Jul 052017

Charles James Ogletree, Jr. is the Jesse Climenko Professor at Harvard Law School and the founder of the school’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute. With prolific former students such as Michelle Obama and trials under his belt for Tupac Shakur and Anita Hill, Professor Ogletree has fought for decades for justice and civil rights. He is also living with Alzheimer’s disease, having disclosed his diagnosis in July 2016. We spoke to him about his experiences and his Alzheimer’s story.

“I’ve learned that every person’s Alzheimer’s journey is different – not one is the same,” the professor reflects. “It’s interesting, because in my case, I didn’t have any sense about what was happening to me as the disease came to light. I didn’t notice the symptoms of Alzheimer’s in myself.

I was recently at a conference where I gave a speech about the disease and I was surprised to see how many people – black, white, all nationalities and backgrounds – were there, living with the disease or taking care of someone with the disease. It truly is affecting us all, and we must all join the fight to end Alzheimer’s.”

Professor Ogletree wants to encourage African-Americans, who have a higher risk for the disease, to become educated about Alzheimer’s – and encourage people to get an early diagnosis.

“Early detection and diagnosis is key. The most important thing is to not be afraid to talk about it, because talking about it will encourage other people to open up,” he says.

“In every speech I give – sometimes on a weekly basis – I have been talking openly about my Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I’ve spoken to people with the disease and people who love someone with the disease. In a way, we are all in the same boat. It is amazing how many people are affected; something has to be done to slow this epidemic. We all have to tell our stories to keep the lines of communication open.”

Professor Ogletree has been a mentor to many, including Michelle and Barack Obama, who both attended Harvard. The support of the former President, who released a statement about Ogletree’s diagnosis last year, along with family, friends and colleagues isn’t lost on the professor.

“It is so important for people with a diagnosis to have the support of their loved ones; I think it matters very much. My son Chuck (Charles III) visits Boston to spend time with my wife Pamela and I, and my daughter Rashida will be getting a visit from us soon in her new home. Every Thanksgiving, Pamela and I spend the first part of the holiday at home and then travel to my son; every Christmas, we do the same with our daughter. I have a good friend from Mississippi who has been very supportive, along with his wife. Having their support while I continue to fight this disease means the world to me.”

When it comes to his own journey, exercise and keeping busy with activities are an important part of his daily routine.

“My wife is trying to keep up with me! I like to run – running is definitely very important to me. I enjoy attending Harvard basketball games, even if they didn’t quite make the tournament this year! I also stay involved with the community by attending lunch and dinner social events. I feel that it’s important for me to keep active, mentally and physically.”

Public service and seeking justice have been a huge part of Professor Ogletree’s background, and he has begun a new fight for reason. “I talk about Alzheimer’s disease everywhere I go; I don’t shy away from it. The people I have spoken to are very responsive to my message of continuing to fight – and hope – and I find triumph in that.”

The professor continues to believe education and lifelong learning are vital, both for those living with dementia and those who are not.

After he defended Tupac Shakur in court in the turbulent year of 1993, Tupac’s mother asked Ogletree to try and convince Tupac to apply to Harvard. “It was so interesting to have that experience. Tupac was a talented guy who could have taken a Harvard education very far. In the end, he decided it was not for him. These days, I still work with students who apply to and attend Harvard. Educating every child we can is key, because that key can turn a life in the right direction. I try to inspire new generations and show them how far an education can take them. It fills me with joy when my students embrace their education; their hard work shows in their successes. They – and I – don’t take our time together for granted.”

As for his personal view of his impact on society, Professor Ogletree is very clear about what his legacy will be. “I want to be known as the guy who was always concerned about justice and equality. Nothing more, nothing less.”

There is no doubt he will be, and given how much he is talking openly about his Alzheimer’s diagnosis – and educating others about his own disease experience – he hopes he will be known for that as well. “My next fight has begun. I am ready.”

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  11 Responses to “An Education: Professor Charles Ogletree Speaks Truths about Alzheimer’s”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing! My husband was diagnosed 5 yrs ago at age 59. The only thing I truly find that has slowed the progress is exercise and he is a runner. It would make life easier if he would acknowledge he has issues but he will not. I will pray for your and your family.

