Lincoln Journal Star
Larry Zitek is talking from a hospital bed on the first floor of his home.
He’s wearing a North Face jacket and black-framed glasses.
He’s lost the vision in his left eye, and the tumor is pressing against his right, blurring his remaining sight.
Hospice started in early June, a year after he sold Bancwise, the real estate company he started in 1999.
He was looking ahead to more golf and more grandbaby time.
He’d just turned 60. He’d gone to Las Vegas and played blackjack. He’d bought a sweet sports car. Planned a trip to Paris with Brenda to celebrate 40 years of marriage.
Larry makes a joke.
“Little change of plans,” he says.
Brenda is in a chair beside the bed, helping Larry tell the story of what happened instead.
Larry’s old friend Phil Perry is here, too. Phil’s wife, Rose, introduced Brenda to Larry when they were just kids out of high school.
And Phil and Rose flew to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston with Brenda and Larry after doctors in Lincoln discovered the brain tumor in late July 2014.
“Doesn’t that seem like a long time ago, Phil?” Brenda asks.
“Years,” Phil answers.
Phil is behind an art show that opens Saturday — a benefit for Larry and Brenda’s vision.
The vision is called the We Care Endowment, a way to help people with devastating diseases. Help them financially, Larry says. Help them spiritually.
The way he and his family were helped.
“Larry has lofty goals for the endowment,” Brenda says. “He wants it to go on long after he’s gone.”
* * *
Larry was playing golf when he had the first seizure.
They came without warning. His eyes seemed to glaze over, and when they ended he talked about the smell, like rotting fruit.
Episodes, they called them, not knowing what they were.
An MRI followed and a biopsy and a diagnosis — grade IV glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor.
The seizures became more frequent and Larry got sicker, and everything became urgent.
Close friends flew them and their two grown daughters to Houston in a private plane — Larry was too sick to fly commercially, too sick to make the long car trip.
They flew the girls back when Larry had surgery a week later.
Brenda’s parents drove a car down for them when the treatment was extended. Another friend found them an apartment in Houston and stocked the kitchen.
When one friend went home, another showed up.
“We were never alone,” Brenda says. “They took care of things for me so I could concentrate on helping Larry.”
“We felt the power of prayer,” says Larry.
The idea for the endowment came to Larry and Brenda then — so far from home yet so surrounded by love.
“There are people who go down to MD Anderson alone,” Brenda says. “And they get on the shuttle alone, and sit in radiation alone, even with a devastating diagnosis.”
Larry has always been a planner, she says. Before he got sick, he was dreaming up a new business. Now he had another dream, a bigger plan.
A way to help patients who weren’t so fortunate. Gas cards, plane tickets, spiritual assistance, whatever was needed, wherever they needed to go for the best care.
“We had every opportunity,” Brenda says. “We don’t want any other family facing a terminal illness to feel like they weren’t able do everything possible.”
When they returned to Lincoln in the fall, Monsignor Liam Barr, a friend and spiritual adviser, introduced them to the new director of the Catholic Foundation of Southern Nebraska.
Chris Raun could help with the details of setting up an endowment. And he knew about their suffering. His son Nathan had a glioblastoma, too. Nathan was 13 when he died in 1998.
What Larry is doing in the midst of his own suffering is a good and generous thing, Raun says.
“Right now, the story is largely about Larry,” Raun said, “but it will soon be about the many people helped by his endowment.”
* * *
A few years ago, Larry gave Brenda an Anne Burkholder painting for Christmas, and they hung it at the top of the stairs.
They have a Larry Roots painting over the fireplace. A Phil Perry painting in the dining room. A Stephen Dinsmore piece in the living room.
Their collection is small, Brenda says, but they like art, and they like supporting local artists.
Last year, Perry opened a small gallery at 47th Street and Prescott Avenue. He opened it up to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Art Department for student shows. He displayed his own work, and that of others.
This month, the gallery is filled with donated art to benefit the endowment. Paintings and pottery and small sculptures and photographs by 17 artists, including Roots and Burkholder and Dinsmore, Keith Jacobshagen, Doug Marx, Ann O’Hara, Pete Pinnell and Susan Puelz.
“We are so humbled by the donations,” Brenda says.
He was happy to help, Dinsmore said from his Maine studio this week. “I’ve met Larry and Brenda a couple of times,” he said, “and they’ve kind of been patrons to me and certainly to other people in the community.”
And, like other artists, he was saddened by their story and impressed by their vision.
“They are certainly not just sitting still and feeling sorry for themselves,” Dinsmore said. “It’s pretty cool.”
* * *
Larry is weak, but he is strong.
He was a mentor to his employees at Bancwise, says his daughter Stacia Zitek Heiser. He was calm when they were stressed, happy for their success, like a proud father.
He’s both driven and kind, says daughter Andrea Lee. Goal-oriented and fun-loving and in love with his grandchildren.
Her husband is a man who gives second and third chances, Brenda says. An entrepreneur who is always looking ahead. A man who loves God, his family and golf.
“I’d like to think in that order,” Brenda says, “but many a family dinner was held up for the conclusion of his golf game.”
Larry didn’t get to golf again after he came home from Houston. The tumor returned. Chemotherapy didn’t slow it.
The Catholic Foundation is spreading the word about the endowment. It is looking for a patient to help.
Larry and Brenda want to help someone. Being Catholic isn’t a requirement; anyone of any faith can apply.
He was never a holy roller, Larry says. But he was faithful, a lifelong Catholic, and his disease brought him closer to God.
He had a vision on that flight to Houston a year ago.
“I saw heaven and met Jesus,” he said. “How’s that for close?”
It gave him comfort, Brenda says. And that comfort has sustained him in all the months that followed.
It sustains him still.
“He got a glimpse,” Brenda says, “and he’s not afraid to die.”