Thomas DeBaggio, a nationally prominent herb grower and gardening author who became a defiant and poignant voice for fellow Alzheimer's patients, died of the disease Monday at an Annandale, Va., nursing home. He was 69.
After a brief journalism career DeBaggio found himself with little income and a young family to support. He started selling tomato seedlings he raised from his garden in Arlington County, Va.
By 1975, the adventure had developed into a nursery run from greenhouses at his home, where he raised thousands of cuttings of lavender, rosemary, mint, scented geraniums and other plants.
Patrons and gardening writers flocked to the home, drawn by the aromatherapy experience of entering the greenhouse and the astonishing range of varieties that DeBaggio grew.
DeBaggio wrote or co-wrote several well-regarded books about herbs. Even while consumed by the business, he channeled his need to write by penning a column in the nursery's catalog.
In the spring 2000 nursery catalog, he began to note periodic moments of confusion and forgetfulness. "The seeds become familiar companions as I teeter on the cusp of spring," he wrote. "It is at this time of year that I become acutely aware of the trembling life that is within me, as well as in the seed."
He had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's - a rare disorder that affects those younger than 65. But DeBaggio decided to confront the degenerative brain disease by going public about it.
He appeared on Oprah Winfrey's TV talk show. His journey into darkness was chronicled by National Public Radio. And he wrote two books about his life and the effects of the disease, "Losing My Mind" (2002) and "When It Gets Dark" (2003).