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In this speech, I explain how I gain a sense of purpose after my cancer diagnosis followed by the birth of my son Alex and my alumni experience at University School.
Thanks, Kevin, thanks Gregory. I asked Greg and Kevin to help me tonight for several reasons. We three enrolled at US the same year entering the sixth grade together.
The Hunting Valley campus had just been built and while my parents never said anything the implication was that U.S. would be lowering their admissions standards to increase the size of the student body so it was a good time to apply for admission. Secondly, the three of us are very different people who represent different aspects of our class. And thirdly, I consider Greg and Kevin to be two of my oldest and dearest friends.
When Chris Smythe and Scott Seelbach told me that I was chosen as Alumni Man of the Year I found myself scratching my head. I’m not a CEO/captain-of-industry type like Dave Fulton or Marc Byrnes- I’m not an alumnus, turned professional, turned teacher/administrator like Dick Parke or Don Molton so why am I being honored?
Over the past twenty or so years, I’ve become pretty involved with my class. And it turns out that my class, the class of 1978, is very supportive of U.S. in just about every possible way. The class of ’78 is involved in the school’s leadership, faculty, and financial support to name a few essential areas.
It begs the question then, did I inspire my class or did my class inspire me to become more involved with University School? By being honored as this year’s Alumni Man of the Year I have to wonder if someone at U.S. thought that I inspire my class to greater levels of alumni involvement. But I have a confession to make… University School and my class are the reason I’m heretonight.
Let me explain.
As some of you know I moved back to Cleveland in the late ’80’s. I was working hard at the family business, I was young and single and life was good.
My idea of alumni involvement at that point in my life was playing basketball on Thursday nights with George Richards and a motley crew of alumni round ballers. I had a great time mainly because I could run faster and jump higher than George and the other alumni misfits.
In early 1994, at the age of 34, I was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer called multiple myeloma. Not to be confused withMelanoma, which is skin cancer. In the time it took my doctor to say three little words “you have cancer” my life changed forever.
Gone was the young single life. Gone was my career. The next five years were a blur of surgeries, chemotherapies, radiation, remissions, and relapses.
Someday I’m going to write a book about what it’s like to live with incurable cancer. Ironically it’s not the physical short, long-term and late-stage side effects that caused the most problems for me. Looking back I believe that the real damage done by my oncologist telling me that my cancer was incurable were the psychological challenges that I struggled with.
I don’t mean to minimize the physical challenges of radiation, chemotherapy and my bone marrow transplant. These therapies are every bit as grueling as you’ve heard they are. Over the course of my chemotherapy fueled remissions and relapses I lost all sense of purpose, all sense of direction. In 1994 at the age of 34, I became a man without a future.
As dark as the last six years of the twentieth century were for me, the first four years of the twenty-first century were enlightening.
From the year 2000 through the year 2004 I had three life changing experiences that filled me with a sense of purpose.
In 2001, my old track coach, Rolin DeVere asked me to help coach the track team. Over the course of one indoor track season and two outdoor seasons I learned three things about coaching:
First, I learned that during the season, coaches work long hours often six days a week- second, I learned that coaches are paid next to nothing and third, and most importantly, I learned that coaches can directly impact the growth and character of US’s students.
At the ripe old age of 41, I glimpsed University School shaping young men.
In 2003, my class celebrated its 25 year reunion. While a person’s 25th high school reunion is a time to re-connect with old classmates and regale each other with tall tails of family and career accomplishments, all I could think about were my operations, scars and how miserable my side effects made me feel.
In 1997 I had undergone a controversial cancer therapy that had taken me from end-stage cancer to complete remission. While I was thankful that my cancer was in remission, I couldn’t believe that a “quack” cancer therapy could work for me and I lived in fear that I would relapse. Further, my long-term side effects such as radiation damage, chemobrain and bladder damage where a growing problem for me.
Who wants to go to his 25 year class reunion and listen to a 43 year old classmate complain about his health???
In spite of my depression, my 25 year reunion was a welcome respite for me. Email had become a common tool used among my classmates and I was just beginning to play the role of the class electronic pied-piper. In my emails to my classmates, I was learning to use my cancer as a sort of foil.
Further, I was feeling comfortable with the dark humor I use as a coping mechanism. I realized that I felt comfortable telling this specific group of people almost anything. I had known all of my classmates since adolescence and many since childhood. My class was helping me develop a basic understanding of what is commonly referred to as “mind-body” therapy. There are many people today who consider mind-body therapies to more effective than chemotherapy and radiation.
There was no way of really knowing who was coming to our 25th heading into reunion weekend. But low and behold, 52 of the 94 of us who graduated in 1978 made it to reunion. I was thrilled. I felt that my efforts, in some small way, had compelled 52 classmates to join together to laugh and remember our high school days.
My 25th reunion planted the idea in my head that the Internet could provide a platform to communicate with, educate and support cancer patients, survivors and caregivers the world over.
Shortly after our 25th reunion, I joined a few guys at a classmate’s little brother’s house. Bill Champ runs the summer camp at the lower school and is the younger brother of my former classmate Sterling Champ. Because I sold the family business, Emerson Press, in 1995 shortly after my cancer diagnosis, I hadn’t worked a day in the previous eight years. While at Bill Champ’s house I turned to Sterling and proudly announced that I planned to launch a 501C3 non-profit organization. I had no mission statement and I really hadn’t worked out a business plan but my class’ enthusiastic participation in our 25th reunion hinted at the power of what we today call social networking and that was enough to get me planning.
After the gathering that night a couple of weeks went by and four envelopes arrived in my mail box. Sterling took it upon himself to contact three other classmates to help me launch the Galen Foundation DBA PeopleBeatingCancer. Sterling, Bill Matthes, Doug Rotatori and Geoff Tickner each sent me checks –without being – asked.
All I could think of was how easy fundraising was…It was extremely gratifying to me that these former classmates chose to support me financially without really knowing what I was planning to do.
In four short years, from 2000 to 2004 I went from a man with no future to a man with a vision and a purpose.
While my class was central to sparking my alumni involvement as well as launching my online cancer non-profit, what really sealed the deal for me as a U.S. Alumni ………was becoming a U.S. parent.
In 2008, my wife Dawn and I enrolled our son Alex in the fourth grade at U.S. From Ms. Rohler and Mr. Parke in the fourth grade up through Mr. O in eight grade through Ms. Coy, Mr. Lewis, Dr. Fallon and Mr. Paik in high school, parenting a U.S. student solidified what took me 40 plus years to understand. University School taught me and my son critical, independent thinking.
From 1978 through Alex’s graduation in 2017 I grew from student to alumnus to U.S. parent. A sort of Prepper Trifecta.
Being a US parent is every bit as gratifying as being a U.S. alum. There is nothing more special than your son being inspired by his eighth grade English teacher. Especially when that English teacher is also a former classmate. I knew Mr. O (aka Charlie Oberndorf) was doing a great job teaching my son when one night at the dinner table, Alex corrected my grammar.
As the saying goes, the rest is history. Now that the class of ’78 has been at it for awhile, organizing anything involving my class, from phonathons, to reunions, to poker games, is as simple as emailing the local or national list and my classmates step right up.
Everything we do as a class is a team effort.
Yes, my cancer changed everything for me. I miss running rings around George and the other alumni hoopsters. But I’ve gained a sense of purpose that I never would have glimpsed otherwise. I’ve developed a relationship with my class that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve developed a relationship with the Galen Foundation board chairs Diane Singer and Charlie Lougheed that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve even developed a deeper relationship with my wife Dawn and my son Alex that I would not have were it not for my cancer.
When I was first diagnosed the average life-expectancy of a person with my type of cancer was about 5 years. I have been living with multiple myeloma for more than 24 years.
So I ask you, is the class of ’78 the reason I’m here tonight?
Thank you all very much.