Word by word, language is stolen

The day David Foote had to admit that words were leaving him, he was standing at a blackboard at Lake Forest High School, lecturing on "Romeo and Juliet."

Mercutio. Montague. Lady Capulet.

He knew the characters as well as he knew his bow ties, but now, poised to explain the play to a room full of teenagers, every one of those Shakespearean names escaped him.

His wife had already noticed changes in his speech. He'd started scrambling pronouns. "I" exited his mouth as "they." Nouns vanished.

His wife knew it was odd that he had anything less than perfect control of his basic tools. An English teacher who confuses words is like a carpenter who mixes up nails and screws.

"I'm fine," he'd say when she'd bring it up. "I'm fine."

That day at the blackboard he had to admit he wasn't.


Foote was only 58 when he discovered he had a little-known form of dementia known as primary progressive aphasia. PPA, for short.

Alzheimer's, the dementia we all know, steals memory. PPA begins by destroying nerve cells in a part of the brain that controls language. In other words, it steals words.

"I can find the real world," Foote said Friday. He paused, revised. "Word. I can find words, but sometimes through circuitous routes."

He was sitting in his Wilmette living room with his wife, Cathy Donnelly. They agreed to be interviewed because a big conference on PPA is coming to Chicago this week, and though they haven't discussed his condition even with some of their friends, they believe it's important to help others understand the disease.

"It's my coming out, I guess," Foote said.

Now 66, Foote still looks like a parent's reassuring dream of an English teacher. His full gray hair is as neat as his sweater vest. His smile and gentlemanly humor are intact.

But listen.

He says "toy" when he means "treat." "Prominent" when he means "permanent." Sometimes he's as articulate as you'd expect of a man who taught English for 22 years at Evanston Township High School and another 15 at Lake Forest. Other times, he's lost in a verbal maze.

"My life has been talking," he said. "And teaching. And helping kids learn to write. And telling stories. I felt there was. I knew. I felt. I guess."

You could almost hear his mind. Scanning. Searching. Shuffling. Waiting. Finally, the words: "I felt parts of me were falling off."

Reading is one part that has fallen off. If he reads now, he has to do it out loud.

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