Seizing the day: keeping Billy Misik’s legacy alive at Lake Zurich
October 2, 2017
For most students, high school is four years of schooling which they only look back on from time to time. But for one student in particular, his legacy will stay at the high school forever.
“A person thinks they will teach their child, but I think it has been the reverse for me. I was almost reborn after Billy passed away – through his determination to live his life to the fullest and beyond,” Chris Misik, voice teacher and mother of 2003 graduate Billy Misik, said.
Learning from Billy after his death, Misik made sure that his passion and determination stayed present within the walls of the school.
Billy’s involvement in singing and acting also included playing the violin, singing lyric opera in the children’s choir, and attending artistic musical theater camps every summer. This showed his gravitation to the arts ever since he was young, Misik said.
As a senior at LZHS, Billy was cast as the lead in Chicago as Billy Flynn. He knew he wanted to major in the arts and go to school in New York after graduation, his mom said. But in April of 2003, things took a turn.
Around Spring Break of his senior year, Billy expressed his irritation, like a pinching nerve in his back, to his mom, Misik said. At one in the morning, the family drove to Good Shepherd hospital where Billy had a grand mal seizure in the emergency room. After taking a CT scan, the doctors found what appeared to be a mass on the parietal side of the brain.
“The next day things moved very quickly because we were directed to Evanston to a wonderful brain cancer doctor and it was at that moment in time she said he might have two years to live,” Misik said. “This was a glioblastoma; there really is no cure.”
Even with this diagnosis, Billy performed the lead in Chicago, graduated from Lake Zurich in 2003, and even went to Five Towns college in New York off and on for a year, but according to Misik, it was a struggle for her son.
“I think Billy had ten or twelve surgeries,” Misik said. “You relieve pressure on the brain and you try to get out as much [of the tumor] as you can, but cancer is sneaky. A person who escapes it doesn’t want to get caught and that is what this cancer is like.”
Despite the efforts, in January 2006, Billy passed away. Shortly after, Misik created the Billy Misik Foundation to provide scholarships for LZHS students who are pursuing a major in vocal, dramatic arts, or technical arts, Misik said.
“When he knew how sick he was, he said, to me, ‘You know mom, I don’t know if I am going to be able to do that music, theater, and dance here on this planet, but other students can, would you offer a scholarship every year?’ He didn’t even care if it was in his name, but we ended up putting it in his name and that’s exactly how it started,” Misik said. “He was the one that initiated this before he died. The year that he passed away was the first time we gave away scholarships and we have given 26 scholarships in 11 years.”
The scholarships are one part of the foundation’s overall commitment to education, performing arts, and brain tumor research. To further help brain tumor research, Nick Juknelis, choir director and former teacher of Billy’s, runs in the Chicago Marathon to raise money for the American Brain Tumor Association.
After doing seven marathons total, Juknelis decided he was not going to do the 2015 Chicago Marathon until an old friend gave him a call, he said.
“I got a call from Billy’s friend from college and she said she had never done a marathon before, but she wanted to form a team to support American Brain Tumor Association [for the Chicago marathon] and wanted me to join,” Juknelis said.
In 2015, the day of the marathon fell on Billy’s 30th birthday, which pushed Juknelis to continue on in another Chicago marathon, this time for Billy, he said.
“When you are out there it is almost like a ‘first world’ problem moment. You are out there running and you think, ‘oh my leg hurts again’ and then you think the so called suffering that I am choosing to go through to run is really nothing compared to any suffering of these brain tumor patients,” Juknelis said. “Anything we can do that helps raise money for that research, it really does keep you going.”
Juknelis and Billy’s college friend, Deb, run under the team name Carpe Diem, meaning seize the day. This was a phrase Billy lived by, Misik said.
“When you are out there and you are on mile 17 or 18 or 19, you are like, ‘forget it, I am just going to walk,’” Juknelis said.“You remember, what would Billy have said? ‘Knock it off, come on, you chose to do this, let’s go.’”
After raising over $13,000 for brain tumor research, Team Carpe Diem will run for its third time in the Chicago Marathon this year on October 8, Juknelis said.
Along with the run to raise money for brain tumor research, Misik believes the foundation also spreads awareness. The Billy Misik Foundation scholarships also gives students validation that what they are pursuing in is important, Misik said.
“I love these students here at Lake Zurich High School and through Billy, I believe that there is never enough hours in the day to work on music,” Misik said. “I believe that he has enlightened my whole approach to life, to music, to theater, and to people. Probably the most to people because of his concern for others through this scholarship.”
The recipient of the scholarship must be a graduating senior planning to attend a four year college or university the following fall. The amount of the scholarship varies each year, and people can donate to the Billy Misik Foundation through the Inland Bank, said Misik.
“Because people knew Billy for his spirit and his spunk and his story, he has been kept alive through all that, and I think people are willing to donate to the foundation because they see it as a way to keep his legacy going,” Juknelis said.
One hundred percent of these donations go to the students’ scholarship. Depending on the year, around one to four students are awarded with a scholarship after applying.
“I am very proud of my son,” Misik said. “To this day I see those students who have received this scholarship well earned and I think of what they are doing in professional theater, in opera, in education, in music composition, you can run the gamut. Their paychecks are coming from their art. It’s really wonderful to see that.”