always there by his side from Day One and never left. When you talk about a love story and partnership, they were a true testament of what a husband, wife and family is really all about. They were the epitome of it."
When asked how she did it all these years, Lucy said yesterday, "We did it. Unshakable faith, knowing the promises we made in eternal life far exceeds anything we do. Our time here (on Earth) is short and we'll be reunited in heaven."
A celebration of his life is being planned at Los Gatos sometime in June and another for Hawai'i sometime later.Charlie Wedemeyer