Back where his legend began, family and friends of Charlie Wedemeyer celebrated his life and unconquerable spirit yesterday in the Thurston Memorial Chapel at Punahou School.
They saluted the man who delighted them with his phenomenal athletic ability and later amazed and inspired people across the world with his heroic, 30-plus-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
He finally succumbed on June 3. He was 64.
A larger gathering took in a service for Wedemeyer on June 19 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., near where he successfully coached the Los Gatos High School football team for nine years, despite his worsening condition.
Yesterday was a more intimate reminder of Wedemeyer’s roots — and just how strong they were.
"It’s an emotional tide (being back)," said Wedemeyer’s wife and high school sweetheart, Lucy, who spoke on Charlie’s behalf for years after he could no longer talk. "It’s just the fact that we started our lives together here. … his life as an athlete. As he ran up and down the old stadium here at Punahou … before any of ALS started. His family, that rich heritage. I think that’s a special part of being at Punahou."
Well before the world caught on to his famous battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease that robbed him of his ability to move all but his eyes, eyebrows and mouth, Wedemeyer was known as a peerless leader and athletic standout at Punahou. He thrived in basketball, baseball and particularly as a quarterback in football, leading the Buffanblu to Interscholastic League of Honolulu titles in all three sports before going on to play football at Michigan State.
"His elusiveness, running-wise … leaving tacklers on the ground because of his quick moves. But always so graceful," said Ralph Martinson, the former Punahou athletic director and Wedemeyer’s high school football coach.
"But it was expressed in the service today, that his real grace was in the way he lived his life after."
Several films and books were written based on Wedemeyer’s story as he made use of his unprecedented longevity with ALS — he was first given just two years to live after being diagnosed in 1978 — to travel the world with Lucy and inspire.
Former teammates said his stubbornness in the face of such a debilitating illness came from the level of preparation and perfection Wedemeyer searched for in his youth.
"Charlie Wedemeyer was the best athlete I’ve ever seen," Pal Eldredge told the attendees.
"When Charlie (the team leader) felt we needed more conditioning, he would yell, ‘Hey, come back!’" Chris McLachlin said. "(Our success) would not have happened without Charlie’s prophetic words, ‘come back,’ and how symbolic those words are. … He spent the next 30 years launching one comeback after another, outrunning death on a regular basis."
All the while, he remained a fan of the game. In recent years, he would occasionally take in football practices of former Hawaii coach Dick Tomey when Tomey coached at San Jose State.
Tomey, who attended yesterday, was grateful for the chance to get to know Wedemeyer better.
"It helped me appreciate what they (Charlie and Lucy) meant not only to the Bay Area, to Los Gatos, but to the whole world. Because their story is just one of the most genuine and love-filled stories of all time," Tomey said.
Those gathered shed tears and shared laughs during countless stories of Wedemeyer’s spirit.
"He lived the life that many of us dreamed to live," said Wedemeyer’s nephew, Blane Gaison, the former star UH quarterback. "People look at his disability and feel sorry for him. He took his disability and made it an ability to touch people’s lives across the world. … The Charlie Wedemeyer story continues in each and every one of us."