  2. I was dignosed with Azlheimer, an then two months later the Doctor said I didn’t have it, she said

    Frontotemporal Dementia. What is that? I wake up every day an tell my self I don’t have any of it.

    I am 77 yrs old an I still walk with my dog, I cook an clean an do laundry.

    I retired from 47 years of Real Estate sales.

    • Hello Janice. We have reached out to you via email. Thank you for your comment.

  3. As a retired attorney and magistrate judge whose beloved wife has Alzheimer's, I applaud my Proffessor Olgetree for his nobility, grace, honesty, generosity and kindness in the face of a disease that is staring us all in the face. I pray that his activitism will help ignite others. Since my wife's diagnosis in 2013, we have collaborated on finishing and publishing a book she began years before her diagnosis. This labor of love is among the high points of our 43 year marriage. Professor Olgetree's actions have encourage me to begin to do more in the fight! Thank you!

  4. Charles was a classmate of mine at Stanford, and I wish him well in his battle against a most difficult for. If anyone could deal with a disease like this, it is someone with Charles' mental attitude and positive demeanor. God Bless you, Charles!

  5. Thank you speaking out about early onset Alzheimer's. We need people to realize that even at a younger age I am 65 and was a registered nurse helping people was my passion. I realize that now that there will one day be a medication that can possibly slow down the disease and then cure. I am praying for the next generation my children and grandchildren that they will not face our future lies in research requiring funding. Speaking out as you have about the disease willhopefully rally those people who have not been affected by this disease but know someone who has had it to help us find medication to at least slow down it's progression. As with everyone with Alzheimer's we expected a different path in life but must embrace this change so we can help in finding a cure. With a lot of prayer and a lot of funding this can be accomplished. Keep up the fight as we all must thank you again. Laura

  6. My paternal grandfather died with classic Alzhiemer's symptoms; my maternal grandfather hung himself in his basement for no known reason, although in retrospect he had been slipping into a long depression; my Mother died with all the usual symptoms. I have two of the bad APOE genes. Now at 74, I show a lot of memory related indicators. I'm signed up as a subject in a new drug test. My doctors won't diagnose, but they make it clear what their strong suspicion is.

    I tell everybody what my status is. I want them to know why I can't remember their name. I'm not looking for sympathy — I just want them to understanding what's going on — I'm not impolite, just a bit damaged.

    I play trumpet, in public — have since age 10 — my jazz performance is the best it has ever been — remove the mental fears and constraints and the free improvisation pours out of the bell. My favorite gig is playing in the pit for the community or university theatre productions of a Broadway Show — I currently do several a year — I estimate around 100 in my life-time. A few weeks ago, I played the final show of a six day run of My Fair Lady on a Wednesday night — rehearsals for Music Man started on Thursday, the next day.

    I don't like Alzheimer's and I'm really worried about what showed up in a recent gene report on my 40 year old son.

    "That's life. That's what people say." I say, "Get along with it, cause it ain't goin' away."

  7. I was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s 10 years ago. I was in an Ely Lilly trial drug Solanezumab, and was doing well, and getting worse. In Nov. 2016 Lilly stoped the trial. My last infusion was Nov 2016. I am slowly getting worse. Now I am told the FDA stopped the trial $$$$$$. This trial admitted patients with all stages of Alzheimer’s.The more advanced patients dropped out quickly, but those of us in Early Stages did well, I was one of the patients doing well on the trial drug.
    It now seems much harder to get into new trials, the trials are much more selective.
    More information needs to get to the population ( via TV, etc ) to make trials known.

  8. My heart goes out to Professor Ogletree. I hope helps to raise awareness in the African American community about the disparities surrounding Alzheimer's

  9. Please refer to my previous comment concerning the Lilly trial drug; I was NOT getting worse on the drug.

  10. Much thanks to you such a great amount for sharing! My better half was analyzed 5 yrs prior at age 59. The main thing I really find that has moderated the advance is exercise and he is a sprinter. It would make life simpler on the off chance that he would recognize he has issues however he won't. I will appeal to God for your and your family.

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