Bert Brumett, inspired creation of a "college of conversation"
They were a couple who taught those who knew them about love and courage — Bert Brumett as he struggled to communicate despite a degenerative...
Seattle Times staff reporter
They were a couple who taught those who knew them about love and courage — Bert Brumett as he struggled to communicate despite a degenerative neurological disease, and Robin, who created "Brumett U, a college of conversation" to bring story-telling strangers to her husband's bedside.
On Wednesday, Mr. Brumett, 66, died with his wife at his bedside.
"I was standing near him when all vital signs dropped," Robin said. "His body just shut down.
"I think he tried so long to equalize the ravages of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and to keep his dignity and look OK to others ... it exhausted him physically."
Often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS is a rapidly progressive, fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells that control voluntary muscles.
Sufferers die from respiratory failure, and because it doesn't affect cognitive ability, those with ALS remain aware inside malfunctioning bodies.
Diagnosed in 2002, Mr. Brumett chose to go on a ventilator to extend his life, hoping someday there would be a cure. As his condition worsened and he lost the ability to communicate along with caring for himself, his wife moved his bed into the living room.
In February, she placed an ad on the Craigslist site seeking people with expertise in a variety of subjects to come talk to her bedridden husband. A former KIRO-TV executive, Mr. Brumett had a keen intellect that Robin wanted to keep stimulated despite the ravages of the disease.
Many responded — from belly dancers to herbalists to gambling strategists to college professors — and the Brumetts' Richmond Beach home became a haven for raconteurs. Robin interpreted her husband's interest, which often was not apparent to those who didn't know him.
One of the first to visit was Nadine Joy. When Joy first saw the ad, she wondered if Robin was an unrealistic woman who had a very sick husband who couldn't possibly understand the world around him.
After Joy's first visit, she still wasn't sure how much Mr. Brumett understood. But when she joined the family for Easter dinner and Mr. Brumett sat in a chair at the table, "it was so apparent that he was present. There was no question or doubt that he was part of us," she said.
As did the many others who became part of Brumett U, Joy took the news of Mr. Brumett's death hard. She, too, had hoped Mr. Brumett would live long enough for a cure.
"I know that Bert and I are probably politically different," Joy said. "But I looked forward to arguing with him."
Having gotten to know Mr. Brumett, Robin, and their three adult children — Erika, Ashley and Christopher — "I came away thinking about how grateful I am," Joy said. "I came away knowing love. It wasn't just talking to some guy."
Another visitor, Jill Warner, had just returned from the Peace Corps when she read a story about the Brumetts in The Seattle Times.
"If you don't reach out to other people, you can get narrow-sighted in life unless you get outside yourself," she said. "Helping others is so rewarding."
Mr. Brumett made Warner grateful for simple things, like the ability to move, and breathe and laugh.
Stan Chernicoff, University of Washington professor of earth and space sciences, spent an afternoon talking to Mr. Brumett and came away feeling he was the one who had gained.
"The act of giving, knowing you responded to a call of someone in need. It felt really nice to be able to do that," he said.
A small private service for the family will be held followed by a public memorial. No date has been set.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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