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ALS saps professor's strength, not his ideals

TALLAHASSEE

Some of Steven Gey's students have asked his permission to pray for him, to beg God to spare him, to pray for the only thing that may save him — an Old Testament, open-the-heavens miracle.

Gey has Lou Gehrig's disease. He is 52. His ability to move and speak, even to eat and breathe, has eroded for almost two years. The disease has begun to starve and strangle him. Three days ago, he was taken to the hospital for insertion of a feeding tube.

He has arrived at the moment when people start to talk to God.

His students, many of whom are conservative Christians, are watching him die. They'd like to help him start the conversation. But he won't.

Gey doesn't pray for anything. An American Civil Liberties Union attorney and law professor at Florida State University, he ranks among the nation's top defenders of separation of church and state, of scientific inquiry, of rationalist, non-Christian governance.

He and those students come from opposite sides of the ramparts. A struggle over radically incompatible ideologies has torn the country apart. Evolution. Abortion. Stem cell research. It's a struggle that seems to offer no answer.

Gey and his students are facing his illness together. It has bonded believer and nonbeliever, followers of faith and followers of humanism. It has negated the mutual disdain that characterizes religious differences.

How can his Christian students not want to pray for him?

How can he refuse them?

• • •

Gey lives in Tallahassee in a house modeled after a Frank Lloyd Wright design. It's a maze of long, low walls of limestone and cypress that collide with each other at extreme angles. There's one 90-degree angle in the whole house.

It's beautiful. It's uncomfortable. The furniture is modern; couches lack plump, soft cushions. Tight hallways don't accommodate a man with a neurological disease. But Gey does not make concessions.

He has been teaching from home by phone. To get his headphones on, he has to lower his head to his knees and slip them on one-handed. He sits ramrod straight to lecture, his shoulders thin and angular. He apologizes for his jeans. They look ironed. He has always told his students they can accomplish far more in a suit than in jeans. "Dress right," he tells them. "Think left."

He bought software that lets him use his computer by voice command. It types whatever he says, but mangles one word out of five. The first time he said "Scalia" — referring to the Supreme Court's most conservative justice — his computer typed out "Oh my silly."

Gey has been in so much pain that he has missed some classes, even those by phone.

The classes remain packed.

• • •

Gey says his students are innocents. "They are 22 to 25 years old. They don't think of life as arbitrary and cruel."

One is Karen Sandrik, his research assistant.

Sandrik was raised by a missionary mother who has been part of Campus Crusade for Christ for 30 years.

Sandrik met Gey while trying to decide where she wanted to go to law school. She sat in on a lecture he gave on Roe vs. Wade. From where she came from, he might as well have been lecturing on Satan vs. St. Peter.

"I'd never heard anyone as liberal."

He didn't change her opinion of abortion, but she saw a lawyer at work, one whose analysis and argument could even impress an auditorium of strangers. She applied to FSU law school solely because of that lecture.

Later, she applied to be his research assistant.

At the time she applied, Gey was feuding with Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian organization headed by Dr. James Dobson. Dobson's disciples, upset over Gey's positions on separation of church and state, had flooded Gey's e-mail, shutting it down.

Sandrik, the research assistant, mentioned to Gey that Dobson was a family friend.

"What, you're a Christian?" Gey said. "I've never had a Christian!"

Ben Gibson, president of the student bar, was one of several Christian students who tried to tag-team Gey in class.

They'd go back and forth. Gey often argued both sides. He sometimes claimed to be a conservative — a strict constructionist, one who believed that government should stay out of people's lives. Gibson sometimes felt they were looking for the same things.

But often they stood 180 degrees opposite. Gey could make Gibson understand the rationale of Roe vs. Wade a woman's constitutional right to privacy — but never change his mind on abortion. No matter what the courts said, "I err on the side of life."

Still, he couldn't resist the professor, his in-your-face engagement. "He was involved. He was there for us after class. He was adviser for the Law Review. I could go to him any time. It wasn't just a job to him, it was a passion."

• • •

Gey's artist wife, Irene Trakas, says her husband's beliefs and his closeness to students who don't share them probably go back to his very different childhood in Pensacola.

