In the small, cozy library at home in Orono, Ron Meshbesher’s presence is everywhere. There is the giant replica of stacked law books (including one that he authored) that form his desk. The walls are lined with awards and honors, signifying Meshbesher’s legacy as one of the state’s best and most respected defense attorneys. There is even a bobblehead of Meshbesher, dressed to the nines, just like the man.
Meshbesher’s shaggy dog, Justice, snoozes on the carpet. Justice, it turns out, is blind. Perfect.
The attorney who gained fame decades ago in sensational cases like the Virginia Piper kidnapping (never solved) and the Elisabeth Congdon murder trial in Duluth, however, is now in memory care in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
His wife of nearly 30 years, Kim Meshbesher, agreed to talk about her husband and the ravages of the disease during the week of the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s in the Twin Cities this Saturday.
“It’s very important that we destigmatize AD,” said Kim Meshbesher. “If our story can help bring awareness that even brilliant people like my husband can be afflicted with this disease, it will be worth it. It is ignorance about the disease that causes the shame. I believe that if we lift the stigma, we will raise more funding for research and hopefully some day find a cause and cure.”
Ron Meshbesher, who retired in 2013, began to notice the early signs of memory loss slowly over the past few years, with symptoms increasing the past two years. The couple tried to continue as normal a life as possible, even traveling to their home in France during the past winter.
“It was just in January and February that all hell broke loose,” Kim said.
Just days after the Meshbeshers returned from Europe, Ron went into memory care. “You do what you have to do for someone you love,” Kim said. “He couldn’t be left alone.”
Kim said the impact of the disease first hit her when she went to her own doctor. She had to fill in the space for “emergency contact,” and realized it was no longer her husband.
“That was tough stuff,” she said. “Normally, we’d been there for each other.”
Attorney Steven Meshbesher, Ron’s nephew, worked with him for 10 years.
“Ronnie was my mentor in life,” said Steven. “I idolize him, actually. I would never have had the success I’ve had without him.”
Steven said Ron was a master in the courtroom, winning over juries with wit and charm. “He was like a poet and juries loved him,” Steven said.
Outside the courtroom, he was the same, “the opposite of what you’d expect; soft-spoken and down-to-earth.”
Attorney Joe Friedberg agrees.
“He is very, very intelligent, and he worked very hard,” said Friedberg. “He was prepared, almost to a maniacal level.
“He was a fair competitor, straight-up with everybody. I don’t know anybody who disliked him.”
As Ron’s health began to slowly wane several years ago, they had their first granddaughter, Archer. Kim watched as Ron regressed and Archer progressed, their capabilities eventually intersecting. Archer began to help her grandfather do the simple tasks like eating and dressing that she herself was just learning. Some days, they sat in the library together and worked on her coloring books.
“I feel fortunate because we’ve had a really great life,” Kim said. “Things change. We made the most of the time we had. And I feel lucky because of all the wonderful friends we have that give support.”
One of those is Kim Campbell, wife of singer Glen Campbell, who died recently from AD. They met through their mutual doctor at Mayo Clinic, where Ron takes part in studies of the disease. Kim Meshbesher was one of those invited to Campbell’s tribute when he died, and they’ve remained good friends.
Kim visits her husband several times a week, and she’s set up a slide show with 700 photos, all with Ron and his friends. She also selected 900 songs significant in Ron’s life — Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra — to keep him stimulated.
Kim said that “Ron always had a twinkle in his eye,” but now “when I see that, it’s a gift.” Like the time he left one pea on the plate at dinner. When Kim joked that he hadn’t cleaned his plate, Ron replied, “I’m saving it for you.”
But perhaps the most difficult thing for those who love Ron to see, as his health has declined, were the moments he seemed to emerge from a distance deep inside himself and recognized his fate.
Steven, who recently noticed that he still copies his uncle’s mannerisms in court, went to visit Ron at his new home to tell him how much his uncle had done for him.
“I held his hand and put my arm around him and told him stories about [their upbringing in] the old north Minneapolis,” Steven said. “I told him I loved him and that I missed him.”
Ron replied simply, “I miss me, too.”