Retired university professor looks past adversity

Story and photos by Jessica Gonzales

  • Meet Fred Buchanan, a retired University professor living with Parkinson’s disease.

In his soft yet prideful Scottish accent, Fred Buchanan recites a poem by memory written by his favorite poet, Robert Burns. As he tries to muster the simple words from his lips, he stops and pauses momentarily. He apologizes with a smile, says “Sorry, it’s my Parkinson’s,” as his hands moderately tremble from shaking. “You have your good days and you have your bad days sometimes.”

At 78, Buchanan is one of approximately one million Americans living with Parkinson’s disease, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Sufferers of this neurological disease lack dopamine in the cortex section of their brains that affects basic motor skills. As a result, tremors, rigidness and slow movement are symptoms patients with Parkinson’s often experience. Currently, there is no cure for the disease, only medication or surgery to temporarily relieve and slow down the progression of symptoms.

Retired university Professor Fred Buchanan reads poetry in his home in Salt Lake City.

Buchanan was diagnosed in 1992 after his son noticed tremors in his hand at a concert. He saw a doctor who later diagnosed him with Parkinson’s disease during the same year.

“I was surprised,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to be able to do anything.”

With the help of taking a total of 18 pills, he is able to have around 10 hours of good movement throughout the day. But he still experiences symptoms in his daily routine. Shaking and stiffness have inhibited his movement and he largely has to rely on his wife to help him with simple tasks such as buttoning his collar and sleeves.

“I was independent before but now I’m dependent,” he said. “I just miss the freedom I had.”

Rama Buchanan, his wife of 46 years, takes care of her husband makes sure to help him when he’s struggling and remind him to take his medication. After seeing two of her family members go through Parkinson’s disease, she credits her love and patience to find strength with her husband’s situation.

“Families are forever,” she said. “We do a lot of things together and we help each other. You just take it one day at a time.”

Buchanan, who was born in Steventson, Scotland, moved to Salt Lake City in 1949 with his parents to be closer to family and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After serving a Mormon mission for two years in his native country, Buchanan returned to Salt Lake and was encouraged to attend the University of Utah by a family friend who was a professor there. The inspiration to learn became a pursuit he valued and as he said in a proud voice, “Scratch a Scot and find a scholar.”

After graduating from the University of Utah with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, Buchanan went to Ohio State University where he received his doctorate in 1967. In 1977, he became an associate professor in education studies at the University of Utah. He retired in 2003.

A published scholar and writer, Buchanan has written several academic books and chapters about Scotland and the history of education in Utah. “A Good Time Coming: Mormon Letters to Scotland” and “A History of Education in Utah” feature his academic work from research as a university professor.

Buchanan’s small library in the basement of his home is filled with his academic work, Scottish literature and religious publications that symbolize his love and appreciation for learning.

“I’m so curious about many things,” he said. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who appreciated creativity.”

Buchanan is currently conducting two more projects before his Parkinson’s

Fred Buchanan looks at a picture of his family, who he says has given him strength while suffering through Parkinson's disease.

begins to interfere more with his daily life. His first is to write a book about his wife’s family history that was central to Scottish immigration, primarily to Utah. His second project, with the help of his journal that he’s written in for the past 35 years, is an autobiography for his family and friends to remember him by.

“I like to think that something happens to you after you die,” he said.“But if not, this is what I will have left behind.”

Although his Parkinson’s is an obstacle, Buchanan said he wouldn’t let that get in the way of what he wants to do. With support of his family, friends and his faith, he says that he’ll be able to look past the complications the disease has given him.

“I don’t think God or nature gave it to me as a challenge,” Buchanan said. “But given that I have it, I look at it invariably, except for to take a nice nap in the afternoon.”