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Mobilizing an army of givers touched by cancer

April 28, 2005

Gary Fialky is talking about his mother. He has a voice that is all rocks and gravel. Estelle Fialky has been dead almost 15 years, but when her only child speaks of her, he brings her vividly into focus. She had a great sense of humor, played mah-jongg, read a book a week, was a prolific knitter. And she never gave up on her son. “I was no box of cookies,” Gary says. I laugh. I have never heard that expression. “I was no box of cookies,” Gary repeats. “I was far from a perfect kid.”

This son of Forest Park, of Dorset Street, doesn’t elaborate. He’s 63, a father himself, a partner at Springfield’s Bacon & Wilson law firm. Business and banking his specialty. “She was a great lady,” Gary says of his mother, a sales clerk at a string of local but now defunct clothing stores, and always active at B’nai Jacob Synagogue. “Generous, kind, patient. Full of life. She looked out for me. I mean really looked out for me.”

It was her knitting that hinted that something was wrong. Estelle had started making mistakes she never had made mistakes working with yarn. A co-worker of Gary’s father, Paul, gave him the initial heads up. Paul Fialky worked 35 years at Yale-Genton, the West Springfield clothing store. One of Paul’s friends ran into Gary. He asked: “How’s mom doing? Dad says she’s not doing so well.” Gary didn’t know anything about that. “Pop,” he recalls saying, “You gotta tell me.” What Paul Fialky had to say wasn’t good news: add memory loss to the knitting mistakes. A doctor’s visit gave it a name: Brain Cancer.

Estelle underwent surgery, then endured seven weeks of five-day-a-week radiation. Every day of her treatment she received a ride to the hospital from a stranger – someone from the American Cancer Society. Her son, touched by this, wanted to cut somebody a check. The local chapter of the American Cancer Society told Gary Fialky the rides were provided by volunteers. He couldn’t help be impressed. He cut a check anyway.

When, because of the radiation, Estelle lost her hair, she was provided a wig by a salon in Chicopee. Her son wanted to cut another check. “I was told ‘No, no, no,’ there was a fund,” Gary recalls. “A fund? They thought of this? I guess you find out only when cancer knocks at your door. I mean, how couldn’t I write a check to the American Cancer Society? It was the least I could do.”

Seven months after her diagnosis, Estelle Fialky, 73, died. “She was my best friend,” her son says. “Cancer turned her into someone you could hardly recognize.” Not long after his mother’s death, a friend asked Gary to be part of the American Cancer Society’s annual jail-and-bail fund-raiser. While in “jail” Gary was asked to call as many friends as possible to raise money for his “bail.” In 20 minutes, he set some kind of record. He doesn’t remember the exact total, but he remembers getting a certificate. It was the start of his association with the American Cancer Society.

Twelve years ago, Gary had a hand in bringing the 24-hour Relay for Life fund-raiser to New England. “We got the idea from Seattle,” he recalls. “Did I know that it was going to take off like it did? No. But people want to do something. They don’t want to sit on the sidelines when cancer touches a loved one. I understand that.”

Gary also helped launch the first local recognition dinner for the American Cancer Society. The first year, the society recognized Dr. Omar Pace, a cancer specialist at Baystate Medical Center. “When you realize what this man did,” Gary says, “He was a cancer surgeon, who trained cancer doctors. Well, we ended up naming the annual recognition dinner after Dr. Pace. He would show up and present the awards until his death a couple of years ago.”

The thirteenth annual Pace recognition dinner is set for May 7 at The Basketball Hall of Fame. “We’ll sell our share of tickets,” Gary promises. “Why? Name somebody who hasn’t been touched by this insidious disease?” Gary was. Her name was Estelle. Written by: Tom Shea for
The Republican Reprinted by permission.

by: Tom Shea

The Republican


Photo - Gary L. Fialky
Gary L. Fialky