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Thomas DeBaggio, Va. gardener who wrote poignantly about Alzheimer's, dies at 69

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, February 24, 2011; B06

Thomas DeBaggio, a nationally prominent herb grower and gardening author who became a defiant and poignant voice for fellow Alzheimer's patients, died of the disease Feb. 21 at an Annandale nursing home. He was 69.

After a brief journalism career - he complained of editors always scissoring out his left-wing opinions - Mr. DeBaggio found himself with little income and a young family to support. He started selling tomato seedlings he raised from his garden in the Arlington County neighborhood of Ashton Heights, near where he grew up.

By 1975, the adventure had developed into a nursery run from his home. He converted most of his yard into greenhouse space, where he raised thousands of cuttings of lavender, rosemary, mint, scented geraniums and other plants that caught his fancy.

Patrons and gardening writers flocked to the home, drawn by the aromatherapy experience of entering the greenhouse and the astonishing range of varieties that Mr. DeBaggio grew.

To his loyal customers, he commended a variety of rosemary that was winter-hardy in Washington, and he introduced about a dozen varieties of herbs that he had raised as selected seedlings or mutations, including a rosemary variety named for his wife of 47 years, the former Joyce Doyle.

Mr. DeBaggio wrote or co-wrote several well-regarded books about herbs. Even while consumed by the business, he channeled his need to write by penning a column in the nursery's catalogue.

In the spring 2000 nursery catalogue, he began to note periodic moments of confusion and forgetfulness. "The seeds become familiar companions as I teeter on the cusp of spring," he wrote. "It is at this time of year that I become acutely aware of the trembling life that is within me, as well as in the seed."

He had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's - a rare disorder that affects those younger than 65 - and said he initially tried to reach out to another new patient on the advice of the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

"I called and his wife answered the phone," Mr. DeBaggio told the New York Times. "I said who I was and that I had been asked to call him. She said: 'He doesn't want to see you. He doesn't want to talk to you. Goodbye.'

"That told me a whole lot about Alzheimer's," Mr. DeBaggio said. "It's a disease you hide."

But Mr. DeBaggio decided to confront the degenerative brain disease by going public about it. He appeared on Oprah Winfrey's TV talk show. His journey into darkness was chronicled by National Public Radio. And he wrote two books about his life and the effects of the disease, "Losing My Mind" (2002) and "When It Gets Dark" (2003).

The books explored early memories - his first haircut and other childhood scenes - with the increasing difficulties he faced as his memory and body began to fail.

"At times melodramatic and maudlin, the books are also poignant, insightful and deeply affecting," Washington Post reporter Fredrick Kunkle wrote in a 2003 profile of Mr. DeBaggio. "Their sometimes repetitive, free-associative structure serves only to amplify their message."

At their most insightful, the books captured Mr. DeBaggio's sprightly sense of humor. "The discipline of the mind crumbles into slogans and short bursts of anger," he wrote in "Losing My Mind." "I should run for president."

Thomas Davis DeBaggio was born Jan. 5, 1942, in Eldora, Iowa. His father was a lawyer who moved to Washington to work for the government.

The younger DeBaggio graduated in 1959 from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington. He came of age during the civil rights era of the 1960s, attended college in Arizona but dropped out to become a journalist.

He started an underground newspaper before working for two community newspapers in Arlington, the Northern Virginia Sun and the Arlington News.

Besides his wife, survivors include a son, Francesco DeBaggio of Chantilly; and a sister.

A passage in "Losing My Mind" noted the supposed healing powers of rosemary bushes and the melancholy Mr. DeBaggio felt as he watched the herb grow in the greenhouse - "splashy blue and subtle white" - on the day he received his diagnosis.

"I was conscious of the plant's long history of medicinal use, an irony that was not lost on me," he wrote. "It was said that rosemary was for remembrance."

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