It seemed as if it would be a perfectly ordinary occasion, that hot August day in 1959. Three generations of a large Oklahoma family gathered at a studio in nearby Perryton, Tex., to have a photo taken of the elders, 14 siblings ranging in age from 29 to 52. Afterward, everyone went to a nearby park for a picnic.
Among the group were two cousins, Doug Whitney, who was 10, and Gary Reiswig, who was 19. Doug’s mother and Gary’s father were brother and sister. Doug does not remember any details of that day, but Gary says he can never forget it. His father, and some of his aunts and uncles, just did not seem right. They stared blankly. They were confused, smiling and nodding, even though it seemed as if they weren’t really following the conversation.
Seeing them like that reminded Gary of what his grandfather had been like years before. In 1936, at the age of 53, his grandfather was driving with his grandmother and inexplicably steered into the path of a train. He survived, but his wife did not. Over the next decade, he grew more and more confused. By the time he died at 63, he was unable to speak, unable to care for himself, unable to find his way around his house. Now here were the first signs of what looked like the same condition in several of his children.
"We were looking at the grimness face to face," Gary says. “After that, we gradually stopped getting together.”
It was the start of a long decline for Gary’s father and his siblings. Their memories became worse, their judgment faltered, they were disoriented. Then one day in 1963, Gary, who was living in Illinois at the time, went with his mother to take his father to a doctor in Oklahoma City. The doctor had recently examined his father’s brother, and after administering some simple memory tests and hearing about the rest of the family, concluded that he probably had Alzheimer's disease. Gary and his mother took his father in for the same exam, and the doctor confirmed Gary’s fears.