The Town Crier’s popular series ‘Where Are They Now’ returns with Rick Cooke featuring Mark Brown of Tewksbury.
This is a love story. There will be moments and memories of playing football-and plenty of honors together with the awards that come with being the best. Mark Brown earned them all and then some. He was a great football player and a fine all-around athlete. His trophy case would eventually include a place in the Tewksbury High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Mark was an important player in Coach Bob Aylward’s TMHS football rebuild when the Redmen were down-and-out before the 1974 season. That era of 1974-76 would culminate with another trip to the Hall of Fame with the 1976 Tewksbury High School football team. But there is something more important than football and awards. That something is love. Love is that special something that no award or high school athletic memory can ever replicate. Mark Brown would find the love of his life during his senior football season at Tewksbury High School. He would meet Diane Gacek.
He was 17-years old and she was 16. She was a majorette and he not only played football, he also played in the high school band. It was after a football game that Mark would ask Diane to go steady. They would be together for 44 years, married for almost 39. They would raise two sons together. There would be grandchildren and many joyous occasions covering decades. There would also be cancer. A diagnosis of cancer means that lives are changed and preparations for a battle inevitably begin. Like most love affairs, this one evolved into a partnership that involved every member of the Brown family. That family would give this cancer all it could handle.
Together Mark and Diane would stare into the ominous tunnel of Diane’s cancer diagnosis, looking for hope and asking all the right questions of the many doctors at three hospitals. You know the train is coming. You get on board and times get tough. There would be treatments. Many treatments. Mark and Diane used their love to fire up hope. For nine years Diane would fight the good fight. Metastatic colon cancer was the hand that the couple dealt with courageously until Diane died in March. COVID-19 had already begun to change their lives. In real time Mark was too busy taking care of his wife to dwell on just where this pandemic might take us. He was too busy loving every minute that he had left with the love of his life.
“I was always the science guy asking the questions,” says Brown. His sons were around to help his dad strike a balance with his life. Mom and dad loved the horseplay with the grandkids, and there were plenty of boat trips on the lake. Diane began gardening to help ease the stress and the pain of her many treatments and trips to the hospital. In the middle of a cancer diagnosis this family was still finding ways to enjoy life.
In a way Brown began preparing for his wife’s journey after he suffered heart attacks in 2006 and 2011. His second heart attack at his friend Ron Lambert’s birthday party in 2011 essentially stopped Mark in his tracks. As a successful business executive he had travelled the world. Always on the run and spending a lot of time in hotels and airports, Brown took an inventory of his life and decided that spending more time at home with his family was the right decision. Brown had always been involved in his sons’ lives, cheering for both young men as they helped to lead Coach Bruce Rich’s Super Bowl contending football team at Chelmsford High School.
More leisure time sounded nice. That plan would change after Diane’s cancer diagnosis. Like everything else in his life, Brown was prepared to adapt on the fly. Now instead of jetting from Boston to Ireland, Italy and Tokyo and back again, Mark was driving to various hospitals to help Diane fight her cancer. He never thought that he would be around long enough to do any of this.
“We started thinking about the end of life plans after my second heart attack. We thought that it might be me we were talking about. I decided that it was time to pull over to the curb.”
Brown estimates that his business travel totaled about four calendar years between 1995-2005. Even with that whirlwind lifestyle he found time to coach Chelmsford Pop Warner Football.
That Brown was able to make all the right decisions and work hard to get where he needed to go in life did not surprise Aylward, his varsity football coach at Tewksbury High School. While at Tewksbury Brown was in the mix to be Aylward’s first starting quarterback before Tom Sullivan earned the job. As a sophomore he quickly morphed into a jack-of-all-trades, backing up Hall of Fame running backs Rick Mackey and Jay Petros. Mark punted, played special teams and shuttled between the varsity and junior varsity squads before making his mark as an all-conference safety.
When Diane died, Aylward called Mark to let him know how sorry he was for the Brown and Gacek families. This coach could always be counted on to offer emotional and spiritual support long after his players had left the Tewksbury High School football fold. Players were always much more than numbers on a roster to Aylward and his coaching staff. They were family forever.
