Remembering Mike Schwartz: a 2010 article and his Relay kickoff speech
Culver Community High School teacher and Business Professionals of America sponsor Mike Schwartz died Saturday following a lengthy battle with cancer. What follows is the text of a story on Mike from the January 14, 2010 edition of the Culver Citizen. Following that are excerpts from Mike's speech to CCHS students as part of a Relay for Life kickoff event in early 2010.
When Culver Community High School teacher Mike Schwartz learned recently doctors had found melanoma spots on his lungs and he’d soon be starting chemo therapy, he understandably began to focus on his worries.
“I was worrying about what I would miss being gone,” he says, “and how would my family deal with things. One of my big inspirations is to be around for my one-year-old grandson.”
But, he says, he heard a saying then that stuck with him: “You can’t change the past, but you can ruin a perfectly good present by worrying
about the future.”
Schwartz, in his 34th year teaching at the school and 19th leading the school’s highly successful Business Professionals of America program, adopted the attitude suggested in that saying and began to focus on
the moment, particularly within the context of his Christian faith.
“Through this whole experience my faith has given me such a peace that, other than two days I felt sorry for myself, I can’t say I feel 100 percent great all the time, but I don’t feel bad as I could.”
Schwartz’s faith shines through, too, in the emails he began sending friends and family this past fall as updates on his condition. As people have shared his emails, he says, he’s learned a vast network of
people are not only praying for him and supporting him – he figures this includes people in at least 20 different states and of various religious backgrounds including the Jewish faith -- but in many cases seem
inspired and supported by the words in his missives and attitude they convey.
“The things I write in my emails I’ve been told are inspirational -- I really am just writing down things that I’ve read in books and magazines! But I’ve even had people with depression say it’s helped them.”
It should come as no surprise that Mike Schwartz’s attitude inspires others. In his years of teaching, he’s inspired scores of students, not least the members of BPA who have gone on to compete and take top ranking at the national level while representing CCHS. Schwartz grew up in the small town of Uniondale, Indiana, near Fort Wayne thinking he wanted to be a band director, though he says “taking music theory
class in high school was enough to convince me otherwise!”
As is the case today, jobs were scarce in the early 1970s, so Schwartz decided a background in business might open a few more doors than music. Schwartz eventually took a job at the recently-built Culver Community High School, meeting future wife Donna who, along with Schwartz himself, was part of a group of nine teachers newly hired into the school (within about five years, says Schwartz, the other seven
were gone). It’s a “unique feeling,” he notes, to “be the old guard as compared to a new, young teacher.”
In his three decades at CCHS, Schwartz has had successful experiences as a class sponsor, coaching volleyball, directing plays and musicals, and more recently with BPA. He says there are a number of past
students from those groups who even today keep in contact with him, and especially in the past three or four months, often via email and Facebook.
“What I’ve found over those years, even now, is I guess you know you’ve earned a kid’s respect when 30 years later they still have a difficult time calling you by your first name!” smiles Schwartz.
Early in his CCHS career, then-22 year old Schwartz was asked by the late John Nelson to begin what would be his 34 years as announcer for the boy’s basketball games, at which many have grown accustomed to hearing his deep bass voice. He also announced Culver football games for the first ten years of his career, with wife Donna assisting with running the scoreboard.
All of his teaching at Culver has been in the area of business, though he’s had to transition, of course, from teaching on typewriters to spending most of his day working with computers.
“My philosophy has been to try to teach kids skills that can be useful in their future, and in business it’s more of a hands-on thing. What I see about my subject, unlike all the other subjects, is that through technology I’m forced to keep up to date. With (some subjects) there’s new (information) added on, but you don’t have to learn new skills.”
Seeing students’ success, he says, especially in extracurricular activities, “is a reward in itself. Schwartz, who with Donna has seen a second generation of their students and is approaching a third, says he chose to stay at CCHS in spite of opportunities to teach elsewhere, including his old high school.
