As one who knows full well how life can change on a dime, Stewart Franke jumped at the chance to help a friend in similar straits.
“You’re living your life one day and the next, that life just completely disappears,” said the musician and author who stared down his own mortality in 1998 when he was diagnosed with leukemia and had a bone marrow transplant.
So when Franke heard that childhood friend Mary Prygoski might lose her newly retrofitted handicapped accessible home where she cares for her husband, Franke posted a plea for help on Facebook.
“Mary has an amazing attitude,” he said. “And this just can’t happen. We’ve got to take care of each other.”
Mary’s husband, Phil Prygoski, was teaching his constitutional law class at the Ann Arbor campus of Cooley Law School on March 21, 2012, when he suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke. He was in a coma for 51/2 weeks and the tragedy left him with serious and irreversible cognitive and physical damage.
“Mary is with him 24/7,” says Mark Burzych, a family friend and next door neighbor in Okemos for 21 years. “We see what she does for him day in, day out and it is overwhelming. She will not allow him to be institutionalized.”
Phil Prygoski, 67, is one of the country’s most respected constitutional teachers. A former administrative law judge for the State of Michigan Board of Licensing and Regulation, he taught constitutional law at Cooley for 35 years.
While he amassed countless teaching awards (in 2011 he was named one of the 26 nation’s best law professors in a Harvard University Press study, “What the Best Law Teachers Do”) probably the most cherished accolade is the Stanley E. Beattie Teaching Award. Each year, the graduating class votes on their favorite law professor; Prygoski won it an astonishing 34 times.
As a professor, Prygoski was the rare authority figure who fostered both respect and compassion. Asked about effectiveness in a teacher, he said: “I think the ability of the student to empathize with the teachers, with the other people in the room, with the people in the cases that we’re talking about, [and with] clients, I think that’s very, very important.”
One of his students who was quoted in the Harvard University Press study said: “For somebody who’s been doing this thirty, thirty-five, maybe forty years, for him to still love that process, I’ve got to love that process too. Because if it still excites him after that long, I want it to still excite me after that long.”
The ripple effect of the stroke has changed many lives. Mary, his wife of 30 years, quit practicing law to take care of him. Their three kids – two are students at Cooley Law school, the oldest is a mechanical engineer – dropped what they were doing to help out.
Almost immediately, support from extended family, friends, their church family and the community came pouring in. Proceeds from a “Run 4 Phil” allowed them to purchase a wheelchair van. There was a golf outing, a donation-based yoga class, a benefit concert with local bands. Even the local Dairy Queen hosted an event: “Eat Ice Cream 4 Phil.” All combined, the funds allowed Mary to pay for continued physical therapy, and a remodel of the first floor bathroom to make it handicap accessible.
But then, the bottom fell out. As Burzych, who is also an attorney, succinctly put it: “Through circumstances beyond their control, Phil lost his salary and his health benefits.”
Recently, at a neighborhood “Moms Night Out,” Mary confided to Burzych’s wife, Kim, that she and Phil could no longer afford to live in the house and they were going to have to move. Where, she did not know. When Kim got home, she and Mark immediately contacted Robert Wolfe, the founder of the charitable donation site Crowdrise (he also founded Moosejaw Mountaineering) and set up a fundraiser with the goal of paying off the remainder of Prygoski’s mortgage. (https://www.crowdrise.com/PrygoskiFamily)
“We just want her to be able to focus on Phil and not worry about losing the house,” said Burzych. “We also know that Phil touched thousands of students over his teaching career and if they knew about this, they would want to help.”
It took some time for Mary to be on board with the fundraiser. “She was very hesitant,” Burzych said. “She would never ask for help on her own.”
It is also worth noting that in the retelling of this, Mark Burzych’s voice breaks. “This woman’s perseverance, determination, devotion, commitment to her marriage and to her family is nothing short of extraordinary,” he said. “If we can help her and Phil, it really is a no-brainer.”
Especially since, “You never know what might happen,” Burzych said. “In literally the snap of a finger, your world can get turned upside down.”