Bud Elliott happily talks about what’s been keeping him busy since he left the KSEE24 anchor chair in May after almost a half century in broadcasting. He keeps his hand in journalism with some freelance writing and has picked up a new hobby — working with a wood lathe.
He pauses to take a sip of coffee, revealing the only clue as to why Elliott would walk away from the television news profession that had been such a passion for so many decades. His right hand slightly shakes, much the way one would react to being in sub-zero weather without a pair of gloves. His left hand shows no such movement.
It’s the only sign that Elliott is battling Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder that attacks the central nervous system and can affect motor functions and memory. Tremors are the most well-known sign but it also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of motion.
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Elliot’s symptoms started while he was still working at the local NBC affiliate. There is no cure, but medication, diet and exercise can help. Elliott is dealing with it through all three.
“We are learning to control it,” Elliott says, shifting the topic from woodwork to his health. “All of the medications seem to be arresting the progression of symptoms. Left untreated, they would probably get worse and worse.”
In the United States, 50,000-60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s disease are diagnosed every year. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation reports there is a 2%-4% risk of Parkinson’s among people over the age of 60. That is double the odds in the general population.
A lot of attention has been given to the disease since actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Muhammad Ali, Johnny Cash, George Wallace, Linda Ronstadt, Estelle Getty and Billy Graham are other celebrities who have dealt with the disease.
Elliott began to suspect he might be have Parkinson’s a little more than a year ago. That was about the time his former employer, Nexstar Broadcasting, was going through the process of combining the KSEE24 and CBS47 television stations.
“Stress can trigger Parkinson’s. There was a lot of chaos, stress and anxiety at that time,” Elliott says. “I noticed the tremor and changes in my voice. I just couldn’t get my voice back.”
The disease can affect the muscle control in the larynx. That makes it harder to project your voice, a major problem when you’ve spent your life speaking with great authority in front of a microphone.
Elliott was always a workhorse during his TV career, which included 14 years as an evening anchor and seven years co-hosting the NBC affiliate’s morning show before his contract ended in December 2007. He left TV for a while, but he returned in March 2012, where he worked first as co-anchor of the morning show and then moved back to the evening news anchor chair he held for so many years.
He noticed that the tremors in his right hand were affecting his typing. He jokes that his left hand was going much faster than his right. In those last months before retiring, Elliott found it harder and harder to have the energy he needed to be part of a television news team.
Tremors and fatigue were the biggest concerns. Elliott, 66, initially hoped it might just be part of growing old. When the symptoms didn’t go away, he went to the doctor. Dr. Melvin Helm, a neurologist, made the diagnosis.
Once he knew what he had to battle, Elliott began looking for treatment. He found it with the Parkinson’s Institute and Clinical Center located in Sunnyvale.
“They specialize in a lot of cutting-edge research, not only on the disease itself, but help with the drug trials. It took six months to get an appointment in September,” Elliott says. “They said, ‘Yes, you got it. It’s not the end of the world. It’s manageable.’ ”
All of this was good news but that didn’t keep Elliott from initially being mad. He knew there would be a day when he would have to leave the anchor chair. What made him angry was that he didn’t get to select the date. That decision was made for him by the disease.
But his initial anger gave way to facing reality.
“I decided, it is what it is,” Elliott says. “I did get a second chance and I’m grateful for that. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Broadcast journalism has been his chosen career since he graduated from Colorado State University in 1970. Before the move to Fresno in 1987, Elliott worked at Denver’s KBTV; Richmond, Virginia’s WXEX; and CNN.
Although he didn’t get to work until his 50th anniversary in the media world, Elliott considers himself extremely fortunate to have had his career. He calls himself a lucky man to have his run at KSEE end and then to get invited back years later.
Elliott doesn’t miss the work as much as he does the people he shared a desk with over so many years. That includes Faith Sidlow, who was his morning co-host, and Stefani Booroojian, his evening news co-host.
Booroojian calls it an honor to get to work with Elliott on two occasions.
“(He’s a) pro and a true gentleman,” she says. “He’s also got a great sense of humor. I’m excited for him as he begins a new and much deserved chapter in his life.”
Sidlow echoes those sentiments by calling Elliott one of her closest friends.
“From the first day he set foot on the morning show news set back in February 2001, we connected. He was the yin to my yang — always the voice of reason, dependable, intelligent, a quick wit, and highly respected by everyone who came into contact with him,” Sidlow says. “Anchoring the morning show with Bud wasn’t work. It was a two-and-a-half hour coffee break.”
It’s upsetting to Elliott that he had to leave midway through a three-year contract because of his health. Now, he realizes the Parkinson’s has given him the chance to do things he wouldn’t have had time to do if he was still working.
His garage is covered with sawdust and pieces of wood from the woodturning he’s started. The irony of him taking on a job with a spinning lathe and cutting tools while dealing with a disease that gives him a shaky hand hasn’t escaped Elliott.
The truth is, the tools for carving are held close to the body by the right hand and guided with his left. The work is giving him some needed exercise, a way of controlling the disease.
When he’s not chipping away at a piece of wood, Elliott is out scouring the countryside looking for different types of wood to use in his creations.
He also enjoys giving a new grandson more attention.
He hopes to help educate those who don’t know much about Parkinson’s. It’s still a little embarrassing for him to be at a restaurant and have his hand start shaking.
“I’m not embarrassed to talk about it. I’m just embarrassed to be fumbling around with a salad fork,” Elliott says. “But, I deal with it.”