Former Journal Star photographer William Lauer dies

2012-12-21T12:40:00Z 2015-01-22T13:25:34Z Former Journal Star photographer William Lauer diesBy CATHARINE HUDDLE / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
December 21, 2012 12:40 pm  • 

William Lauer was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis Oct. 27, 2009.

Very soon after that, the Lincoln Journal Star photojournalist set some goals.

One: Stay in the cozy arts and crafts-style home he'd recently purchased in the South Salt Creek neighborhood for the duration of his journey.

Two: Educate people about ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Three: Raise money to fight the always-fatal progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord and afflicts as many as 30,000 Americans at any given time.

Lauer, 51, died early Friday -- three years, one month and 25 days after the diagnosis.

He died at home. Mark Goal No. 1 a success.

For decades, relatively little research was done on the disease, Lauer said in 2011.

"We die, so that makes it a hard disease to do research on."

There's no way to know exactly how many people he managed to educate about ALS, but the number has to be in the hundreds -- friends, co-workers, caregivers, family, golfers, croquet players, bar patrons. Goal No. 2, check. 

In August 2010, Lauer sped around Pioneers Golf Course in a cart during the first Lauer Foundation tournament, handing out beer and water to some of the 100 or so golfers who turned out to play on an abominably hot day. The tournament raised $27,000, and the foundation has raised another $43,000 or so since.

Goal No. 3, check.

Lauer left his job at the newspaper in November 2010.

In August 2011, a friend drove him around the second annual tournament at Highlands Golf Course. He'd nearly lost the use of his arms and one hand. He had trouble standing and walking.

Summer 2012, he made a brief appearance at HiMark Golf Course in a motorized wheelchair. His speech was impaired, his ability to move anything more than a couple of fingers on his right hand nearly gone.

So the 2013 golf tournament will be the first without him, but there will be one.

"We have already talked about it," foundation President Rick Poore said Friday morning. "We're gonna go at least one more year."

It is true that Lauer accomplished his three goals.

But along the way, an extraordinary thing happened. A group of people -- dozens, for sure, maybe hundreds -- came together, united for a cause.

They played and volunteered in golf and croquet tournaments, to be sure. They ate ice cream at Ivanna Cone to benefit the foundation.

And a core group heeded the call of O'Rourke's Tavern owner Doug McLeese, who, as Lauer's legal executor, put out a plea for people to make food for Lauer, and later to feed it to him when he no longer could do it himself.

Then, friends, former co-workers and even some relative strangers took turns getting him out of bed in the morning, exercising his increasingly stiff and stubborn limbs as he lay in bed. And they put him to bed at night.

In recent months, McLeese arranged for round-the-clock professional care, and still the volunteers showed up to visit, feed Lauer and play with his cat, Lolly.

And yet, anyone who ever knew or worked with him would agree that if his middle name hadn't been George, it should have been Irascible. Or Contrary. Or maybe Just Plain Difficult.

He was known for his sharp opinions and blunt honesty. Some would say he was utterly without diplomacy.

"I don't like stupid people," he was known to say.

So that begs the question: Why would so many people devote so much time to helping him?

"He did it by being William the Snarler," Poore said. "He just assumed that things were gonna happen, and then he made you assume it, too.

"And certainly, when you come down to a terminal disease, you don't get shy about asking for help."

Well maybe. But the thing that made Lauer's case unusual was that he called his own shots -- all of them -- until six days before he died, when he finally lapsed into a long sleep.

With McLeese and longtime friend Joellen McGinn, Lauer decided when he'd be in bed and when he wouldn't, when and what he'd eat, what dosage of medication he'd take, who his caregivers would be -- and who would not be invited back.

Working with him was extraordinary, certified nurse assistant Amanda Calvert said earlier this week.

He listened to her, she said. He talked to her -- when he still could -- about life, love, golf.

"He changed my life," said Calvert, 20.

"I remember walking alongside William in his wheelchair as we were going to Campbell's Nursery," said caregiver Amanda Watters. "It was a gorgeous summer day, and William said, 'I hope everyone with ALS has someone to take them outside today.' What a generous thought."

Young photojournalists who passed through the Journal Star during Lauer's 13-year tenure benefited from his guidance and patience, too. When he praised a colleague's work, the recipient knew it was genuine.

"Maybe that tied into the teaching part," Poore said of Lauer's effect on Calvert and other caregivers.

As a photojournalist, Lauer sought assignments that gave him a chance to make a difference. He tackled a months-long task of documenting life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 2005 and was honored by The Associated Press for the result.

Lauer planned his funeral some time ago. A date hasn't been set.

Reach Catharine Huddle at 402-473-7222 or chuddle@journalstar.com.

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