It seemed an unlikely friendship—this crew-cut wearing football coach and a guitar-strumming poet revered among the happy hippies of Austin. Yes, Darrell Royal and Willie Nelson were an odd pair, but music and golf provided their common ground.
When they weren’t footing fairways, Royal and Nelson were often conspiring for the next pop-up live show. Royal loved listening, and Nelson loved playing with the band. Today, those memories inspired the creation of “Links & Lyrics,” the signature showcase for the Darrell K Royal Research Fund for Alzheimer’s Disease. On Friday, Sept. 5, Ben Crenshaw hosts a golf tournament at Barton Creek, and that evening Vince Gill headlines a slate of songwriters performing in the ACL Live studio at Moody Theatre.
“We were friends, you know, and my definition of a friend is somebody you’d do anything in the world for,” Nelson said. “Anything they needed.”
Royal passed away in November 2012 at age 88 after a lengthy fight against Alzheimer’s disease. The DKR Research Fund was formed two years ago to memorialize Royal’s legacy and to also raise funds and awareness for a disease that is becoming more prevalent, especially as the baby boomer generation ages into their late 60s and 70s. Texas ranks third in the nation for the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
“There is no cure,” said Debbie Hanna, Texas Council on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders chair. “Medication only treats the symptoms, not the disease itself.”
For that reason, the DKR Fund focuses itself as a research organization. Among the lyrical performances at the Sept. 5 event, another integral presentation will happen on stage. The DKR Fund will present five research grants totaling $850,000 to Texas doctors. The research dollars were generated from last year’s inaugural “Links & Lyrics;” the fundraising goal for the 2014 event is $1 million.
Even though the disease typically presents later in life, scientists believe it is present in the system much earlier. For Royal, after he retired from Texas with three national championships, those close to him saw glimpses that something was amiss. Crenshaw noticed that little memories started to escape Royal, and he sometimes wasn’t able to “grasp the moment.” As the disease became more aggressive, Edith Royal refused to be far from her husband’s side. Sometimes he would ask where he was, and Edith would fondly recall his life’s work, telling him stories of his military service and how the Oklahoma farm boy became a Texas football legend.
“He was a vibrant individual, a giver,” Edith Royal said.
Alzheimer’s strips those afflicted of the context and colors of their life, and accumulates challenges and stress for the spouses, family members, and friends who are caregivers. Ava Late, DKR Fund advisory board member, has been involved locally in Alzheimer’s awareness after her husband lost both his parents to the disease. “I’m nervous for my family, nervous for my husband,” Late explained. “It’s been my passion for the past ten years to do whatever I can to raise funds for research.”
She’s been associated with the Royals since she was a teenager, and remembers them as a husband-and-wife duo whose legacy is rooted in generosity and friendship.
“One hundred years from now, I hope no one even talks about (Alzheimer’s),” Edith Royal said. “I hope it’s eradicated.”
The Darrell K Royal Research Fund for Alzheimer’s Disease exists to produce research and care for Texans in an attempt to cure the disease. In addition, the DKR Fund aims to expand research into mild cognitive impairment and broaden the exposure to preventative care and treatment aimed at combatting Alzheimer’s.
The increasing rate of Alzheimer’s disease in Texas has recently become a greater focus for state legislation and scientific medical research. Nationally, Texas ranks second in the number of Alzheimer’s-related deaths. The economic and emotional toll this disease takes on families and caretakers is insurmountable, and now younger generations are being affected more directly.
Sean Foley, University of Texas graduate and three-time national champion with Texas Swimming, is watching this unravel in his family. His mom is enduring an aggressive fight with Alzheimer’s.
“There is not a lot of information that is known about this disease. The drugs that my mom takes are not proven to do anything to combat the disease,” Foley said. “From a public standpoint, it’s all about awareness. A clear platform is going to help make funding a priority for research.”
Foley sits on the DKR Fund’s Legacy Council, a group of young philanthropists actively working to stop this devastating disease. Legacy members each pledge a minimum fundraising or donation of $1,000 and a commitment to participate and support DKR Fund activities.
The “Links & Lyrics” event is an opportunity for anyone to involve and invest in the DKR Fund’s mission. Tickets on the floor and mezzanine levels are sold-out for the Vince Gill and Friends show on Sept. 5, but balcony seating, sold through Austin City Limits, is still available.