He's letting computer do the talking Broadcaster silenced by Lou Gehrig's disease finds alternative voice

November 29, 1995|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A computerized voice in Bob Bassett's west Columbia home calls out, "Joan, I need you."

In strides Joan Bassett to look at her husband's computer monitor, which is his most effective means of communicating, next to his vibrant, sapphire eyes.

Mr. Bassett, 66, who worked in television and radio for 36 years, is physically silenced by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The cause of this degenerative illness is a mystery to doctors.

Since 1988, the disease has robbed the former talk-show host and disc jockey of his voice and muscular functions.

"Within this shell there is a life," reads the first line of a poem Mr. Bassett wrote earlier this year.

He illustrates this as he eagerly converses using his computer, writing poignant phrases such as, "I think I'm ahead of the game, but I can feel the creeping progression of the disease with each passing week."

Then he quickly changes modes and writes, "I never took any one thing too seriously and I was able to bring smiles to a lot of people."

Mr. Bassett, who was affectionately called "The Fluffernutter Man" after doing a marshmallow commercial, worked for TV and radio shows along the East Coast, including 17 years as a talk-show host in Rhode Island.

He moved to Columbia's Harper's Choice village in 1981 and began working at Baltimore radio station WITH in 1987. But after only a year, he had to leave when his voice became inaudible.

Mr. Bassett then worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Baltimore for two years, until he began falling to the floor from lack of muscle control.

"I always had the show biz bug," the Massachusetts native writes. "My father was a very funny man. As a child I used to read ads in the paper and then play a record pretending to be a disc jockey."

During the past three years, he has transformed his gift of quick wit into print by working on his autobiography. The book is about his career, but also touches on "sorrow, death, sex, failures and triumphs," he writes.

"I enjoy humor and a lot of the book is based on actual happenings that I hope the readers will find amusing."

Using his two index fingers, he taps into his keyboard that he thinks the book will be finished in a year, but he hopes he does not lose the mobility of his only remaining typing instruments. When he started the book he had the use of all 10 fingers.

He explains that he draws a great deal of his fighting spirit from his admiration for Winston Churchill, "because he never gave up." His other heroes include people who have suffered from the disease, such as singer Dennis Day and boxer Ezzard Charles.

But he names his wife as his biggest heroine because "she has patience and understanding."

"Oh, he's not talking about me," she retorts jokingly.

Joan, whom he married in 1981 just before they moved to their Harper's Choice apartment, has watched him slowly lose control of his body the past seven years.

"He is unable to do anything for himself, but through it all he has remained humorous, mild-mannered, considerate and humble. He's never been angry with what's been dealt to him. It's been easy for us," she said.

Mr. Bassett, on the other hand, describes himself with a wry smile as "a real pain."

He then becomes sober and writes: "I want to be regarded as a talented, jovial sort who just happened to be one of the two in 100,000 who are affected each year. I can't hit the lottery, but I sure as hell can hit these odds."

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