Rebecca S. Chopp had a plan: She’d leave the chancellorship at the University of Denver after about 10 years, then return to the faculty and teach classes.
It would be a fitting cap to her career, returning to her first loves — teaching and scholarship — after years in administration, where she’d often been the first woman to occupy her post.
But in 2019, her fifth year as chancellor, she abandoned that timeline and announced her retirement.
In a message to the Denver community, Chopp said she was stepping down because of a “complex neurological disorder,” one she’d recently been diagnosed with and that she needed to “attend to sooner rather than later.”
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It would be a fitting cap to her career, returning to her first loves — teaching and scholarship — after years in administration, where she’d often been the first woman to occupy a given post.
But in 2019, her fifth year as chancellor, she abandoned that timeline and announced her retirement.
In a message to the Denver community, Chopp said she was stepping down because of a “complex neurological disorder,” one that she’d recently been diagnosed with and that she needed to “attend to sooner rather than later.”
Only a few in her inner circle knew what she wasn’t yet ready to say publicly: Rebecca Chopp had Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s a devastating diagnosis for anyone, but particularly for Chopp, now 69, who’d spent her adult life in academe, a field that prizes the mind above all else. A feminist theologian by training, she was known for her stellar memory, whether she was reciting paragraphs of Hegel or supplying some forgotten detail during a meeting. Her friends jokingly called her “a brain with a body attached.”
Chopp never saw herself as consumed by her job, the way academics and business leaders can sometimes be. Still, much of her days and many of her dreams were dictated by her work and by the intellect that made that work possible.
Gradually, her mental faculties will dissipate, a striking irony for a woman who has spent a lifetime in thought. Who will she be then?
“People underestimate me. And I kind of enjoy that people underestimate me,” she says.
She’s used smarts and a studied savvy to take control of her circumstances, from becoming the first in her working-class Kansas family to attend college to breaking glass ceilings in ministry and academe. Not one to lead marches or throw bottles through windows, she made her way as a quiet radical, a charismatic, witty leader with a stiff backbone.
In girlhood, Chopp brought home straight-A elementary-school report cards. She took solace in books because a severe speech impediment left her unable to speak well as a child, and she made regular treks to the pea-green bookmobile that stopped in her neighborhood. Captivated by the tales of Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew’s fictional girl-detective contemporary, she daydreamed of becoming a detective and solving mysteries.
But the environment Chopp was born into — a tiny tract house in 1950s Salina, Kan. — felt more limiting than that. Neither of her parents went to college; they were distrustful of education, which they felt smacked of elitism and often took young people away from their families. In their view, women weren’t supposed to work outside the home, and their daughter’s destiny was to marry, which is why Chopp took home economics, sewing, and typing, rather than college-prep classes, in high school.
So Chopp created her own curriculum. While she wasn’t raised in a church, she’d always been interested in spirituality. “I just started reading everything I could at our local library,” she says, “which in Salina, Kan., was not a whole lot.” She dug into the Christian Scriptures, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita. And she joined the high-school debate team, drawing on her penchant for research and developing arguments.
Despite her parents’ misgivings, Chopp enrolled at Kansas Wesleyan University. There, in a first-year anthropology lecture on family systems, something clicked. It was as though her intellectual world — and the more insular one she’d been raised in — exploded. More epiphanies followed. She saw a Mark Rothko painting that made words in a textbook come alive. In a course on religion and the environment, she caught a glimpse of how her self-designed high-school curriculum might turn into a college major, even a career.
This, Chopp began to think, is going to be my life.
And so it was. Chopp went on to seminary at the Saint Paul School of Theology, spent several years serving in churches as an ordained Methodist minister, and then headed to the University of Chicago for a Ph.D. For a kid from Kansas, Chicago was Disneyland for intellects, where, at a restaurant, she might find herself seated next to a famous cultural anthropologist or rhetorician or scientist.
