By JEFFREY COLLINS, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Scott Jacobs' broken down body finally couldn't take it anymore, and the latest blow from Lou Gehrig's Disease came with cruel timing: He would have to miss the South Carolina State Fair in October for the first time in 55 years.
But his family and friends weren't going to let that happen. They decided to bring the fair to him instead.
It won't be the quite same without the two hour trip from his home in Cheraw to Columbia, but it will bring a taste of a treasured experience that's been central to his life.
Back in 1956, it was just Jacobs and his date, Janice, who became his wife on Christmas Day 1958. They returned to the fair, year after year, every time the leaves changed. Their single car with three kids inside became a caravan carrying spouses, 10 grandchildren and now four great-grandchildren. They would fan out to the rides, games and shows as Jacobs ate his vinegar and french fries, Polish sausage or whatever other greasy treats caught his eye.
But his disease, formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, has relentlessly eaten away at his nerves and atrophied his muscles to where he can do little but move one finger.
He fought off a lung clot in March and regained enough strength to look forward to the fair again. Then came a kidney infection last week that sent him to the hospital and made his family wonder if it was the end of his 72 years. He lived, but lost something important to him.
"He just decided he couldn't go," said his daughter, Ann Smith.
So Jacobs' family is racing against time, along with a friend who also lost her father to the disease, to bring the fair to him.
"I know how special something like that is. If you can't go to something that has been a tradition in your family, you bring that to them," said Sandra Evans, who met Jacobs and his family while bringing her father to a clinic for ALS patients in Charlotte, N.C. She threw her own Super Bowl party for her dad weeks before he died earlier this year.
Evans started gathering together odds and ends that evoke the spirit of the fair - things like popcorn, simple carnival games and funny sunglasses. Then she got people at the State Fair to pitch in candy apples, cotton candy, T-shirts, a hat and posters with this year's fair theme: "Find Your Happy." The leaders at the fair were happy to help.
"That's what fairs are all about, families and the good times and traditions. We're so glad we can be a part of such an important tradition and send along our thoughts and prayers too," said Nancy Smith, who manages marketing for the fair, which has opened every year on the same site since 1904.
Now all Jacobs' family has to do is find the right time to bring everyone together for one last fair.
Jacobs was too weak to talk to a reporter this week, but his daughter said he perked up when she told him about the party. And he insisted again that the rest of the family go to the fair without him Sunday, the date they agreed to several months ago.
"My stomach doesn't make me want to go right now," Smith said. "It's just not the same."
At 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds, Jacobs had always been a big, working man. In his 50s, he retired as a dispatcher for a trucking firm and opened a convenience store, Scott's Mart, and later added a restaurant called Mom's Country Kettle so he could have more time to chat with friends and strangers. He sold the businesses after he had a stroke that left him partially blind in 2001. Doctors said there was only a 25 percent chance he would get all his sight back. He was driving again in a year, Smith said.
But then ALS came after him. Doctors first thought the trouble in his hand was carpal tunnel syndrome. But soon he had trouble with his legs, tripping and falling. That led to the diagnosis, Smith said.
"That's what is so, so, so awful," Smith said. "They give you three to five years up front. And they are pretty much on the money."
The disease first took the muscles in his left leg, then his right. Suddenly, the big man had to spend his days in bed or in a motorized wheelchair. From there it got his arms and even his hands. These days, Jacobs is down to one finger, which he uses to push the joystick that steers his wheelchair around.
"He's knocked a bunch of holes in the wall, but I told my mama, Sheetrock can be fixed," Smith said.
Jacobs' 50th wedding anniversary came just months after his ALS diagnosis. His family threw a surprise party - three days after Christmas to throw him off the trail - because they knew time was suddenly short and they needed to pack in as many memories as possible.
Jacobs has already arranged his funeral, picking out the preacher, the pallbearers and the songs. But his family isn't quite ready to let him go yet, even if his final fair will be in a house off Highway 9, some 100 miles from the bright lights and hustle that drew him to Columbia every October.
"That's something he has always lived for," Smith said. "His family, and I guess that trip to the fair."