The journey for one German lady from a post-World War II Russian internment camp to Geneva, Ill., was a long one. But Christl Weis Burgess made that eventful journey, touching many along the way with her grace, charm and indomitable spirit. Jack, her husband for 51 years, recently created the Christl Burgess Memorial Endowment Fund for Early Detection, Treatment and Research of Ovarian Cancer to honor his late wife.
A woman who ate right, didn’t drink or smoke, swam and walked almost daily, Christl Burgess was in good health and was the last person her family expected to have to confront cancer. Together with them, however, she battled the disease for more than seven years, through remission and recurrence.
“She was a fighter” said Ronald Potkul, MD, who managed Christl’s care, “but she was always smiling and appreciated everything people did for her.”
“The support she got helped her deal with her disease,” added Kathleen Bettis, RN, nurse coordinator, who came to know Christl well. Through it all, her family said, she never thought of herself as a victim. She often expressed concern for those younger than she undergoing chemotherapy and even said to her children during her own, “I’m glad it is me, not you.”
“We found the right place,” Mitzi Burgess Weiss said of their eventual choice to seek treatment for her mother at Loyola’s Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center (CBCC) under Dr. Potkul’s guidance. “With cancer, you need to be at a place like Loyola, where all the resources are first-rate,” added Jack. And son Tom noted “We all become soldiers when going through this. What you need is information.” Each expressed gratitude that Christl was given the chance to participate in a clinical trial of a cancer vaccine at the CBCC, and they are interested in seeing the new endowment used to promote earlier detection and advance vaccine studies. “Ovarian cancer hides very well from the immune system,” said Dr. Potkul, “so while we can often get it into remission, currently there’s a 75 percent recurrence rate. That is where a vaccine comes into use and where more research is needed.”
Christl was a woman of strong faith who loved people, gardening and her many pets. A photographer by profession, she left the family with a lifetime of pictures. She and Jack lived for more than 50 years in the same house in Geneva, the town where he had grown up. For many of those years, she and the children sold Christmas trees grown at their Wisconsin farm from their front yard, and Jack worked as plant engineer at Burgess-Norton (BN), the business his grandfather had started in 1903. It was Jack’s family business, in some ways, that had brought the couple together.
BN, as it is known today, is still the world’s largest supplier of piston pins for the truck, tractor and heavy equipment industry. When a steel strike in 1959 forced the company to look for this critical material abroad, Jack went to Europe in search of it. While there, he took the opportunity to look up “a young fräulein” he had met at a camera store in 1953 when stationed in Munich with the U.S. Army. At that point, memories of the war and their years in interment camps before being displaced to Germany were painfully fresh and Christl’s father wouldn’t let her date anyone in uniform. But after six years, he relented. At dinner under a chestnut tree, Jack recalled, “I asked her if she’d marry me if I returned by Easter. She said ‘yes’ and we were married in Fraunau in 1960.”
For Jack and his children, wonderful memories help fuel their determination to help others find ways to fight the disease that claimed Christl’s life. It’s a battle she herself led, telling Dr. Potkul at the start of her vaccine trial “My body’s yours—do whatever you need to do to find out how to help other people with this disease.”
For more information about supporting critical research projects at Loyola, contact the Office of Development at (708) 216-3201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.