Chopp joined the faculty of Chicago’s divinity school, teaching feminist and liberation theology and running the theology program. She got married and became the mother of an artistic and sensitive son named Nate. When it rained at his baseball practices, he’d often look over to see his mother pulling out an umbrella and a philosophy book.
Again and again, Chopp, who divorced when Nate was a preteen, confronted vestiges of the patriarchal system she’d grown up in. Chopp says the United Methodist Church initially refused to ordain her, though she’d graduated first in her seminary class, and UMC administrators delayed assigning her a church because, they told her, no one would want a female minister. At one point, she recalls, a church official tried to slash Chopp’s salary because she had a child. Chopp says she asked the official to hand her the phone so she could call the bishop and get a new appointment. Rather than hand over the phone, she says, the man restored her salary.
At the time, Chopp didn’t tell anyone about the discrimination she was facing, fearing retaliation. She and the few women she’d gone to seminary with struggled largely in silence, she says.
As Chopp transitioned into academe, she was determined not to let sexism stand in her way there, either. She remembers being the only woman in a meeting she attended at Emory, where she became an assistant professor after leaving Chicago. Her male colleagues were arguing, vying to be the loudest voice in the room. She was being ignored, except by one man who asked her to get him a cup of coffee.
Chopp decided she would not be ignored any longer. So she — 5-foot-4 and petite — stood up and stopped the meeting. “Gentlemen, gentlemen — oh, you aren’t behaving like gentlemen,” she told her colleagues. “I’m going to my office, and when you are behaving like gentlemen again, please let me know, because I’d so like to continue this meeting.”
At the time, Chopp had just started at Emory. Some of the men in the room, she figured, hadn’t even known who she was. But if you want to be heard, she reasoned, you’ve got to assert yourself.
Sometimes her very presence was assertion enough: Chopp was the first woman to be president of Colgate University, then Swarthmore College, and to be chancellor at the University of Denver.
At her side during her ascension into administration was Fred Thibodeau, whom she had met in seminary. They’d reconnected after their respective divorces and gotten married, Thibodeau’s two sons joining their blended family. Thibodeau followed Chopp, first to Atlanta and Emory and then to New Haven for Chopp’s one-year stint as dean of Yale Divinity School. As Chopp assumed the top posts at Colgate, Swarthmore, and Denver, he played a supporting role, using his background in university development to help her raise funds. Their days were full and frenetic, but they liked it that way.
That was life before everything changed.
That day, the doctor ran through a list of routine questions. “Has anything changed?” she asked.
Yes, as a matter of fact, Chopp said. It was great: Lately she’d been getting eight or nine hours of sleep every night. All her life, she’d run on something more like five hours of sleep, and she’d always joked that one reason she got so much done was that the nighttime hours gave her eight days a week, compared with everybody else’s seven.
The sleep, the momentary disorientation on the way to the appointment — something wasn’t right, the doctor said. A physician’s assistant gave Chopp a 10-minute test that day. Over the next few months, she saw a memory-care specialist and underwent several more rounds of testing, continuing her grueling work schedule and thinking of her medical trouble only occasionally. A PET scan in March 2019 gave Chopp the most definitive answer possible without an autopsy: Her results were “consistent with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia.”
For Chopp, the word “dementia” brought to mind images of her mother, Marion, who had struggled for years with paranoia and delusions. Could she have inherited the same affliction? The answer turned out to be no. Her doctors took an extensive family history, then concluded her mother probably had suffered from Lewy body dementia, a disease different from Alzheimer’s. That was a relief.
Still, Chopp’s doctor advised her to quit her job, and soon. Much of her new life would be built around delaying symptoms. Stress — part and parcel of a university leader’s job — is not good for neurological conditions.
Chopp, who had come with a list of questions for the doctor, held herself together during the appointment. Only when she and Thibodeau got to the car did the tears flow. That night, in a booth at the back of the Mexican restaurant across the street from their apartment in downtown Denver, they drank too many margaritas, helped each other home.