“What I’ve found here (at Culver) is the entire community is so supportive and warm and friendly and our staff is so close, and talking to other people I realize that what Culver has to offer sometimes is much better than what you’d find in some bigger schools.”
Certainly community support has aided in the success of Culver’s BPA program, he says, in which he became involved because of the death – ironically, he notes, due to cancer -- of former CCHS teacher Shirley Slyh. When Schwartz first began taking students to BPA contests “and spending long, tiring days (in which) we weren’t having kids place (at competitions), about the fourth year I was beginning to wonder if it was worth my while!”
But in Schwartz’s fifth year Jessica Moore Ringer became CCHS’ first student to make it to the state level BPA competition. The very next year, 1997, the school suddenly had two people qualify to go to the BPA Nationals. This was followed in 1999 with one more student at nationals. After another five dry years, Culver’s BPA group started a regular pattern of making it to nationals, something repeated for the past six consecutive years, four of which included students placing at the national contest, quite a feat for a school Culver’s size up against the best and brightest in the entire United States.
“You’d be surprised,” says Schwartz. “Some larger schools’ BPA chapters just don’t have the success we do. The fact that we’ve been in close to around 30 numbers in BPA for the last three years in a row, I think
that’s a testament to the success we’ve had. “
Besides his nearly two decades with Culver’s BPA, Schwartz is in his seventh year on the Staet Executive Board of the organization. He says that involvement has led to a number of offers from an extensive network of business teachers all over the state offering to help with CCHS’ BPA chapter in any way they can, since his illness has become known.
“It’s so nice to know they think that highly of us they would be willing to do that,” he adds. “People look at the success of BPA and I get lot of credit for that, but if I didn’t have the students who were motivated to do their best, we wouldn’t have been successful,”
Schwartz notes, adding thanks to the people and businesses in the Culver community who have been generous in helping the group’s trips possible, especially to out-of-state national competitions. Many may also remember him, adds Schwartz, from his 12 years off and on working with the Maxinkuckee Players theater group. He says the time commitment necessary for summer theater became difficult, and in the years since, he’s gained a passion for spending a few weeks each summer with Group Publishing work camps, in which 12 to 15 youth groups from around the nation travel for a week to work on the homes of people whose health or finances are a hindrance.
The work camps have taken him to other states such as Kentucky, Oklahoma, and New York, and it’s on one of those trips recently that Schwartz discovered a lump on his back which turned out to be a malignant melanoma, commonly known as skin cancer.
Initially, doctors had diagnosed him with the disease in 2006, which led to two surgeries and a year of treatment with Interferon, consisting primarily of three shots per week aimed at building back white blood cells in the body. The treatment causes many patients to feel flu-lie symptoms of achiness and the like, but Schwartz managed to teach the entire year save for three sick days. “I had a lot of doctors and nurses, when they find out I was on (Interferon), are shocked I made it through the whole program.”
In September, the golfball sized tumor Schwartz had discovered at a work camp in New York was removed via an operation, but it was found the cancer had gone into his lymph system, which led to the subsequent removal of 20 lymph nodes from his neck.
After his second surgery, doctors at the University of Michigan found Schwartz still wasn’t totally clean of cancer, and a CT scan and MRI led to the discovery of spots on his lungs.
Schwartz says he doesn’t know how many cycles of chemo therapy he’ll have; currently he undergoes three weekly treatments per month. He was able to be placed in a clinical study operated by the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University,and others, so the chemo is provided and his results will benefit others (though he says the downside is a monthly removal of 13 vials of his blood for testing!).
Schwartz seems almost surprised to note he officially has stage four cancer now, though he’s saying so from his classroom at CCHS, to whch he’s been able to return for half-days now. He misses being there to work daily with BPA students, though he “can’t say enough good things” about Culver Elementary teacher Alicia Toll, who has helped out with BPA and attended fundraisers the group sponsors. And he’s tended to see the positive side of things, such as being able to catch all the baseball playoff games he would have missed at home thanks to the cable television package available at the St. Joseph hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
And those emails of hiscontinue to garner a flood of responses from a vast network of people.