He grew up in a Baptist household, but in high school, Gey was enrolled in a program for gifted students who were allowed to take college-level courses. Many of his classmates were Jewish. He had never known Jewish kids before, but became exposed to the Jewish traditions of independent thought and questioning of religious ideas. He also was suddenly exposed to anti-Semitism.

He didn't want to become Jewish any more than he wanted to be Christian. "His intellect would not allow him to say that any one religion made a lot of sense," says his wife. But the exposure to a beleaguered religious minority roused his sense of justice. "He believed people ought to be able to believe whatever they want."

Maybe that's why he has become close to his Christian law students, she says.

"I think the students have come to feel he's not judging them. He will dismiss ideas that don't make sense to him, but only in the context of whether they belong in a legal system. He respects the choice of blind faith."

• • •

Gey was a much-quoted constitutional law expert during the battle over continuance of life support for Terri Schiavo. But no one is an expert on how to die.

His disease offers only agonizing choices.

Lou Gehrig's disease is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive, incurable disease that destroys motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking has the hereditary kind, which is devastating, but not life-threatening. Gey has the nonhereditary kind, which kills by slow paralysis.

One of the few hopeful avenues of ALS research has involved the transplanting of embryonic stem cells. Such research has been limited for seven years in the United States by religious conservatives and the Bush administration.

His adversaries have erased his last chance.

"The irony doesn't escape me."

When ALS first struck, Gey got up one day to find he couldn't button his shirt. Then couldn't shift his VW into third gear. Then couldn't type on his computer. Then couldn't eat, couldn't breathe without struggle. Now it's taking away the great cause of his life: teaching.

The taking away is relentless. What next?

When his lungs fail, he'll need to be hooked to a ventilator to stay alive. He doesn't know if he wants to put himself, or Irene, his wife of 26 years, through that.

"It's not death people fear," Irene says, "it's pain and suffering."

The pain is worsening. He got the feeding tube because he has trouble digesting food.

Not long ago he told Irene, "This is not a life."

• • •

Gey uses a lawyer's words to define his situation: cognitive dissonance. He cannot pray for a miracle. "I have a disease you wouldn't give to your worst enemy," he says, as if arguing before a jury. "If you believe in a caring, all-knowing God, how can you reconcile that? I can only approach it fatalistically. Stuff happens."

Irene is ambivalent. Some people find spirituality in her paintings.

"A very good friend was just over here visiting," she says. "We both consider ourselves nonbelievers, and we talked about how incomprehensible it is for us to believe in a God of any kind.

"But my mother had Parkinson's, and going through that with her helped me begin to understand people who believe in God. I wish at this moment I could believe. It would give me such comfort. But I can't pretend."

• • •

Ben Gibson prays for Gey. "I pray for him every day, everywhere I am. I pray for strength. I pray for his family. I pray for a miracle."

He told Gey what he was doing. Gey said, "I'll take all the prayers I can get."

Gibson recently participated in a "Tri-for-Gey" triathlon in Tallahassee that raised about $70,000 for ALS research. Most ALS organizations oppose the ban on embryonic stem cell research. "I didn't think about that," Gibson said. It didn't make a difference to him.

Gibson has separated his faith from Gey's refusal to accept God.

"That's between him and God. It's not my job to change him."

He can't condemn his professor, or even pity him.

"It's my job to love him."

That is all Gey says he wants. His students call and e-mail and bring dinner.

It is, he says, "religion enough for me."

• • •

Gibson and about 40 other students gathered for Gey's First Amendment class Monday. They couldn't see Gey, who was calling from his house of hard, steep angles. They could only hear his voice over three speakers. But they could picture him in those ironed jeans, sitting ramrod straight.

He called to say goodbye.

He said he could no longer teach, even by phone. He said he had wanted more than anything to finish the term, but was too sick. "I'm sorry I have to do this," he said.

The class fell silent.

"This is Ben," Gibson called out. "I want to thank you for the semester. I want to thank you for everything you've done."

The class was again silent. So were the phone speakers.

Finally, they heard Gey sign off. "Thank you," they heard him say. His voice was choked.

"Thank you for allowing me to fulfill my life's passion."

This story is the first in a series looking at how people reconcile science, reason and faith in their lives. John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

ALS saps professor's strength, not his ideals 04/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 25, 2008 12:54pm]

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