Cougfan at 15: The courage of Gail Gleason

PULLMAN – Gail Gleason still possesses that electric smile, that infectious laugh, that zest for life that she passed on to her children. Most of the time, that is. Inevitably, there are times when her voice shakes and her eyes glisten and she must leave work to go home and face the fact that her eldest son -- former Washington State football and baseball player Steve Gleason -- is dying.

"Right now, there's virtually nothing that he can move on his own," Gail said softly over lunch in downtown Pullman on Wednesday. "His hands are in hand rests, and he can push the joy stick.

"He's skeletal, so every time I see him it's a shocker. He's got tubes everywhere for feeding and urinating and for breathing.

"No," she corrected herself. "Not for breathing yet. We're not going there, all right?"

Eighth in a series of feature stories (15 for 15) CF.C is running in the 15 days leading to its 15th anniversary on August 15.

In the series of feature stories is running this month on people we've found uniquely compelling for one reason or another since the site was launched 15 years ago, Gail Gleason stands out in the crowd.

"She was the first female voice on our message boards back in 1998 when we started -- and always a voice of reason in a sometimes tumultuous environment," says CF.C co-founder Greg Witter. "Then there was the fact she was the mom of a player -- and not just any player, but one of the most prolific tacklers and greatest guys ever to wear crimson.

"And today, of course, Gail truly stands out because of the courageous way she has faced Steve's illness and the energy she brings to the cause of finding a cure for ALS."

Steve, as millions of people realize, suffers from the neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There is no cure for the malady, more commonly known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

"If anything goes wrong," Gail says matter-of-factly, "then that's going to be it. It's to that point."

Steve, wife Michel and their young son, Rivers, have spent the past two summers in North Idaho. Gail, a learning specialist at WSU who works closely with football players and other Cougars athletes on academic matters, visits her son frequently.

"His goal -- and he's always been good at meeting his goals – is to be there for Rivers when he can stand on his own," Gail said. "And it's to make a difference, which he is doing in the ALS community."


IT IS ALSO exceedingly important to note, Gail says, that Steve has and continues to live life to the fullest.

"This year alone, it's incredible -- he has done so much," said Gail. "He has taken another ALS patient to Machu Pichu, spoken at the United Nations innovation symposium and held his own Team Gleason Summit in New Orleans which brought together hundreds of doctors, researchers, ALS patients and their caregivers to think outside the box to find a cure.

"He also opened the Team Gleason ALS house for innovative living in New Orleans--the second of its kind in the world."

As soon as Steve learned he had ALS in January 2011, he went public with the news. With typical earnestness, he immediately began raising funds and awareness to fight the dreaded disease.

The next major fundraiser is the second annual Gleasonfest, an all-day street party Aug. 24 with live music, food and a beer garden at Main and Division in downtown Spokane. For tickets and sponsorship information, go to has been proud to help publicize Steve's fund-raising activities, going back to his NFL playing days with the New Orleans Saints. It was Gail who came up with the idea of asking Cougars to donate money to buy backpacks stocked with school supplies – plus, Steve insisted, a book and a stuffed animal – to aid children when Hurricane Katrina blasted New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005.

"Eight thousand backpacks … $500,000 … an alum with FedEx donated a trailer (truck) … guys from Steve's fraternity stuffed the backpacks … it was absolutely amazing," Gail recalls.

Thanks to Gail, CF.C was a strong supporter of the backpack project. It seemed only fair, since Gail has been a subscriber and colorful message board contributor since the beginning, when Steve was a junior at WSU.

Now, Gail says proudly, a WSU engineering professor and longtime follower is designing a senior project aimed at speeding up the computer and camera apparatus which permits Steve (who can no longer speak) to type by following his eyes on a keyboard.

For obvious reasons, Gail (a longtime school teacher who has worked at WSU since 2008) loves Cougar Nation, even though she grew up near Washington's campus and graduated a Husky. She values the support she and her son have received from work associates and other Cougars during this incredibly trying time in their lives.

"You just gave to go with it," Gail said. "I mean, as a mom.

"When he was just starting to walk – we lived across from Shadle (Spokane's Shadle Park) – I took him over, and there's two slides. There's this one and this gigantic one. I stood there, and after he had mastered this very quickly – he stood there and watched the big kids go up the big slide – the next thing I know, he's heading up there.

"I thought, ‘Gail, you've got to be prepared to let him go and go as far as he can and just be there for him and support him.'"

Three decades later and counting, Gail Gleason is doing just that.


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