The two sat on O’Leary’s back patio. It was a typical, beautiful Denver day, warm even in March. The morning shade was gone, and the sky was a vibrant blue. “I hope everything’s OK,” O’Leary said.
“Well, no, it’s not,” Chopp told her.
For a few minutes, they held hands and cried.
Then, O’Leary, whose mother has advanced Alzheimer’s, had questions: What tests had she had done? How was Fred doing? What about Chopp’s son, Nate?
Eventually, the conversation morphed to work: Chopp had already decided she needed to step down that summer, in just three months, to preserve her own quality of life, and to avoid putting the university at risk if her condition suddenly deteriorated.
Couldn’t Chopp stay on just a few more months, O’Leary asked, as Denver searched for a new chancellor? Others could relieve Chopp of many of her duties in the meantime.
The answer was a firm no. “This has to be it,” Chopp told O’Leary, worried that if she were to experience a rapid decline, there would be no room for error.
That day on the back patio, Chopp and O’Leary sketched out the beginnings of a plan. Meetings would be scheduled, a draft statement prepared. Chopp would tell the board at its next meeting in April. The list went on, with Chopp working through the next steps, detached, almost clinical.
The conversation was one of the saddest of O’Leary’s life.
Any terminal illness Chopp could have contracted would have been terrible, no doubt. But this one carried a particular kind of brutality. Chopp was a true academic, whose office was lined with books, who could readily recall passages she’d read 20 years ago. For her to slowly lose her mind would, O’Leary thought, be like a marathoner losing her legs.
“For her to know that the way she is going to die, in all likelihood, is going to be by losing the thing that she has valued most her entire life just seemed like such a cruel, cruel twist of fate,” O’Leary says.
“It’s like, What do you do? It’s your life.”
That’s why the campus announcement that Chopp sent on April 19, 2019, did not contain the word “Alzheimer’s,” and why she requested in that same announcement that no one ask for more details about “this unexpected turn of events.”
Chopp needed time to process her diagnosis, and stereotypes about the disease loomed large. When she started telling people she had Alzheimer’s, they would talk louder to her, or turn to Thibodeau instead. People seemed to think she’d gone deaf, or had utterly lost her ability to form thoughts, just like that.
As she observed those reactions, and as she read and thought about Alzheimer’s, Chopp felt compelled to do something. She’d been diagnosed early, and her status as a university administrator and public figure had habituated her to public speaking and to advocating for important causes. Raising money for Alzheimer’s research and awareness of the importance of testing and early detection may not have been among the issues on her higher-ed agenda, but she saw no reason why they couldn’t be added to her docket in retirement.
“People are rightly fearful of this disease. But they also need to know that it’s not an immediate death sentence, that there are things you can do to help prevent it,” Chopp says. “On a personal level, both my husband and I thought, What do we have to lose?”
Purpose is an ever-evolving kind of thing.
In December 2019, nine months after her diagnosis, Chopp spoke publicly for the first time about having Alzheimer’s while accepting an award from DU’s Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging, which she co-founded. Even that disclosure, she recalls, was a spur-of-the-moment decision, made on the way to the event.
The audience stood and applauded, giving Chopp the encouragement she needed to keep going. She became a full-on advocate for Alzheimer’s awareness, motivated in large part by the scientific promise and importance of early detection. She wrote blog posts for the Colorado chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and appeared with Thibodeau in a video that was shown at the chapter’s annual gala.
Her reasoning for doing so is simple: Once an educator, always an educator, Chopp, now chancellor emerita of DU, says. She sees Alzheimer’s education as a “continuation of purpose” in this new life of hers.
“Purpose,” she reasons, “is an ever-evolving kind of thing.”
