By Steve Good with excerpts from The Pittsburgh Foundation’s Neil Alexander: A Story of Strength in the Face of Tragedy
My introduction to Neil Alexander, Pittsburgh ’12, came through a random act of kindness, an act that very much reflects Neil’s character and approach to life. I was sitting on a Megabus, travelling from Des Moines, Iowa to Chicago, Illinois as part of an eight day, multi-city running trip to raise funds for Phi Delta Theta’s Iron Phi program.
That day, I received three donations to my effort from members of the Alexander family. I had never met them, but I was encouraged by the note they had left me—“Thank you for what you are doing.” By the end of the trip, I had learned more about Neil, his family and the battle they were facing, a battle with ALS. Two years later, I consider Neil Alexander one of the most positive influences in my life.
On a sunny Pittsburgh afternoon in June of 2011, Neil Alexander received the kind of news we all dread. The progressive muscle-twitching he had experienced for the previous 18 months was diagnosed as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the devastating and incurable condition better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
During the days that followed, as Neil struggled to process his doctor’s findings, he focused on his family—his wife, Suzanne, their daughter Abby, 11, and nine-year-old son, Patrick. Concern about their security when he was gone; thoughts of his wife with whom he now knew he would not grow old; children he would not see blossom into adulthood; future grandchildren he would never know.
But then Neil, 46, transformed the crushing news of his diagnosis into a courageous rallying call for fellow sufferers of the disease. He and Suzanne established a fund at The Pittsburgh Foundation, LiveLikeLou.org, to raise public awareness about ALS, to help finance critical medical research and to provide urgently-needed support for victims and their families in Western Pennsylvania.
As stated by Neil, “I decided not to spend my time being angry. We all live with limited time on this earth, and I am on the same journey that everyone is going to take at some point. Unlike most people, I am able to personalize my journey, and hopefully in the time I have left there is a lot we can do to help others.”
In addition to the great support that the Alexanders and LiveLikeLou. org have given to others who are affected by ALS in Western Pennsylvania, including grants that provide financial support to fund activities and programs for children of people diagnosed with the disease, Neil has helped Phi Delta Theta take its partnership with The ALS Association to new heights. He has also provided immeasurable inspiration along the way.
At the 2012 General Convention in Washington, D.C., Neil was initiated into Phi Delta Theta as a member of the Pennsylvania Iota (Pittsburgh) Chapter. The Phi Delta Theta community has embraced the Alexander family, and the Alexander family has embraced Phi Delta Theta.
In December of 2012, the Alexander family introduced a collection of LiveLikeLou scholarships eligible to Phi Delta Theta undergraduates whose lives have been affected by ALS. The first scholarship, a $1,500 amount that renews each year, was awarded to Phi David Martin, Creighton ’15, of Burlington, Wisconsin.
David is the second oldest of six children. His father, James Martin, 45, was diagnosed with ALS two and a half years ago and has had to retire from his occupation due to the illness.
Neil has also spent much time speaking to Phi Delta Theta undergraduates about the disease and was part of the Phi Delt presentation team this past summer in San Francisco, when Barry Zito of the Giants was given the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award.
“I am awestruck by Neil’s courage and character in fighting ALS head-on,” said Chris Brussalis, Member at Large of Phi Delta Theta’s General Council and board member for The ALS Association. “Because of men like Neil and Lou Gherig, Phi Delta Theta’s partnership with The ALS Association isn’t just a charity, it’s very personal for us. I am proud to call Neil my brother and to be a part of an organization that is so committed to fighting alongside him to beat this disease. Phi Delts across North America are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to find a cure, and all 200,000 of our brothers will always have Neil’s back.”
Neil is a real-life Lou Gehrig. He embodies everything that Brother Gehrig stood for, and would be the first to tell you that he considers himself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. Neil’s appreciation for everything in life, no matter the circumstances, is contagious. His goal, “to leave ALS better than he found it,” is simply inspirational and parallels a pledge that all members of Phi Delta Theta have taken. Our Fraternity is a better organization because of the Alexanders, and many of our members would tell you that they are better men because of their relationship with Neil.