“Mark could play any of the ballhandling positions on offense,” Aylward remembers. “He was so versatile and so athletic. He was one of the reasons that you love coaching. He was a high-caliber kid as a young man. And the Gacek family is a great family. To see them married was a great thing. It broke my heart to see them move to Chelmsford,” the coach said with a tongue-in-cheek chuckle. “Mark comes from a great family. His parents were ideal parents. They were so supportive of their kids, and Mark has brought that to his own family.”
Brown was open when speaking about how he is dealing with his grief. It is still fresh in his mind, but with all that is going on in the world today he has admirably and naturally chosen the path of least resistance. The emotional and painful roller coaster of cancer has ended, and Mark knows that his wife is at peace. He has a simple regimen and what he calls a “quiet life”. He takes long walks with his Golden Retriever Dewey (named after Red Sox outfield Dwight Evans) and finds projects that strike his interest.
When asked to talk about his wife and what she had to deal with, there is no shortage of detail in Mark’s story. He is generous with his time and honest about how he is dealing with his grief. His empathy and compassion for families facing the same situation is obvious.
A FOREVER LOVE STORY
“Diane passed away in March after fighting metastatic colon cancer for nine years. She was one month short of her 60th birthday, one month short of (our granddaughter) Sophia Diane’s birth and two months shy of our 39th wedding anniversary. We met in the spring of 1976 on a band/chorus exchange trip. I played the trumpet in the concert and jazz band, my sister Patti played the flute, After the concert she sat down with me for the ride home with her friend Diane, who was in the chorus. Diane was shy and confident all at the same time. They might have been up to something, in that she got up so Diane could sit with me. We did not so much have a first date, but a growing affection and friendship that grew over the summer. My sister suggested to Diane that I could drive them to the beach where I was a part time lifeguard at the Salisbury Reservation, and that’s how things began. I remember that first beach trip in my ‘68 Dodge Polara. My sister and the three Gacek sisters piled in, with no AC and ten miles per gallon. The rest of the summer Diane’s mom let us take her ‘73 Cutlass with air conditioning and full gas tank for many trips to the beach and the movies.
“Diane was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer in July of 2011 after her routine 50-year colonoscopy. She had no symptoms, so I always tell friends and family please do not put off testing. Colon cancer is growing in the younger population and can be caught early. After the initial shock, that punch in the gut and tears, we both agreed that we were not going to be defined by the disease and were going to fight it every way we could. My priorities in life became crystal clear. I would learn as much as I could about the disease, treatments and nutrition. We would strive to have the highest, happiest quality of life that we could for as long as we could. Neither of us had “why me?” in our DNA.
“I was fortunate to be able to retire in late 2011 after my second heart attack. Diane chose to continue working to keep her mind off things for as long as she could, which she did until September of 2018. She was a human resource executive after working her way up through positions at Compugraphic, Apollo Computer and Hewlett Packard while she was going to night school at the University of Lowell. She continued working as a human resource director at Avici, Soapstone Networks and Casa Systems until that September.
“It was kind of a reversal of roles. I made sure she always came home to dinner on the table with a glass of wine. I learned that laundry and clean dishes were not magic. Diane was amazing throughout, maintaining a positive attitude and smile through two major surgeries, two rounds of radiation and five years of bi-weekly chemotherapy. She saw our boys marry wonderful women and the birth of Harrison and Harlow. We were still able to do the things we wanted to do but had to steer clear of crowds. We had wonderful family vacations and enjoyed touring New England with the top down. We thought of ourselves as the cool kids/early birds and tended to dine out at our favorite haunts in the late afternoon to avoid crowds.
“Her last 100 days were very hard on her, but she still managed to keep a smile on her face and twinkle in her eye until her final days. I was able to care for her at home until her final day. She passed peacefully at Emerson Hospital surrounded by family. I can’t say enough about the Mass General Hospital team led by Dr. Jon Dubois in Boston, Concord and Waltham as well as Dr. Ardmen and the Lowell General Hospital team.
