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Lou Gehrig's disease hasn't stopped law professor Steven Gey's lessons

TALLAHASSEE — Steven Gey's law students kept their part of the deal. Last Saturday morning, they swam, biked and ran in a triathlon for Lou Gehrig's disease research. They raised $50,000 for the third straight year.

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In late afternoon, about 50 students and former students waited for professor Gey to keep his end of the bargain. In a sense, they hoped for him to complete — against all previous odds — his own kind of marathon.

They waited on his patio, beer iced and ready. They had a birthday cake. The cake with garish red icing itself seemed outrageously miraculous, another lesson for all of them. Their professor wasn't supposed to have a 53rd birthday.

The famous Florida State University constitutional law expert is in the third year of terminal illness. That's as long as anyone usually lives after a Lou Gehrig's diagnosis like his.

In the last year, he has nearly starved and suffocated. He lost half his house to Tropical Storm Fay. He lost use of his hands and arms. He even lost his identity to credit thieves.

The students have always had a deal with Gey. If you care, if you try, he has promised them, I'll help you become the kind of lawyers you need to be.

Now here they were on his porch, waiting for him to deliver on another promise.

They're young, and they don't know limits. How much can they expect of a dying teacher?

• • •

Steven Gey is more famous for legal scholarship than for dying. As an American Civil Liberties Union attorney and FSU law professor, he ranks among the nation's top defenders of separation of church and state, of scientific inquiry, of free speech. (His free speech reputation was tarnished only once. He stopped a restaurant chain from singing Happy Birthday To You — a copyright infringement. He has never lived it down.)

He is also famous for turning generations of youths into attorneys and judges.

Last spring, Gey nearly died from malnutrition. He had to give up teaching. He felt bitterly disappointed that the Bush administration had limited embryonic stem cell research for eight years. He felt that the limits had robbed him personally of a possible cure, that the adversaries he had battled in court all his career had somehow beaten him in the end.

Last summer, while on a respirator and feeding tube, he rode out Tropical Storm Fay. It flooded all the bedrooms of his house.

Last Friday, Gey's doctor told him his life had reached "the bottom of the eighth inning."

But he writes. His hands don't work, so he writes with his foot, guiding a computer mouse with his toes. He has just completed two 150-page works of constitutional scholarship. They're headed for the publisher. He also has lived long enough to see a new president reverse the government's standing on embryonic stem cell research.

Barbara Leach, a former student who now practices labor law in Atlanta, was with him just after he got his late-inning diagnosis.

"Bottom of the eighth?" she exclaimed, sitting among his mountains of manuscripts. "Looks to me like you're in the top of the third."

• • •

Third-year law student David Gillis brought his mother, Cathy, to the triathlon for Gey. He's one of the students who brings food to the professor's house. Dave's turn is every other Thursday.

When he started bringing food, he knew Gey mostly by reputation. It made him nervous. "He's this rock star of the legal profession."

Gey told Dave he liked anything, he wasn't fussy. Dave brought his personal favorite: takeout meat loaf from Boston Market.

"You getting tired of meat loaf?" he'd ask.

"No," Gey answered, "Love the meat loaf!"

Two months went by. Finally, Dave heard from a "second party." The professor was really, really tired of meat loaf.

But in the course of those months, Dave's own life changed. His mother said he had chosen law school for the career and for the money. That was it.

He got into Gey's constitutional law class. He admitted to Gey he was more interested in the lawyer trappings than in the law itself. Money's fine, the professor told him. "But where's your passion?"

Gey changed him. His mother could see it. He learned the impact that one lawyer could have. He felt part of something noble, he said. Gey changed her, too. At home in Sarasota she started mentoring.

"We've learned that's what life is about — passion," she said.

• • •

On Saturday afternoon, the students waited with cake and beer on Gey's porch. Gey had not been on his porch in months. But he had told them that if they could endure a triathlon, he could match them.

Inside the house, Gey took a deep breath and untethered his respirator. He swung his legs out of bed, steadied himself.

The double doors to the patio swung open.

Gey came through the doors, on his feet.

He walked a dozen steps across the deck to a chair.

Beers and tears flowed for two hours.

They sang Happy Birthday to You.

They told their professor: Sue us.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

For more

Common ground

Professor Steven Gey was profiled in Floridian a year ago, as he and his students came to terms with his impending death. Many of his students are Christians, and Gey is a steadfast nonbeliever and advocate for church-state separation.

To read the story of how they found common ground, go to magazine.tampabay.com.

Lou Gehrig's disease hasn't stopped law professor Steven Gey's lessons 04/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 10, 2009 7:38pm]
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