Heart of Treasure Valley

Heart of the Treasure Valley: Richard Herdegen has Parkinson’s disease, but doesn’t dwell on what’s ahead

The single bay of his three-car garage will never see a car. It’s full of tools and the accoutrements for working with glass — boxes and bowls full of pieces, full sheets of glass neatly arranged on the shelves that cover the walls from top to bottom.

With the garage door half open to the light and the neighborhood, Richard Herdegen works on a huge table where the car is supposed to go. He scores and snips pieces of glass by the hour, with the ease of having done this before. A lot, as a matter of fact.

He says: “I’ve done hobbies since I was 18, right out of high school. I made bird houses. ... Probably about 1972, I thought, well, I’m going to try glass. ... I enjoyed it a lot.

“I never stopped.”

About eight years ago, Richard started firing tiny pieces of glass in a kiln — a combination of science and artistry to get the edges of the glass smooth and rounded. With these hundreds and thousands of pieces, he assembles colorful mosaics, his current genre of choice.

“I like making things that are cool, that look neat. ... I’ll make anything that I like.”

The small fired pieces, ready for assembly, are piled in paper bowls sorted by color — dozens and dozens of color — close at hand around the large piece he’s working on. His right hand rests on the table while he talks; it trembles. He reaches for a handful of black glass; the tremor subsides.

“If I get wrapped up enough in what I’m doing — (if) I’m just focusing on what I’m doing — my symptoms will be minimized.

“I’m not the only one; there are studies going on right now trying to understand why it is people seem to become symptom-free if they are wrapped up in something they like doing.

“And I like my glass.”

Almost five years ago, Richard was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system. He’s done a lot of reading and research; he’s informed. He’s pragmatic and a realist — he knows what his future could hold. But he also steadfastly and quietly refuses to worry.

“There are parts of the Bible that say that God will not give you more than you can handle; you won’t be presented with something you can’t take. So I’m kind of claiming that one. I think I can do it. Yeah. With God’s help.”

Richard found out about Parkinson’s rather accidentally, after he donated a kidney to a friend. His recovery took a long time and he was exhausted. That was to be expected, but exhaustion brings out Parkinson’s symptoms, like the tremor (called dyskinesia) — which he couldn’t continue to attribute to the gallons of coffee he loved to drink.

“Parkinson’s — if you look at a distribution curve, the middle is 59 (years old), which is me. I was 59 when I got diagnosed. ...

“I got to keep my job for a year and a half. And then at the end of that year and a half, I could not do my job at all. I literally stared at my computer screen all day long, trying to figure out some simple little thing.

“Simple, what used to be simple; now — ha. It wouldn’t be simple for me. So it was just time to quit; I couldn’t do it any more.”

Richard was a software designer who loved the challenge of creative thought and problem-solving.

“I had my share of crying time. I knew that I was going to have some good years left; that was great. (But) Parkinson’s never ends well.

“It’s kind of scary, to be real honest, because you don’t know what you’re going to get. ... It’s like grab bag. You reach in and grab, and then you see what’s on the pieces of paper. So far I’ve evaded some of the nastier (symptoms), and that’s cool. I just hope that they don’t show up. ...”

He decided to write down, one day, all of his symptoms related to Parkinson’s. There were more than 30.

“I’m starting to walk kind of weird; it feels like my legs are kind of wobbly. I don’t know what that means — hopefully that means nothing. I can’t smell, but that doesn’t bother me a bit. ...

“But the one that really bugs me: my brain. That’s what I miss the most, being able to solve things. I cannot do that now.”

There are things he can do, and those — including mosaics — are what Richard turns his energy toward. Shortly after he learned about his Parkinson’s, Richard and his wife, Diane (married 44 years), started volunteering at the Meridian Food Bank.

“It causes you to count your blessings when you are around people who are having a hard time. There’s a lot of really industrious, productive-looking people who come in looking sort of devastated, and they need help. It’s really nice to be in a position to help some.”

He donates platelets twice a month, faithfully. Parkinson’s is not a blood-born disease.

“I started that, too, shortly after I gave my kidney. I enjoyed that feeling so much I wanted to do it again — giving something that saves a person’s life. Platelets were what I came up with.”

In addition to being a software engineer, Richard also worked as a handyman. He’d work early in the morning and spend his afternoons donating his skill and labor to senior citizens.

“I’ve written that one off. I can do simple things still, like fixing fences, but I will not touch plumbing or electrical just because I don’t trust myself anymore. I still do lots of leaf-raking, things that are safe to do. ... Certain things have to be right, like electrical; you can’t be wrong. That’s not me any more. ...

“But I can rake leaves just as good as anyone else.”

Richard once bought a motorcycle with an ice-cream freezer on the front. It didn’t have an engine, so he bought another motorcycle at a junkyard and put the two together.

“I did it probably seven years ago. I could never do that today. I had to figure out all these wires and stuff — look at all those wires. I look back and think, how the heck did I do that? It looks hard! It would be for me now. I used to be able to do things like that pretty good.”

He took the ice cream-cycle to a recent neighborhood gathering. Although the sign on the side says “Ice Cream, 5 cents,” that’s false advertising.

“I don’t have a selling permit. But I have a ‘give-away’ permit. I can do that.”

He laughs; it’s classic Richard generosity. When he turned on the ice cream music, he didn’t have to worry about the ice cream melting, it was gone so fast. At the same gathering, Richard also hosted a craft table for neighborhood kids to make a dried flower collage underneath beveled glass.

“I had to explain how to do it. It’s the easiest thing, but I couldn’t get through it. ... It’s the weirdest thing. When I go to use that part of my brain, its like no one’s home. ...

“I love to give classes, but I almost always walk away thinking those days are numbered — Richard, you’re not going to get to do that (any more).”

When Richard worked at Hewlett-Packard, one of the places where he did software development, he worked 70 hours a week. He didn’t have time for volunteering.

“When I left HP, everything changed. I started volunteering and I never stopped. I hope I never do have to stop, just because it’s fun. I can do it; I have the time, so I’m going to do it.”

Four months ago, Richard completed a 12-piece mosaic mural for St. Luke’s Children’s Specialty Center. He worked on the piece for nearly two years; the project took over his upstairs bonus room. It took about 3,000 hours to create the mural — he didn’t keep track — plus seven months to prepare 250,000 pieces of glass. St. Luke’s helped pay for materials, but he donated his time.

“It’s fun to give. And the other part is if I can find a person or persons who need something in their lives — like smiles, or whatever — that’s even more rewarding.”

His idea was to distract kids from upcoming shots or chemotherapy — from the darkness of a difficult disease, perhaps — and lift their spirits.

“Even if we’re talking 10 minutes (of distraction), I’m happy with that. That’s a big score.”

That’s Richard’s gentle generosity again, sharing the mosaics that he loves doing. Mosaics also happen to be good therapy for his brainpower — choosing colors, welding the frame, creating the design.

“It’s a use it or lose it thing, I believe that firmly. If you don’t use your muscles or your brain, you’re going to lose some of what you have. (Mosaics) help my brain part; I am trying to solve things. It might take me hours to do what some people can do in a minute, but if I persevere, I can eventually come up with some idea.” (He laughs.)

“I still get to enjoy it.”

Richard’s future with Parkinson’s probably includes a wheelchair and losing his ability to speak, among other difficult prognoses.

“It’s not fun to think about ...

“Death doesn’t scare me. ... I have this bad medical future. But it doesn’t do any good to focus on it or wring my hands. That won’t change it.

“I’m going to live my life as fully as I can. I get satisfaction and joy out of helping others, so I’m going to do that as long as I can.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.