HELENA – As Montana’s attorney general in 1996, Joe Mazurek argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court while maintaining daily contact with the director of the FBI to bring the 84-day standoff with the Freemen in eastern Montana to a successful conclusion.
He juggled those tasks alongside other legal matters in his combined role as the state’s chief legal officer, its highest law enforcement officer and the administrator of the Department of Justice. The department had 10 divisions with 700 employees and a $40 million budget.
According to one colleague, Mazurek carried “file cabinets” full of information in his head that he could easily retrieve on demand. But several years after leaving office, when he was in his late 50s, his mind began to disintegrate.
Known across the state for years as one of its leading lawyers, he no longer knows the alphabet, nor can he count to 10.
His speech is mostly unintelligible and his behavior increasingly childlike. He must rely on others for help with the most basic activities. For his own protection, he lives behind a locked door. He is 63.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease has robbed Mazurek of most of what was his life.
In 2007, Mazurek was tired all the time and began having trouble completing sentences. His wife, Patty, retired from her career as a math teacher at Helena’s Capital High School and has devoted her days and nights to caring for him since.
“It’s a devastating disease,” she said. “You notice little pieces of him all the time that are gone. That’s why they call it the long goodbye.”
During Mazurek’s first term as attorney general, Dennis Taylor was his chief of staff. Taylor is a former city manager of Helena and Billings, and the two are longtime friends. “It’s really hard to watch someone you’ve known for 40 years change so dramatically,” he said.
The highlights from Mazurek’s two terms as attorney general included settling two huge cases for the state, Taylor said. He brought an end to the 15-year-old pollution case against Atlantic Richfield Co., leading to the cleanup of the Clark Fork River Basin, and joined other states in a suit against tobacco companies, providing hundreds of millions of dollars for public health in Montana. He also led the effort to persuade the Legislature to institute a daytime speed limit.
“He had such a mind for details,” Taylor said. But since Alzheimer’s set in, “it’s been a slow, steady loss of skills and memory. At first, Joe couldn’t give a talk, then he had difficulty using silverware.”
One of the most dramatic changes has been the loss of his gift for dealing with people.
“Joe knew everyone,” Taylor said. “He was extremely social and had a phenomenal ability to remember people. Dorothy Bradley, (Mazurek’s running mate when he ran for governor in 2000) once asked, ‘Is there anyone in Montana that Joe does not know?’ He had great social skills, he was really good with people, and he’s lost that.
“Now, he’s very anxious and jumpy. He mimics people when he’s confused about how to behave, watches others closely for cues. He’s lost many inhibitions and sometimes frightens people when he’s just trying to be friendly.”
Many of these symptoms are familiar to another friend of Mazurek’s, former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, who watched his grandparents and then his mother die of Alzheimer’s.
Racicot met Mazurek in the late 1960s when Racicot was student body president at Carroll College and Mazurek held the same office at the University of Montana. Each went on to serve in the Army and then their state in various capacities, including as attorney general. Their personal lives also overlapped, through their families, their church and mutual friends.
Among the many experiences the two men shared was that of having a parent with Alzheimer’s and knowing that meant their odds of getting the disease were increased. Mazurek’s father and Racicot’s mother had long struggles with the disease.
“We were profoundly aware that it was a possibility in our own lives,” Racicot said, but they thought of it as something that would happen later – not at such a young age as it struck Mazurek.
In February, Patty Mazurek realized her husband needed more care than she could provide without endangering her own health.
“Joe was beginning to be unpredictable,” she said. “He can get agitated very quickly, and grab people and shake them; I was afraid he might hurt someone, and that is not anything like the Joe I know.”
The stress was “unbearable,” Patty Mazurek said.
A frightening episode with her heart racing uncontrollably was a wake-up call. “It scared me to death,” she said.
Caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients are at risk for serious illness or death as a result of the stress, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Patty Mazurek made arrangements for professional in-home care on a part-time basis, and she has taken in a boarder who helps during the other hours. Family friends pitch in. With this support in place, Mazurek can remain at home for now, but she knows it is a matter of time before her husband will need more care.
Greg Munro is a professor at the University of Montana’s School of Law whose friendship with Mazurek stretches back to childhood.
As a politician, Munro said, “Joe always demonstrated the qualities that were his hallmark back in high school: a respectful willingness to listen to those with whom he disagreed and an unshakable belief in the good and dignity of every human being.”
