SALT LAKE CITY — Janis Wood McKellar passed away July 11 at the age of 89 after living a quiet life fueled by love of family, faith and helping others.
Much of that help involved the Scouting program, where her family noted in her obituary that "she helped an astounding 150-plus young men earn their Eagle Scout award." She received Scouting's Silver Beaver Award for her community service.
“She was just the sweetest grandma and nicest person in the world. Even when she was struggling with the disease she remained sweet," said Katie McKellar, our award-winning Deseret News reporter who thought of her grandmother this week when she first learned of the death of former Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott.
"My own grandmother passed away this year of Alzheimer's. I know what kind of impact that had," she said.
Katie has been reporting on Gary Ott for nearly two years now, a period of time where trust in media — or the lack of it — has been part of the national conversation. It's an erosion often fueled by the verbal attacks on reporters and their media companies by President Donald Trump, the intentional use and rise of "fake news" by devious individuals bent on financial or political gain, and in part by missteps from members of the media, all of whom are not created equally.
What we see inside the newsroom is the empathy displayed by reporters covering difficult stories, particularly Katie as she wrestled with the dual journalistic principles of being a watchdog of a public institution, in this case the Salt Lake County Recorder's Office, and as a reporter giving voice to the voiceless, an ailing Gary Ott who couldn't seem to speak for himself.
“I followed the story for so long and yet I'll probably never know who the real Gary was," she told me this weekend, as she pondered the past two years of work covering the county. Her interview of Ott and its audio ultimately turned the tide toward helping Gary Ott find a reasonable exit from the recorder's office. It could not, however, do anything to slow the progression of a deadly disease.
Katie's reporting sparked changes, many of which are still under consideration on a legislative level. But perhaps the most noteworthy lesson to learn is about the devastating impact of interrupted and lost lives to Alzheimer's disease. It makes no exception for public or private lives, rich or poor. It goes after the increasingly aging population, but can also hit those who are younger.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It can come on slowly and in stages. And it has no cure.
According to the Alzheimer's Association:
"Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Those with Alzheimer's live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions."
Ott perhaps showed signs as early as 2012. He was a public figure. We wish those in his office who claimed to care for him had been transparent about his declining health. But instead it was left to Katie and others to point out what was occurring, and eventually led to the court case for guardianship sought by his family.
Katie said her grandmother remained sweet and caring through the end of her life. By all accounts, Ott also treated others well in his office and did a good job for the county for years.
The legal maneuverings and necessary changes to monitor elected officials is one result of all this. But another can be an increased measure of empathy that motivates to action.
"Today, there is a worldwide effort underway to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, and prevent it from developing," states the Alzheimer's Association website. It also offers help for those who might know someone who is suffering from dementia and might be in the stages of Alzheimer's.
Help is available at the 24/7 hotline: (800) 272-3900 or at alz.org.
Ott's funeral will be Saturday in southern Utah.