I first learned from an Aug. 8 post on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Friends group that a friend and former colleague had been stricken with a horrible disease I’d never heard of — multiple system atrophy (MSA). Her rare, incurable condition, one with symptoms much like Parkinson’s affecting involuntary functions including blood pressure, breathing, bladder function and motor control, had been diagnosed in May and confirmed during a 10-day visit to the Mayo Clinic.
On Sunday, I learned in a post on the same group by her husband Pete that Ellen Alfano had passed away during the night early Saturday. At the age of 66, the world has lost a remarkable woman and journalist, mother to 41-year-old Nick and stepmother to Chris.
While I knew that Ellen’s disease would eventually take her, I never imagined it could be so soon. I’d recently sent out several sympathy cards to friends who’d lost loved ones, including a pet. The next person I was going to send a card of support to, but hadn’t had the chance yet, was Ellen.
The average life expectancy for patients with MSA ranges from five to 10 years. In his post early last month telling us about Ellen’s debilitating disease, retired S-T sports writer Jim “Revo” Reeves wrote that some have lived up to 20 years with MSA, and that was Ellen’s hope.
From a journalism perspective, Ellen leaves an extraordinary legacy. Although her work was behind the scenes as an editor, she’s one of two pioneering female sports journalists who helped guide the S-T’s sports section to award-winning prominence over the past several decades.
Now, tragically, they’re both gone. Celeste Williams, who worked on the S-T’s sports staff as an assistant editor in the late 1980s/early ‘90s before leaving, then returning as THE sports editor in 1998 — lured back by Ellen, who also had returned that year — died of cancer in May 2017.
I had the honor of working with both of them. About six months after I arrived at the S-T in April 1987 as a Features copy/layout editor after four years as a sports writer in Odessa, the sports editor asked me to move to his copy desk. Celeste arrived within a year or so, joining Ellen (Thornley at the time) as both filled assistant sports editor roles.
Although Ellen had an office, I remember she often would spend much of her days at the first desk around the corner from the third-floor elevator on the sports “rim” — where we copy editors worked our night shifts — talking to sports writers by phone, helping plan coverage for the next day’s paper, and editing copy side-by-side with young reporters if they happened to be in the office.
In the less than two years we worked together, Ellen impressed me with her professionalism, teamwork and collaborative abilities. She was someone who could always get the best out of the people she worked with and had the patience and temperament of a teacher (she would’ve been a perfect fit for the classroom). Among the dozens of comments on her husband/reporter Pete’s post about her passing, folks showered Ellen with praise about how much they’d learned from her. She also was a skilled leader who could be gracious or tenacious, whatever the situation dictated.
Both Ellen and Celeste moved on to other jobs — Ellen joining Frank Deford’s short-lived sports journalism startup, The National, in 1989 before doing communications work for the ATP Tour (Association of Tennis Professionals), where she met Pete — and Celeste making several other stops before both ended up back in Fort Worth. Ellen was rehired in 1998 as a managing editor over Sports and Features, and one of her first moves was to bring Celeste back as sports editor. The S-T’s sports section raked in numerous national and state awards with Celeste and Ellen at the helm.
I last saw Ellen in 2017 at a wonderful event held at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington in honor of Celeste after her passing. It was the first time I’d seen Ellen since I left the S-T for The Dallas Morning News in early 2000, and she was still the same engaging and vibrant lady I remembered from almost 30 years earlier when I joined the close-knit S-T Sports staff. (Ellen left the paper in 2011.)
When Revo posted about Ellen’s situation just over six weeks ago, it stunned many of us who worked with her and have been friends with her for so long. Over the past couple of years, the Star-Telegram Sports Department family has lost several beloved members at ages too young to comprehend — all of them colleagues from my 13 years at the paper, almost eight of which I worked on the Sports desk.
Revo said Ellen had told him that her case of MSA was aggressive and advanced. In simplest terms, the disease kills off nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing the progressive loss of bodily functions. Ellen told Revo she’d been plagued by tremors, muscle spasms, bladder and bowel dysfunction, loss of almost all mobility and difficulty speaking. She also was having daily uncontrollable anxiety and panic attacks.
While her doctors tried to manage her symptoms with meds, Ellen had been consulting with numerous specialists and taking part in an MSA clinic at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
“She stressed to me that she is not giving up,” Revo wrote Aug. 8. “She is down, but not out. Not surprising. Ellen has always been a fighter. That hasn’t changed.”
Revo’s right. Ellen always was a fighter — for herself, for her son, for her staff. It greatly saddens me that she’s lost this fight, but I’m also grateful she won’t have to suffer the pain of such a devastating disease long-term.
Thanks for all the great years you gave the Star-Telegram and its readers, Ellen. And thank you for being an amazing colleague, friend — and trailblazer. You and Celeste have some catching up to do.