From father to son, lessons in life are paying medical science dividends

Glen Croswell’s creed: ‘Do what’s right. Help people who are in need.’

Tom Croswell, the CEO of Tufts Health Plan, checked in remotely with his staff after he dyed his hair purple. His staff met his goal of raising money for the Alzheimer's Association. Croswell's father, Glen, died of Alzheimer's. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

WATERTOWN — He was a proud man who began his career inspecting telephone poles in central Maine, working his way up — as one phone company gobbled up another — into corporate accounting.

Glen Croswell loved baseball, could build straight-and-solid stone walls from boulders hauled out of the woods, and was a wizard around the house, equally skilled with a carpenter’s hammer or an electric circuit.

“He was just very hard-working, disciplined, and responsible,” his son, Tom Croswell, told me the other day. “His family was his first priority. He was a disciplinarian. He definitely laid down the law.”

But as time wore on and retirement took him into his mid-80s, something elemental in Glen Croswell shifted — and then began to slip away.

Tom Croswell, the CEO of Tufts Health Plan, and his father, Glen, at Fenway Park. Glen Croswell died in May 2014.

He seemed confused. A father of four, he drove to a family member’s house in Waterville, Maine, a trip he had made dozens of times, and got hopelessly lost.

“It wasn’t clear that he had full-scale dementia,” Tom Croswell said. “And he didn’t at that point, but it was clear that there was something not quite right there. And then there were times when I’d be with him and he would just seem a little confused.”

The confusion worsened.

Glen Croswell couldn’t sleep. He wandered around his house in Gorham, Maine. The man who once was a whiz capable of intricate repairs to antique clocks was now befuddled by his television set’s remote control.

The diagnosis? Alzheimer’s disease, a devastating illness that his son is devoting part of his professional life to help vanquish.

All of that helps explain why Tom Croswell, the buttoned-down CEO of Tufts Health Plan, was sporting a purple hairdo the other day, at the center of a Zoom call with other equally colorful Tufts executives, committed to conquering an irreversible, progressive brain disease that is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.

As their images flashed across laptops they were — for a moment — no longer highly skilled insurance company executives. They were electronic pixels, fanciful studies in rainbow-colored hair rarely seen in the corporate boardroom.

All of it was part of an ongoing effort that has so far raised $71,000, which was matched by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, for a total contribution of $142,000 to the Alzheimer’s Association’s Massachusetts-New Hampshire chapter.

“You never looked better,” a smiling Croswell, leaning into the screen, told his team from his kitchen in Lexington.

“Wow! Your hair took well to the color, Tom,” one executive told him.

There were some technological glitches with webcam connections. There were good-natured jabs and virtual high-fives. There was lots of cross-talk like this, now familiar to virtual meeting attendees everywhere:

“Paul, looking good!”

“I can’t hear again. I have no audio.”

“We can hear you.”

“Did you restart your computer last night?”

Tom Croswell,the CEO of Tufts Health Plan, checked in remotely with his staff. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

And through it all, Tom Croswell’s thoughts remained with his father, the man who once participated in the largest airborne operation of World War II, parachuting with more than 16,000 others into Germany from thousands of aircraft soaring high over Europe.

“My father had not been diagnosed but he was starting to show worrisome signs of dementia,” he said. “He progressively got worse and worse. He wasn’t the type of person to ever tell you that he was scared. But I’m sure he was. I think it was certainly frustrating for him.”

The disease forced Glen Croswell from his home and into an assisted-living facility. He died at age 88 on Memorial Day in 2014.

“I remember going to visit him in Saco,” his son recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, dad, how are you doing?’ And he said, ‘How would you like it if you were incarcerated?’ ”

No son could ever forget an exchange like that. Searing. Sad. Motivating.

Poignantly, there were — amid the fog of the disease and through all that anger and frustration — flashes of humanity, moments when the old Glen Croswell seemed himself, if only briefly.

When Tom’s wife, Lisa, asked her father-in-law whether he’d like to take a ride for an ice cream, he brightened, agreed, and enjoyed the simplest of outings.

“She brought him back and she pulled into the parking lot and he turned to her and said, ‘Lisa, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to come up here to see me. I really do appreciate it. I know you went out of your way.’ He was just completely lucid,” Tom Croswell said.

His father was a master of anagram puzzles. He remembered his wartime experience like it was yesterday.

But the real yesterday was lost to him.

Moments like that drove Tom Croswell and his company to develop a dementia care coordination program to connect patients and their families to the support they need.

“So we were the first insurance company to work with the Alzheimer’s Association to develop that program,” Croswell said. “In part, that was my response to what I was seeing with my dad.”

There remains a steep medical mountain for medical researchers to climb.

“There’s no cure,” said Croswell. “It’s the only disease that has nothing you can do for it. There’s nothing that will slow its progression. And the causes aren’t well understood. So we still have a long way to go.”

And then he paused and collected himself at that intersection of the disease and his dad.

“Everybody always wants to please their father, you know?” he said. “So, sure, that makes me feel good. I and we have been able to do something to help people in similar circumstances.

“He wasn’t one to dwell on praise. I was more likely to hear from somebody else that he said something really nice about me than him saying it directly. Growing up, he was always afraid that he would spoil his kids. Yeah, he was kind of a classic New Englander.”

But the father was teaching lessons to his children, lessons that they absorbed.

“Do what’s right,'' Tom Croswell said, repeating his dad’s paternal creed. "Help people who are in need. But more than anything it was: Do what’s right.”

Turns out the man who once parachuted into Germany, the guy who could build solid stone walls in the woods and learned to repair the intricate mechanisms of antique clocks, was a pretty skilled teacher, too.

Now, his lessons in life are paying dividends.

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