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Students in teacher Carrie Kronen’s psychology and world geography classes at MACCRAY High School listen as Minnesota National Guard Lt. Col. Mark Weber explains his health conditions and talks to them about facing life’s challenges. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

Terminally ill speaker offers regional students advice for living

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CLARA CITY — Mark Weber has named his cancer Buford, and Buford is one big, nasty fella.

But before a liver stuffed with tumors can take his life, Weber is making the most of it.

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The Army lieutenant colonel, now serving with the Minnesota National Guard, has written a book, “Tell My Sons,” and speaks with young people about dealing with life’s challenges.

In summer 2010, in the space of two weeks, Weber went from getting a job offer from Gen. David Petraeus to serve with him in Afghanistan to being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Thursday, he spoke with area students in a live videoconference.

As students from the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart and MACCRAY school districts listened intently as he told them about his cancer, complete with X-rays and photos. He was honest with them students about his prognosis and told them that doctors believe the cancer will end his life.

Weber used jokes, family stories and references from the news to tell the students the story of him, his wife and their three sons.

While his Buford is one of the biggest around, he said, “Buford is really just a name for hardship; you all have Bufords in your life.”

For teenagers, Buford often can be a social situation, like bullying or relationship troubles.

It can be family issues or a problem in school.

 “If you haven’t been told this, or you haven’t realized this, life isn’t going to go the way you want it to,” Weber said. What’s important, he told them, is how they respond when things don’t go the way they planned.

He offered four recommendations for dealing with life’s unexpected course corrections — perspective, perseverance, personal courage and “the occasional middle finger.”

Cues that a person has lost perspective? Words that convey absolutes, like “always” or “never.”

To regain perspective, he said, ask questions, go into conversations with people who disagree with you “with the mouth zipped and the ears open.”

Weber asked the students if they thought perseverance meant never giving up, and many raised their hands.

 “Sometimes never giving up means knowing when to take a knee,” he continued, “but only take that knee for so long, because life goes on; you have things that need to be done.”

Personal courage can refer to facing fear or holding it inside to be faced later, he said.

For him, “personal courage is all about being scared to death,” he said. In Army paratrooper school, he said, he wanted to sit in the plane next to someone who was a little scared.

“A fearful person is checking gear,” he said. “A fearful person is asking questions.”

The “occasional middle finger” is a symbol for showing attitude, and it has been a sign of contempt for 2,000 years, he said.

Weber spoke in a matter-of-fact way, about his illness and life’s challenges, until students asked questions about his sons. He choked up when he talked about his boys.

His 12-year-old twins hate his cancer but they are focused more on themselves, he said. That’s normal for kids that age, “and I want them to be able to be 12.”

His 17-year-old son gets depressed sometimes. “We don’t go into a lot of depth of what it’s going to be like not to have a dad,” he said. “We talk about what we have.”

Students asked him how he takes a knee and if he has a “bucket list.”

“I am constantly doing things that doctors … say a terminally ill patient should not do,” he said. “But sometimes, I hit the pause button for the day and focus on myself.” His wife sometimes asks why he doesn’t get mad, he said, and he tells her it’s because “I seek perspective.”

He started his bucket list at the age of 19. “It’s not something you start when the crap hits the fan,” he said.

He suggested they put one thing at a time on the list over the years. “If it gets too full, you realize you’re not living life.” His goal after he retired from military service was to be a teacher. Speaking to students now isn’t quite the same, but he works with young people, he said.

The MACCRAY students in Carrie Kronen’s psychology and world geography classes said they were touched by Weber’s talk. Some said they hadn’t expected it to be so positive.

Kronen said she had signed up right away when she heard about the opportunity, because she thought he would bring a good message to students.

Many of the teenagers said they appreciated his advice about keeping things in perspective.

Student Whitney Buchan said she liked that he brought up topics that might have been familiar but talked about sides she’d not thought of before.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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