“With her passing I faced a number of waves of emotion. I was heartbroken for my sons and their families. I was relieved that her suffering was finally over. We were dealing with so much for so long, and suddenly it stops. There was exhaustion. You’ve been doing what needs to be done for so long that you lose track of how hard and taxing it is. You just keep going. There’s a hole in your soul, but you need to take it one day at a time. It has also been surreal with the COVID lockdown happening right after her passing. Thank goodness for our dog Dewey, who was Diane’s shadow and a 71-pound blanket who is now my shadow and constant companion. I am so thankful for friends and family who check in to see how I’m doing. I try to focus on our wonderful 44 years together and not what we have lost. I am always thinking about staying positive. I think about the simple things and take it one day at a time, trying to be the best dad, grandpa and friend that I can be. I haven’t got to what my next chapter will be, but I’ll figure something out.”
‘FREE RANGE’ KIDS
“I was born in Salem, Mass August 2, 1959. My Parents Fred and Patricia are originally from the Philadelphia area. We moved to Tewksbury in the spring of 1964, with my Dad working at Avco/Textron in Wilmington as an Aerospace Engineer. My mom was the longtime parish secretary at Saint Anne’s Church in Lowell. My parents are retired in Ashville, North Carolina and are approaching their 90th birthdays. My older brother Fred (TMHS class of ‘76) is a retired 82nd Airborne Colonel neuro psychologist living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. My younger sister Patti (TMHS class of ‘78) is a human resource professional living in Greer, South Carolina. Our oldest son Mark is 36 (Chelmsford class of 2002, Wheaton College class of 2006), and lives in Cumberland, Rhode Island with his wife Kimberly and our grandson Harrison, 4, and granddaughter Harlow, 2. Mark’s Wheaton College baseball team was recently inducted into the Wheaton College Athletic Hall of Fame for their second place World Series season of 2006. Our younger son Bobby is 34 (Chelmsford class of 2004, University of Maine-Orono class of 2009) and lives in Chelsea with his wife Jessie and our five-month-old granddaughter Sophia Diane.
“Family and friends meant everything growing up as ‘free range’ kids in Tewksbury. Although my Dad worked long hours with the Apollo program at Avco, he always had time to play catch and have punting contests with us. We had chores that didn’t seem like work-chopping wood, mowing lawns and the like. We were taught that whatever we chose to do to be good at it and to constantly try to improve. Once chores were complete, we were free to roam. Our backyard was the Great Tewksbury 700-acre swamp that you could go from North Street to Main Street through the woods and wetlands. I was one of the younger guys in the neighborhood, but had older guys like Allan and Rod Maclellan, Charlie D’Avanzo and Buck Darby that would let me join in pick up hoops and touch football games. Charlie gave me my first of many broken noses. Famous sculptor Miko Kaufman was our neighbor, and we had a constant running softball game led by his son’s Arthur and Emile.
“Our Boy Scout troop 41 included Brian Clark and the Rasmussen and Weitz boys, so there were always Tewksbury Tough competitions between the younger guys like Dana and I and the older brothers Mickey and Neal. It was also a time that if you didn’t know something “go look it up” was the norm with trips to the library and/or digging into encyclopedias. We were constantly on the move with sports, band and boy scouts. I tried to pass on to our boys that you need to prepare, learn and question constantly to get better at anything. Most of all I taught my sons to never quit, learn from their mistakes and to always get up and try again.”
A TMHS HALL OF FAMER
“I graduated in 1977 and was honored with that year’s Charles E. Hazel award. I was the gymnastics captain, track and field MVP and Who’s Who All American in Track and Field. I was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998 for football, gymnastics and track and field. It was a humbling night to be remembered after 22 years, and extra special to be inducted by Coach Aylward along with the basketball teams of the 70’s who I saw play many games while playing in the pep band for the guys.
