'What's Up' column offered more than celestial information

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Montana's motto may be "Big Sky Country," but there's plenty of "big sky" in our neck of the woods as well.

We've always enjoyed stargazing, especially in the countryside away from the city lights, and we were pleased when Vernon Whetstone, then of Benkelman, offered to add us to the list of papers carrying his "What's Up?" column.

His first column in the Gazette debuted Oct. 16, 2006, and today, unfortunately, is the last.

His love of the heavens caused him to continue the column long after most of us would have given up, thanks to the help of his lifelong secretary and wife, Janice.

As he's explained, he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.

The disease robbed him of the use of his hands and legs, but thanks to Janice's help, he continued to share his passion for the night sky until he was finally deprived of the use of the voice he used to dictate his thoughts.

You may remember the "Ice Bucket Challenge" floating around the Internet a couple of years ago, and may have even taken part in it yourself.

What you may not remember was that it was a fundraiser for ALS research, and the organizers said it actually did some good.

According to the ALS Association, the funding helped identify a new ALS gene. Project MinE used a $1 million grant from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to scan the genetic makeup of 15,000 people living with ALS and 7,500 healthy people around the world.

More than 80 researchers in 11 countries are cooperating with the goal of finding all the genes that are responsible for ALS.

Approximately 6,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year, about two per 100,000 people, and more than 20,000 Americans may be living with ALS at any given time.

Military veterans, for some reason, are approximately twice as likely to develop ALS than the general population.

ALS often begins with muscle weakness or stiffness, progressing to weakness, wasting and paralysis of muscles of the limbs and trunk, and eventually speech, swallowing and breathing.

While the average person with ALS survives three years, about 20 percent live five years, 10 percent 10 years and 5 percent live 20 years or more.

One drug, Riluzole, has shown promise by extending the life of patients with ALS by at least a few months or allowing them more time in higher functioning states.

The Ice Bucket Challenge was a fun exercise, and we're glad the money did some good, but there's still a long way to go.

Thinking about our friend Vernon Whetstone brings the disease into sharp focus, with the hope that progress can continue to be made toward a cure.

We're sad that Vernon won't be able to lend readers his expertise on this summer's total eclipse which will sweep across Nebraska, but we're thankful for all the years he shared his passion for celestial events.

In his first column for the Gazette, he described himself as "a 59-year-old teenager who fell in love with astronomy when he was 12 years old and hasn't given up on it since."

Having such passion, and sharing it with others, is something to which we can all aspire.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: