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Published: Thursday, 7/7/2011

COMMENTARY

What about Bob? A community rallies behind a friend in need

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COMMENTARY WRITER

Bob is blessed. To look at him in his wheelchair, you might make other assumptions. But the 55-year-old Sandusky man, who is battling esophageal cancer, has more going for him than most of us ever will.

Bob has the unbridled affection of his hometown. His small community is overrun by tourists. But beyond those who come to town to visit Cedar Point, Lake Erie, waterparks, and hotels is a solid core of locals.

They know pretty much everyone from school, work, or church. Hidden from vacationing transients is a hardscrabble place where middle-class neighborhoods hang tough and people pull together in a pinch.

It's where Bob grew up, where he raised two boys with his wife, Sandy, and where he worked for decades downtown at a family title company. When the kids were young, he threw himself into coaching, Scouting, karate, and, especially, roller coasters.

He worked summers at Cedar Point during college, and never outgrew the thrill of being there as an adult. It provided respite from crunching numbers, closing deals, and keeping Dad happy.

The self-employed businessman lives to cut loose from the serious. He has a dry wit, a passion for history, an appreciation of good beer, and a proclivity for telling bad jokes.

But cruel fate caught him off guard. He was diagnosed with an aggressive type of cancer last December.

Someone who had never been seriously ill or spent a day in a hospital was suddenly thrust into the purgatory of cancer patients, where nobody wants to be.

But folks do what needs to be done. They hope to leave the chemotherapy, radiation, and punishing side effects of treatment as soon as possible to rejoin the cancer-free world. Still, it's a gamble and the odds of winning aren't great.

Yet Bob, whose mother died of cancer in February, soldiers on through an exhausting regimen of doctors' appointments, procedures, pain, and setbacks. His hair is thin, his body a shadow of its old self. His only escape from reality is sleep.

His wife, who is on unpaid family leave from work to care for him full-time, manages the stress, uncertainty, and medical costs that soared past sticker shock months ago. But there is good news; last week Bob had his best day since cancer interrupted his life.

His community came through for him. I didn't know what to expect from the flyer announcing a fund-raiser to help defray Bob's expenses, but the response floored me.

The outpouring of support and friendship was astounding. In a huge hall, donated by the Sandusky Elks, several hundred people came to eat, drink, buy baked goods, bid in auctions, and be entertained to help ease a buddy's awful burden.

Boisterous and bustling, they came from all over town, members of his loyal church, the Rotary, Masons, and other groups and establishments that go way back with Bob and his family. At times, crowds waiting to buy fund-raising tickets spilled out into the street.

Inside, the guest of honor sat at the end of a table holding court in his wheelchair and baseball cap. Rather than attempt to be heard with the whisper his voice has become, Bob scribbled notes nonstop to people who pressed around him, laughing, reminiscing, hugging.

They weren't medical specialists or miracle workers -- just neighbors, colleagues, and lifelong friends who had to do something for a nice guy with a funny quip who is fighting for his life. They can't jump through insurance hoops for him, or control mounting out-of-pocket debt that would put many in the poorhouse.

But they could raise $10,000 for him, $600 of that just from home-baked goods, to show him they care and to restore faith that community means you're not alone, no matter how scary the struggle. That generosity of spirit, so uniquely American, is an elixir as potent as any drug.

The proof was watching Bob pumping his fist in time with the music while he wheeled himself down an aisle filled with familiar, smiling souls brimming with compassion.

For one glorious night, he wasn't a cancer patient. He was Bob Flittner, a man who is blessed more than most with friends who feel love and respond in kind.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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