This high regard for other people was the foundation for Mazurek’s strong reputation as a bridge builder, particularly during his service in the Montana Senate, from 1981 to 1992, where he embodied a bipartisan spirit.
Attorney General Steve Bullock said he was influenced by Mazurek’s public service. Bullock managed Mazurek’s campaign for attorney general in 1992 and was his chief lawyer at the Department of Justice during his second term.
“He taught us that we were all public servants and that that was a high calling,” he said. “Joe was not trying to make himself look good publicly but just trying to get the job done in the best way for those he represented,” Bullock said. “He got along with everyone – there was no stridency – and that was a good lesson for us all. He’s had a profound, positive impact on me and on many others.”
During his career, Mazurek worked at two of the state’s largest law firms: Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman for nearly 20 years after law school until he became attorney general in 1993, and Crowley Fleck after his second term ended.
Crowley Fleck attorney Jason Loble worked closely with Mazurek and was one of the first people to notice Mazurek’s difficulty with language in 2007.
“There was a gradual loss of capacity and a corresponding set of conditions we arrived at together,” he said, “from the leadership role he had at the firm, to being supervised, to just being a member of the ‘family’ in his presence at the office.”
By 2008, Mazurek had lost his driver’s license and could no longer go to the office, where he’d continued to spend time after he was no longer practicing.
“It was crushing for everyone here,” Loble said. “We all love him.”
Alzheimer’s often runs in families, and in addition to Mazurek’s father, three of his uncles and an aunt died from Alzheimer’s. According to Patty, once Mazurek began to exhibit symptoms “he knew what was coming, so he made sure all his paperwork was in order.”
Now his three sons worry and wait to see if they’ll be spared their father’s fate.
“It’s already happening to my dad – it’s not something we can turn the clock back on,” said Tom Mazurek, Joe’s oldest son. “My brothers and I feel a little like our own clocks are ticking, so we want to help any way we can. If there’s any way possible we can be part of a solution or part of a cure, we want to do that. It’s important to us to try to find a way to treat this.”
The opportunity for the Mazurek family to play a role in the search for a cure arose last year when Mazurek’s old friend Randy Gray invited Patty and Joe to Great Falls to tour McLaughlin Research Institute, an independent, nonprofit research organization.
A member of the institute’s board of directors and a former mayor of Great Falls, Gray has been moved by his friend’s deteriorating condition and wanted to make a connection between Mazurek’s illness and McLaughlin’s work.
On the Mazureks’ visit to the institute, Patty learned of the world-class Alzheimer’s research happening there. She and her family later agreed to tell Mazurek’s story as a way to help raise awareness about the effects of Alzheimer’s and about McLaughlin Research Institute’s work to help find a cure.
The institute has established a Joe Mazurek Fund to help advance the research.
“I think people would be proud to know this research is taking place right here in Montana,” Patty said.
The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s may triple from 5 million to 15 million over the next several decades, and Montana’s aging population makes it likely to be one of the top states affected.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Montana is among nine states expected to experience increases as high as 81 percent to
127 percent in the number of people with Alzheimer’s between 2000 and 2025,
due to an increase in the proportion of the population over age 65.
The McLaughlin Research Institute’s mouse models for Alzheimer’s are playing a critical role in the push to develop solutions to this and other forms of dementia in time to benefit aging baby boomers. MRI’s
research has already moved medicine closer to the day when a simple blood test will reveal a person’s predisposition to Alzheimer’s and enable very early intervention to slow or stop the progression of the disease before symptoms appear.
Work at McLaughlin has also been instrumental in advancing a promising therapy for Alzheimer’s using brain stem cell transplants. These are just two of the numerous approaches MRI is taking to tackle the vexing problem of Alzheimer’s.
Another of those was featured on the front page of the New York Times, in a February story on one of MRI’s collaborators at Harvard University. Together the research team showed that Alzheimer’s spreads from brain cell to brain cell, much like an infection. Finding a way to stop this cell-to-cell transfer would make it possible to stop or slow the spread of the disease.
“I have an extremely large amount of respect and enormous gratitude for the work McLaughlin Research Institute does,” Racicot said.
For the Mazureks and the many families like them, facing the prospect of another generation’s affliction with Alzheimer’s lends a sense of urgency to the search for a cure.