Police Chief Discovers He Has Alzheimer's

Town supports chief's decision to stay on the job.

June 10, 2007 — -- Lexington, Ill., is a sleepy midwestern town, out among corn fields and soybean farms. It sits just off historic route 66. It's the kind of place where everybody knows everybody.

And everybody knows Spencer Johansen. He's lived here his entire life. And for the past 19 years he's been Lexington's police chief.

"All I ever wanted to do was be a police chief," Johansen said.

That is why it was so painful for him to admit he may be unable to do the job much longer.

"Couple years ago I started noticing some problems at home," he said. "My wife and I would be talking about something at the dinner table and then the next day she would mention and it just totally kind of slip my mind."

Johansen wrote it off as stress at first. But a series of tests confirmed he has a disease that runs in his family. At just 49 years old, chief Johansen has early onset Alzheimer's.

"The biggest thing I notice is my speech," he said. "I find it hard sometimes to get the words out. I know what I want to say but I can't get the words out of my mouth."

Johansen could have told his family and no one else. Instead, he decided to go public in order to show he is not ashamed and that Alzheimer's can strike anyone. His plan is to work a couple more years and he'll even continue to carrying his gun.

"I have put the safety of the citizens up front and I'll continue to do that," Johansen said. "If I wake up one morning and realize I shouldn't be going to work today, I won't go to work."

And for this small town, that decision is just fine. They know the chief and they trust him.

"I think he'll know his limits," said a local waitress named Rochelle.

Another resident said she believed if Johansen really was having problems, he would leave the job.

It has not been easy on his wife and three children.

"I am a private person and I don't know that I was ready to share what I was dealing with, with the world or this community," said Johansen's wife, Liz Johansen. "But there is a lot of support, great friends, great family. We are going to get through it."

Eventually, they all know his brain will deteriorate.

"I look at what my wife is going to have to go through and my children," Johansen said. "You know, they are the heroes behind this because they have a tough road ahead of them."

He said he worries most about showing his love for them.

"I would never doubt that in a minute anyway," Liz said. "We have been through thick and thin, good times and bad times as in every marriage. And there is no doubt in my mind how much he loves me and the kids."

There is no doubt Johansen loves his community either. He said he is unsure of what will signal him to give up his badge.

"When I worry more about what I am going to do wrong than what I am going to do right," he said, "I think I'll know that ahead of anybody else."

Johansen said if he doesn't recognize when to retire, there are enough family, friends and colleagues around to make sure he'll know. And for now, he starts each day with a little self quiz. He asks himself, "What day is it? What month? What is the schedule?" And now he takes more notes than ever to help remember things.