At age 2, Rebecca Veeck was the youngest greeter for the St. Paul Saints.
From inside her playpen, she enthusiastically greeted — often several times in a row — anyone who walked through the door of the baseball team's front office.
Veeck, the daughter of Saints owner and president Mike Veeck, spent her early childhood roaming the ballpark and making friends. Longtime fans may remember her wearing matching tutus with the team's mascot, a pig, to deliver baseballs to the home plate umpire.
That was before she was diagnosed at age 7 with a degenerative eye condition that rapidly turned her blind. And it was years before doctors discovered that she was actually dealing with a much worse, rare genetic condition called Batten disease. On Sept. 30, Rebecca Veeck died. She was 27.
She was born Dec. 12, 1991. Rather than put her in day care, her parents, Mike and Libby Veeck, kept her around the Saints' offices. She endeared herself to nearly everyone she met, her father recalls, with her sense of humor and "consuming hunger for life."
After the family moved to Florida in 1998, Rebecca had a wellness check where she couldn't read the "E" atop the eye chart. The doctor said she had retinitis pigmentosa; her vision was disappearing from the center, marching outward. "Hearing that diagnosis destroyed us as a family," Mike Veeck said. "But then we saw all these heroes — parents and the children — who were going through this and had gotten support."
After all, they told themselves, it wasn't life-threatening. Rebecca was resilient and wouldn't let others feel bad for her. She turned her attention to other people and the activities that brought her joy: dancing, horseback riding, art, making people laugh.
Her father spent most of 1999 taking her to see majestic places around the United States and the world before her eyesight was completely gone. She saw the Grand Canyon covered in snow and the green hills of Ireland and drove the Pacific Coast Highway sitting on her father's lap in a convertible — top down, of course.
Eventually, the family settled into life in Charleston, S.C., where Mike Veeck was chief executive of the minor league RiverDogs team, of which he was also co-owner with actor Bill Murray. Rebecca and Murray would spend hours together, playing Candyland or just goofing around. "They had a really special bond that I have no idea how it formed," Veeck said. "She was the only person on Earth that was allowed to call him Uncle Murray."
When Rebecca was about 20, she went from being always articulate to moments when she searched for words. After a seizure at age 22, her parents took Rebecca to the University of Iowa Hospitals, where doctors and researchers diagnosed Batten disease, a broad class of rare, fatal and inherited disorders affecting the nervous system. It causes symptoms similar to dementia.
The family didn't make the new diagnosis public until after her death, Veeck said, because they wanted her to live as normally as possible. "That original misdiagnosis was actually a blessing for us. For us to not know all those years earlier that she was dying was a godsend," he said.
Her last month was difficult, but she would still crack jokes at just the right moments, her father said. "She knew what to do, she had that comedic timing, because she knew we were sad," he said. "She was constantly telling us her good memories and she made it a lot easier on us."
The family is hosting "Rebecca Fest" in Charleston on Dec. 12 — what would've been her 28th birthday — to celebrate her life. She is survived by her mother, father and brother, William "Night Train" Veeck of Chicago.