Keillor serenades a man with Alzheimer’s

Generally speaking, public radio listeners break down into one of two groups: those who are cool with Garrison Keillor singing and those who consider it fingernails on a chalkboard.

Both groups, however, are likely united with a touching moment Saturday in Milwaukee, from where A Prairie Home Companion originated.

Deb Johnson paid $700 for two tickets to Saturday’s sold-out show. Her husband, Dan, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago.

She had written to Keillor asking him to sing a song he sang on the show years ago with Chet Atkins.

“I told him I would ask you,” she wrote. “He patted my arm and told me how good I was to him. He fell asleep thanking me. I watched him sleeping quietly and my tears fell, as they do so often these days.”

The email made its way to Keillor and on Saturday evening, Jim Stingl of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, Keillor sang “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”

Four years ago, Dan started losing his keys. One day Deb found a quart of milk he put in the dryer. He got lost on a walk to a neighborhood park with their grandchildren. Tests by doctors revealed Alzheimer’s disease.

Now he has trouble remembering even their wedding, vacations and other grand events in life. Deb prompts him to recall names and other facts by giving him multiple choices. She has a whole shelf of books on Alzheimer’s at home, but she finally stopped reading them because the story never ends well. She already is losing her husband in pieces and knows his condition will worsen.

“I’m fiercely protective of his dignity,” Deb told me. “I want people to know that even in the middle of all this, you can still handle life with dignity and grace.”

At this stage of the disease, Dan was able to answer my questions with remarkable insight. He talked about his enthusiasm for Keillor, and his devotion to his wife. This is a man who taught English and coached debate teams.

“I remember times from the past when I listened to Garrison Keillor, and he manages to write about the idiosyncrasies of people and recognize humor in life,” Dan said.

The couple met Keillor backstage after the broadcast.

“I think it’s part of our belief in our place in the universe,” Dan told Stingl. “It’s the consolation and comfort that comes from moments in life that add a tender spot in my heart and mind.”