Peggy Pritchard Olson '72: Living with ALS

About a year ago, nothing seemed out of the ordinary in Peggy Pritchard Olson’s world. The Edmonds, Wash., city councilwoman filled her days with meaningful work, loving friends, and family. But on her 58th birthday last April, her doctor uncovered the reason for a limp she’d noticed since December and slurred speech since March. She had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, an incurable neurological disorder. If it could not be slowed down, she would have a year to live. And that’s when everything changed.

“Some people lose their voice, some their ability to walk. I just happened to lose both,” she said in a labored blur of words. “I said, ‘OK, if I have this disease, I want to raise awareness of it,’” said Peggy.

Even in her illness, she has brought people together, inspiring Team Peggy, a group of 80 volunteers who provide her with support and raise awareness and funds for ALS research. Some team members are longtime friends from movie nights where she screens chick flicks. “We like movies that feature strong women—villains or heroes, we don’t care,” she said.

Peggy knows something about being strong. Before she got elected in 2003, she helped fight and win a battle with King County on its proposed plan to build a sewage plant on her town’s shoreline. She discovered that her talent for bringing people together could be put to use for the good of her community.

Peggy is no stranger to the campaign trail. Her father, the late Joel Pritchard, U.S. Congressman, Republican Washington state legislator, lieutenant governor, and an inventor of pickleball, chose Peggy to send into the toughest neighborhoods, knowing she would enthusiastically go.

Friends observed she had always cared about what was important to people and was good at devising ways to bring them together. New to the city council, she invited representatives from eight area cities and the Port of Edmonds to collectively solve common problems.

“We held a dinner for 60 elected officials, and we’ve had five more since then. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit,” she said.

“Peggy is brilliant, and she’s got an incredible memory. Don’t ever play Trivial Pursuit with her,” said Nancy Zittel Miller ’71.

When Peggy first learned she had ALS, she volunteered for clinical trials but soon discovered that none existed for the little-understood disease. Prescribed medicine helped slow ALS’ progression for about four months, but her condition rapidly declined last fall.

“It is like I am falling off a cliff, but the good thing is that I get to hear all of these people tell me what I mean to them,” said Peggy, smiling broadly, sitting on a couch next to her wheelchair in Wheelock Student Center last November. She was surrounded by two Pi Beta Phi sorority sisters, Zittel Miller and Chris Race Weinlein ’72, and another friend, Mary Lee Sweiso, who came from near and far to be with her. “At college parties, we’d say to each other, ‘We’re definitely the best-looking girls here!’” Peggy recalled, and the women erupted into giggles like old times.

Peggy said ALS hasn’t changed her optimistic outlook, and added, “It focuses you—you really see what’s important and what’s not.” She’s spending more time with family and friends.

“I know I am supposed to learn patience in this life because, for someone who loves to talk, this disease is frustrating, to say the least. But it could be worse,” she said.

“When my voice started to go, I talked with my speech pathologist about getting a machine that talks for you when you type words into it. I recorded 1,249 phrases so that my own voice will come out of the machine when I need it,” Peggy said. “I figured I could be dying with ALS or living with it. And I am living.”

Peggy will allow a camera crew from Edmonds Community College to videotape her daily life as her disease progresses to help bring about ALS solutions. Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed and former Washington Governor and U.S. Senator Dan Evans have agreed to be interviewed for the video, along with Peggy’s doctor and the national ALS Association director.

“If I had no goals, I’d really be in bad shape,” said Peggy, still performing her city council duties, mind sharp as ever.

Preparing to leave for lunch on the waterfront, her sorority sisters encircled her in a tight knot, and Peggy answered one final question. “I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference.”

— Sandra Sarr