Longtime ABC11 anchor Larry Stogner retired on air with monumental grace almost 18 months ago.
He told us he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neurological condition sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
I thought it was time to catch up with Stogner. The now full-time grandfather answered some deeply personal questions with candor, class and courage.
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Q: You are a journalist, so you can appreciate I’m going to cut to the chase. Larry, why are we doing this in writing? (This interview was conducted electronically).
Stogner: What speech I have left is now unintelligible. My wife can understand a little. So I use email and texting instead of phone calls. In person, I use both a writing tablet called a Boogie Board and a Samsung tablet with special software that can turn my writing into a synthetic version of my former voice.
Q: How hard is this, for a man who made his living talking?
Stogner: It’s just plain frustrating. Your brain works like normal, yet when it comes out of your mouth … it’s like Chewbacca. What happens is … you stop getting involved in conversations. Too much trouble. By the time you write it out … the conversation has moved on.
Q: This just bring tears to my eyes. And you ... do you cry sometimes?
Stogner: Oddly, one of the symptoms of ALS is heightened emotions. Right after the diagnosis, I would dwell on what was happening and would weep for long periods. Then I found myself crying over anything, and that was not like me.
I’m still pretty depressed about the cards I’ve drawn, but I don’t cry much anymore. I know that hundreds of people pray for me each night and that God has my hand in this.
Q: How are your movements, your dexterity?
Stogner: Knock on wood, but I haven’t lost much mobility. I still type, drive, walk the dogs, etc. What I have lost is stamina. Almost any exertion sets me back for a few minutes. And my breathing is so bad I’m on oxygen 24/7.
My type (of ALS), called bulbar onset, first strikes the tongue, throat, lungs, etc., and works its way down.
Q: What makes you smile these days? More things? Or perhaps fewer?
Stogner: Nothing has changed in that respect. It’s just more internal now – harder to share with others.
Q: Have you had a chance to see some of North Carolina and America’s back roads, as you said you would when you signed off?
Stogner: I first concentrated on seeing some of the world … crisscrossing Italy and later a Viking River cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam. But traveling has become more difficult as of late, partly because of the oxygen but also because it wears me out.
Q: What do you do when you’re out and about?
Stogner: For a while I was playing lots of golf, but had to give that up in April. By then I’d lost a good bit of muscle mass and the clubs felt like sledgehammers.
I had been working on a book about my life in the business when I got the diagnosis. and I work on that occasionally. It used to be important to me but now … if it doesn’t get finished it’ll be OK.
I meet with two friends each morning at 7 when I take the dogs to a nearby park. We solve the world’s ills, then I come home.
Q: It’s been almost 18 months since you made your much-admired goodbye on live television. Looking back, how do you feel about that, about becoming more famous than you already were?
Stogner: There never was a lot of hand-wringing about what to do. I knew of no other way to handle it other than to be upfront as quickly as possible.
For some reason, others found the announcement remarkable. It went viral, getting hundreds of thousands of hits.
I’m truly touched by the people who approach me day after day — total strangers who want to shake my hand and tell me that they’re praying for me.
A person you’ve never met … saying they miss you and more than that … they love you. Wow! It’s almost like being at your own funeral.
Q: What (would) you like to say to viewers, in Durham and the area, who miss you and wonder about you and your well-being?
Stogner: I want them to know I truly appreciate their concern. That while I can’t move the way I used to, I’m still on my feet and in no pain. ALS just slowly robs one of their ability to use their muscles…and ultimately even breathe. That’s the road I’m walking.
As for the cards and letters, I’ve saved them all. Several stand out: those who went into this business because of watching me…or the ones who have strong memories of watching me with their grandparents. That I remind them of those innocent days of their youth.
Q: Larry, what do you and your doctors expect?
Stogner: I’m afraid we’re talking months here, not years. Even though I’m still relatively mobile, my respiratory system is about shot. Part of the breathing process is getting rid of carbon dioxide, and my body is doing a poor job of it as the disease progresses.
Q: Are you saying you think you may not survive more than a few months, possibly?
Stogner: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.
Q: Do you think you will see or your next birthday (His 70th, on October 25).
Stogner: No idea. I can only hope my doctor is wrong.
Q: How is your wife doing?
Stogner: Bobbi is my strength. She certainly didn’t sign up for this trail ride but she keeps me “up” and always looks for the silver lining. She is focused on making the time I have left … as pleasant as possible.
Q: How (has) impending mortality made you think about death, about life and how you have led it?
Stogner: I’m starting to feel at peace with it. No one wants to give up life. But the real issue is – what kind of life? Quality of life and dignity weigh heavily.
I am a Christian, and while I can’t say I don’t fear death, I know there’s a better life beyond.
The roads ALS patients take to St. Peter’s gates are varied. There’s no strict timeline.
For years, I was one of the emcees for the local portion of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. Every year, dressed in a tux, I would interview ALS patients.
And I would often think to myself, “I sure am glad I’m not that guy.”
Now I’m that guy.