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Friday, February 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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High-court judge's memorial to focus on Alzheimer's fight

Seattle Times staff reporter

For years, few publicly spoke about what they suspected took Supreme Court Justice Barbara Durham off the bench in 1999 and ultimately led to her death in December.

It was determined to be Alzheimer's disease, an illness whose name carries such a stigma it's often spoken of in whispers.

But Durham's husband, Charles Divelbiss, is determined that should change. At a memorial reception for his wife scheduled for today, he hopes to call attention to the disease and urge people to support its research, including that of a foundation he has created at the University of Washington.

Durham died Dec. 30 from complications related to her illness. She was 60.

Attorney General Christine Gregoire, former Gov. John Spellman and other high-ranking officials are expected at the reception, which will be held at 5 p.m. at the Washington Athletic Club.

Although Divelbiss is trained as a family physician, he said he knows caring for a family member with Alzheimer's is more consuming than treating patients with the disease.

"I wasn't prepared for the few years we went through," Divelbiss said. "It's a very helpless feeling, especially for a physician who was trained to 'cure' things."

For Durham, signs of dementia began to appear in the late 1990s.

In 1998, she appeared poised to win an appointment to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a crowning achievement to a judicial career that began in 1973.

It was not to be. In 1999, she asked for a medical retirement from her position as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, a position she had held since 1995, and withdrew her name from consideration for the federal appointment.

Her work, Divelbiss said, "was pretty much her whole life, really."

Now he's focusing his grief on research and public awareness.

"It should be treated like any other disease and called what it is," he said. "It's getting to be a very common thing, and it's going to get worse" as the population ages.

Contributions to the Barbara Durham Memorial Fund for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases can be sent to the University of Washington Medical Center Department of Neurology, Box 356465, Seattle, WA 98195.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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