Jeff Wagner: Profile in Courage

Saturday, April 26, 2003 - by J.C. Bowman
Jeff Wagner and fiancee Kim Lee
Jeff Wagner and fiancee Kim Lee

Leukemia. The word pierced my senses and just kept ringing in my ear. Then I found myself choking back tears. On April 12, 2003, my longtime friend, Jeff Wagner, had just confided to me news I did not want to hear. He had leukemia.

Our friendship had only strengthened over the years. We were classmates at Cleveland Junior High and then at Cleveland High in Cleveland, Tenn. Who does not remember the legendary class of 1981? Jeff and I had kept in touch throughout the years, even after he moved to the Tampa area right out of high school.

He became a dedicated Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan. In fact, Jeff was at the Super Bowl in San Diego this year to watch his beloved Buc's clinch the NFL Championship. He even flew back with the quarterback. Everyone promises they will keep in touch, but Jeff and I kept our word to each other. Last year, we caught a Tampa Bay Devil Ray's Game together (which speaks volumes about male bonding). We were both riding high. I worked for the governor, and he was entertaining me in his company box as a big executive.

True friendship and brotherhood between two men can still occur in today's society. I know American culture has created the false impression that masculinity means dependence on no one else. I know Clint Eastwood usually rode alone. Superman did not need an assistant, and James Bond certainly had no use for a partner - at least a male partner. But as John Donne reminded us, "No man is an island unto himself." We all need other people in our lives.

At the baseball game, we were joined by the love of Jeff's life, Kim Lee. Jeff had been a bachelor for so long, I had given up hope for him finding anyone, but he found a wonderful woman. She was the woman of his dreams, and they quickly fell in love. They are getting married. They are supposed to live happily after ever, at least that is how the fairy tale goes.

Jeff has been diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). Leukemia is a blood cancer, and there is not really any direct cause of the disease. Most likely it is a combination of genetics, environmental factors, and other factors. The condition is usually seen in children and brings with it a treatment of chemotherapy and possibly even a bone marrow transplant. Fortunately the survival rate is high. But there is no guarantee.

Jeff Wagner has the heart of a lion. He started competing in triathlons after high school and is in amazing shape. He also has strong religious beliefs. All this will be tested, as he begins his battle. I called him to see how he was doing. He was tired from the treatment and had been in and out of the hospital. I told him I had not shared his illness with anyone, and he said "J. C., share it with everybody, I need their prayers. " He does not realize how many people I know.

Most people only take action when it affects them personally. I guess I am no different. Educating yourself about an illness and its probable course will make you more of an understanding listener when a sick friend needs to talk. If you want additional information on ALL Leukemia, here are some great websites to visit: www.cancer.gov/cancerinfo; www.marrow.org; and www.leukemia.org.

Perhaps the greatest gift you can give a sick friend is the mere gift of your presence. Just simply knowing they are loved and appreciated makes an impact. If you are going to fight, you need something to fight for!

I am asking readers, Jeff's friends, and fellow CHS alumni to contact Jeff and let him know he is not forgotten. It takes mere minutes to write a note or an email for encouragement.

Jeff's email is jeff@wagnerlee.com the website is http://www.wagnerlee.com. I ask that you remember Jeff in prayer. Next year he will get married, knowing Jeff he will invite the world.

(J.C. Bowman is 1981 graduate of Cleveland High School and is married to fellow 1981 classmate Bethany O'Bannon Bowman.)

Jeff and his dog, Dixie, at parade
Jeff and his dog, Dixie, at parade

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