Advice from her doctors provided some answers. She’d been told to do as much as she could to build new neural pathways, a task she threw herself into with the same gusto Thibodeau had seen her employ so many times in academic leadership. Already an avid hiker, she redoubled her lifelong commitment to fitness and spent hours lifting weights. She took classes in ballroom dancing with Thibodeau. She committed to a Mediterranean diet designed to promote brain health.
Chopp’s days are still full, but no longer rushed. She wakes up at 5:30 — better than 4:30, when her alarm went off in her days as a college leader — and prunes through 20 emails a day instead of 300. She works out for an hour and trains her puppy, a Pomeranian-Siberian husky mix named Budhy. In the evening, she and Thibodeau read and listen to music. She still consults with college leaders, taking three or four calls a week to keep a foot in the higher-ed world. And for several hours a day, she paints.
Chopp started painting soon after her diagnosis, at the urging of a friend. At first she hated it. She’d spent a lifetime believing she was bad at art.
But Chopp warmed to the canvas. She realized she could lose herself in it the way she used to become absorbed in her religious-studies texts. In the quest to distinguish one shade of a shadow from the next, she feels content, whole.
Ever the researcher, Chopp tried all styles of painting, reading about techniques and watching videos online. She found a teacher with whom she takes a weekly seminar-style class over Zoom, the students uploading photos of their works-in-progress to be critiqued by the group.
Chopp eventually adopted expressive realism as her painting style, and she particularly enjoys practicing the portraiture techniques of the Old Masters, with many glazed layers allowing light to shine through. The mix of technicality and creativity reminds her of the balance she often tried to strike in the classroom. And she’s joked with her art teacher that painting has become her second Ph.D.
Right now, Chopp is working on two paintings — a portrait of a girl sitting in a park, petting her dog, that came from her weekly class, and a landscape of the Colorado sunset that will be a gift to Thibodeau. But she has in mind a magnum opus of sorts, which she’ll soon begin. She plans to paint portraits of her family members and close friends, to place nearby as her memory fades. She’ll write a story about each person to accompany the painting, and eventually, the paintings will be given to the people they show.
That, though, is yet to come.
In her time as a minister, Chopp often officiated at funerals. She’d say, jokingly, that she preferred them to weddings because funerals were more real. They involved more words, in the form of stories told about the person who’d died. Sometimes the stories were not happy ones, as Chopp witnessed while helping one family bury a patriarch who had caused them a lot of pain. But they were real stories, and ones told within the Christian narrative of ongoing life and resurrection.
At the same time, words and stories only go so far. As a theologian, Chopp is all too familiar with the debates about what happens when we die, but to her, those questions are beyond understanding. As a scholar and administrator, she was accustomed to precision, but she also doesn’t see rationality and ambiguity as contradicting one another. Instead, she thinks, they work together.
So it has been in the two and half years since Chopp’s diagnosis. Her symptoms have been minor. She visits her neurologist every four months for a check-in; her cognitive test scores have been stable the last three times she’s taken them. She hasn’t gotten lost since that first day headed to the doctor’s office.
There are small signs. Chopp’s short-term memory isn’t what it once was, and she forgets appointments she used to have no trouble recalling. She’s learned to write plans onto a paper calendar immediately after making them, and to consult the calendar once a day. She’s stopped going to large social gatherings, finding that they require too much energy and focus. And the slight lisp she’s had all her life, a remnant of her childhood speech impediment, is becoming more pronounced.
On the day of her diagnosis, Chopp’s doctor gave her a prescription that began with a simple edict: “Live with joy.” The rhythms of her life are driven by things that fill that prescription, and for Chopp, there’s not much more to want. “I kind of want what I have,” she says — painting, hiking, the company of friends and family who will be there for the long haul.
Chopp is determined to define for herself a new sort of life, one attuned to the needs of her changing condition but not dictated by it. She’s not a fundamentally different person than she was before her diagnosis, because she’s never believed in identity as a fixed concept. In each of her professional roles, she learned new things about herself, met new people, tried new things.
She’s reinvented herself so many times. This, she knows, is one more reinvention.