“Those that have been through something (like a serious illness) really all are very supportive of each other,” says Schwartz. He draws inspiration from Culver’s Karen Easterday, a cancer survivor herself who Schwartz says “has been through her own (health) battles recently. “She says to stay strong and stay focused on the positive. The other thing I’ve found is that people who are deep rooted in God are taking things a whole lot better than those that don’t have that.”
One of those people undoubtedly is Lynne Obrien, the wife of Schwartz’s pastor at Trinity Methodist Church in Plymouth. “My minister’s wife is a prayer warrior who decided since everyone else is praying for my healing -- she is, too -- but she’s also praying my taste buds aren’t affected by the chemo therapy!”
So far, smiles Schwartz, her prayers have been answered.
Excerpts from Mike's speech to CCHS students as part of a Relay for Life kickoff event in early 2010:
As most of you know, I am currently being treated for Stage IV Malignant Melanoma. I thought 3 years ago when we had our first kick off for Relay for Life, that I’d make my survivor speech, and then stay in remission, and be happy to just survive. But that was not to be.
Through a peace given to me only by God, I do not worry, have fear, suffer, or lose sleep over it! From day one, my philosophy has been that you can’t change the past, but you can certainly ruin a perfectly good day by worrying about the future.” My oncologist keeps telling me “take it one day at a time.” And he is so right.
How do I know God is working in my life? After the first surgery, they put me in ICU. As expected I felt like a Mac truck had hit me. But God provided me with cable TV in the ICU. There, coming in and out of consciousness, I watched the baseball playoffs. One would have thought that I’d be knocked out for the night.
Since then, people say how good I look, especially now that I’m on chemo. And thank God for friends like that.
I don’t want to talk about all the negative effects that cancer can do to a person. Just go to the hospital and visit the oncology ward and you’ll see enough. I sat there Monday for 6 hours, and kept seeing person after person that I know that is under treatment. Instead I want to leave you with some things that I’ve learned and you can apply to your life, too.
1) I’ve learned patience. In lines, at the doctor’s office, at the pharmacy! Waiting is a gift! You will learn that or you will drive yourself crazy! The day I went in for my first chemo treatment, it got pushed back a day. I could have been mad about it, but it provided me a full day of playing with my little grandson, it allowed me one more day of healing from my second surgery. And my surgeon gave me a thumbs up to begin taking showers after not being able to for a month!
2) No matter how bad something gets, I believe that something good can come out of it!
3) Lots of people have dealt with far worse than me, and they can teach me a lot about dealing with difficulty! And my mission is to pay it forward. And there is always someone out there worse off than you!
4) You can’t live just hoping for another day, another hour, another year. You can’t stay in survival mode.” You can’t just hold on! Relay for Life survivors shouldn’t be wearing shirts to say, “Survivor” They should say “Conqueror!” Back in the fall when I was first diagnosed again, my comment was I’m undefeated with cancer, and I want to keep it that way.”
I will not just survive. I will thrive. If you expect less, you will get less. I want to expect more! Don’t dwell on your problems. I’m too blessed to be stressed.
5) Don’t use your energy to worry. Use your energy to believe. Worrying is contagious. Negativity is catching. If you are around people who are always complaining, discouraged, and downhearted, your spirits will be brought down to.
Surround yourself with friends, prayer warriors, to keep you positive. I now send out an email to over 135 people about once a week. And that email is then forwarded to hundreds and thousands more. I know of it reaching at least 20 different states.
6) Make a list of what you are thankful for, and then thank those people for providing you with whatever it is!
7) Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Swallow your pride!
I’m blessed to be alive. I’m blessed to teach at Culver Community High School, and to know and work with all of you. My wife and I have received so many emails, cards, encouraging comments, and acts of kindness. I feel like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life."