The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 30, 2013

Soldier gives 'last lecture' at alma mater

Lt. Col. Mark Weber, dying of cancer, challenges crowd to stay positive

By Amanda Dyslin
The Free Press

MANKATO — About 900 people had come to see Lt. Col. Mark Weber Wednesday night, some holding tissues and expecting to cry as he recalled the past two years dealing with terminal intestinal cancer.

But Weber's focus was outward, asking the people lined up to meet him how they were doing. And his attitude was incredibly positive. Despite coming back to his alma mater, Minnesota State University, to deliver what he called his "last lecture," Weber's intent was to make people laugh and to challenge them to embrace their opportunities.

"I was really looking forward to this one," said Weber of Rosemount before taking the stage with a smile on his face.

The large crowd in the Centennial Student Ballroom would learn quickly that Weber had not come for an hour of  "woe is me." Instead, he wanted to focus on them.

He said life is unfair and it's often all too tragic, referencing a passage in his book, "Tell My Sons," which he wrote for his three boys after his cancer diagnosis in 2010.

"Now what are you going to do about it?" he said.

Early in his lecture, Weber introduced "Buford" and candid photographs of the havoc it has wreaked on his body. Buford is the name Weber gave to his cancer, and it's the name he gives to any conflict or challenge that might arise in people's lives.

Graphic photographs of Weber's open abdomen, feeding tube, the hole in his stomach that leaks fluids 24/7, and scan images of his liver riddled with large tumors were projected onto the ballroom walls and accompanied by the matter-of-fact news that this will eventually kill him.

But then another photograph flashed overhead: Weber smiling, holding a paint roller, hard at work with others renovating a hospital in Los Angeles just this past weekend.

"This is what I'm doing about it," he said, prompting applause. "How is that for optimism?"

Dying, he said, has given him a "stark clarity of focus," and part of his drive and motivation now is to teach others that much of the unhappiness in life comes from mulling over options you haven't been given.

Happiness is about finding perspective, perseverance, personal courage and proving people wrong when need be.

Weber said his wife, Kristin Coughlan, asked him a couple of years ago why he doesn't get more angry about his diagnosis. He pointed to an article in the paper of a man who hit a deer with his car, and he died instantly.

"No good-byes," he said. No time to make sure his wife and kids know how much he loved them.

"I got that," Weber said.

Finding perspective means learning from others" experiences, he said. And persevering means allowing yourself to take a knee when needed, but making sure to always get back up. But it doesn't necessarily mean always keeping the same goals if life puts up roadblocks.

Weber had always wanted to teach after retiring from the military after 20 years. His terminal cancer diagnosis came in year 16 of service. So instead, he said, he now stands in front of crowds like the one Wednesday night, and he teaches in a different way.

In that way, he said, "I'm living my dream."

The only tears Weber shed during the hour-long lecture was when he spoke of personal courage and looked to his wife in the audience, whom he says doesn't believe him when he tells her how courageous she is. Both of Coughlan's parents have cancer, and her husband is dying of cancer, and yet she still manages to keep everything running for her family.

"The swirling and dizzying reality of that world would put people on their backs," Weber said. "But she gets it all done every day."

Weber ended his talk in a whisper, repeating the words of Death, whom he says he hears all the time these days and is sitting beside each of us.

"Live. Because I am coming."

In the audience, Harlan and Romelle Quast of rural Gaylord said Weber's words were motivational and inspiring. But Harlan wasn't at all surprised by that.

Harlan himself has had health troubles, including an ulcer, two bad knees and a back injury. And he chooses to see life much the same way as Weber does.

"That is the only philosophy," Harlan said. "If you don't have that positive outlook, you've lost before you start."