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Five years ago, Antioch's Rick Smith lost his wife, Susie, to Alzheimer's disease. Since then he has turned tragedy into triumph by raising more than $200,000 for the Alzheimer's Association. (Courtesy of the Alzheimer's Association)

ANTIOCH -- He turned tragedy into an annual fundraiser that has generated more than $200,000 to date.

That's the simplistic version, of course.

Five years ago, Antioch's Rick Smith lost his wife, Susie, to Alzheimer's disease. The years leading up to her final days were excruciating, painful and heartbreaking.

But Smith and his family tried to turn their awful reality into something hopeful and helpful -- by fundraising with chili cook-offs.

"We had been doing a chili cook-off at our house since 1987, and when Susie was diagnosed we started to make it a benefit for the Alzheimer's Association," Smith said.

Rick and Susie met in 1969 when he was a Navy pilot in San Diego, where she grew up. A year later, they were married and spent many years in Petaluma and Orinda, where they raised two daughters.

In 1998, at age 51, she was diagnosed with the challenging disease.

He said the effects of the disease and how it affects families is "terrible" but that the "guidance, education and assistance from the Alzheimer's Association helped guide us through the difficult times."

Smith said he has overcome some "challenging and frightening things, (including) combat missions in Vietnam and flying F-4 Phantom jets off the USS Kitty Hawk in very dangerous conditions."

Still, he said, it doesn't compare with being "a caregiver for my wife for 10 long years."


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"Without the help, support and resources of the (association), I do not think I would have survived."

Smith is proud of his family's huge fundraising efforts.

"I feel a great sense of accomplishment ... We are able to educate and help families like ours."

In addition, he and one of his daughters "provide mentoring to support groups and individual families. I have had the opportunity to direct families to the services of the Alzheimer's Association, as well as speak to various social and church groups."

Since that fateful diagnosis, Smith said there has been progress in the "fight against the disease but, sadly, not much."

"Every time we think there is a breakthrough, we learn of some side effects to the newest drug. There are several new and promising studies under way, (but) much more research is needed."

He said the Alzheimer's Association is the largest worldwide private funder, with a seemingly endless list of other contributions and services.

"While we currently have no survivors of this dreaded disease, I and other caregivers are survivors. Support to family members is one of the main tenants of the mission of the Alzheimer's Association, in addition to funding research, and being an advocate for those who can no longer speak for themselves.

"I was reminded by one of my daughters recently that the possibility of Alzheimer's in her life is always in her thoughts. She said, 'Dad, when I reach 50, you will be 75 -- we should throw a really big party for both of us, if I don't have Alzheimer's.' How sad and frightening is that?"

Reach Trine Gallegos at TrineG@att.net.

to learn more
For more information about this weekend's cook off, visit http://smithadkinschilicookoff.splashthat.com/
For more information about the Alzheimer's Association, visit www.alz.org/norcal