“The most special night was being inducted again as a member of the 1976 football team. We only dressed 28 guys, but we were special, with Jay Petros scoring early and often with teams then trying to take to the air against what I consider the best defensive backfield ever at Tewksbury with Bart and Larry Weitz, Mike Sitar and Mike Seymour forcing many turnovers and getting the ball back in Jay’s hands. We also had depth for the first time that allowed the younger guys to play a full quarter at times, laying the groundwork for future seasons. Obviously, Coach Aylward is a legend, but Gerry Rideout as our secondary coach-particularly in my sophomore year-was special. I was the starting safety and punter on the varsity as well as the backup quarterback.
“The 1974 season was Coach Aylward’s first in Tewksbury, and the focus was on getting his defensive scheme in while running a very basic Power-I offense. I practiced with the varsity, played defense, special teams and punted on Saturday, then quarterbacked the junior varsity on Monday. Gerry kept close tabs on how I was holding up through my girlfriend Bonnie, knowing that playing 20 games in a season would take a toll. He never said a word to me, but I knew what he did and I appreciated it. His index cards on opponents’ plays and tendencies along with the film work we put in taught me the level of preparation you needed to be great besides the physical preparation. Later in my professional life I used the same approach in recognizing tendencies whether they be marketing, technology, economic or geographical.
“My favorite game memory is beating Andover and breaking their 40-game winning streak my senior year. Andover coach Dick Collins claimed that our home field was unfit to play on. The Saturday game was cancelled and moved to Sunday afternoon, but not before Ernie Lightfoot and his crew literally graded the field with a highway grader. Coach Aylward was incensed that the field that we practiced on every day wasn’t good enough for the Andover boys. I remember that he was in tears.
“Coach Collins was a class act after the game, coming into our locker room and congratulating us on a job well done in the 7-0 victory. It meant a lot to me that he shook my hand. The team signed the game ball for my dad, who was battling pancreatic problems and was in the hospital the better part of the fall and winter of my senior year. That game ball is one of his proudest possessions.
“A special memory of our 1976 season happened in camp in Vermont. In those days we had quadruple sessions. Conditioning and some skill work at dawn, two contact sessions during the day, then more conditioning at dusk. At one of the dusk sessions after a lackluster third session we went through a challenging conditioning session to end the day. The final drill was crabbing on all fours out and back 40 yards until the whistle blew. When coach finally did blow that whistle, some of us noticed sophomore Bobby Lambert — affectionately known as Baby Huey — crawling on hands and knees 40 yards out, trying to finish. Without a word from anybody, the entire team went out and stayed with him, crabbing in until he was able to cross the finish line. It was the type of quiet unity that was special to that team. He brought the house down later that week with a sophomore sing along of ‘Take Me Home Country Road’. Coach Aylward with all his passion just shook his head affectionately while obviously appreciating our quiet intensity.
“I attended the University of New Hampshire on a football scholarship. After recovering from a shoulder dislocation in the Lowell All-Star game I was able to work my way up the depth chart heading into the spring with high hopes, but after a number of dislocations and a severe concussion, I then needed shoulder surgery. While recovering from surgery I started work at Andover Medical/Medtronix in shipping and receiving while attending the University of Lowell at night. It was a time when companies had tuition reimbursement, which sadly has gone by the wayside. I didn’t want to be away from Diane, so I continued with night school, working my way up the ladder in the high performance computing and storage market with companies such as Kollmorgen, Hitachi, Hadco and finally Sanmina-SCI, retiring as a Business Development Executive. During my ten years with Sanmina-SCI we were basically High Performance Computer manufacturing infrastructure for hire, having acquired the manufacturing assets of companies such as IBM, Nortel and Siemens to name a few. We had factories in 26 countries at one point, which had me travelling extensively nationally as well through Europe and Asia.”
“I LOVE THIS TIME OF YEAR”
Diane Brown’s journey in this life ended seven months ago. In the midst of a pandemic her husband muses about how much he loves this time of year. Football was a big part of this family’s life. Brown has recently been posting some high school fall/football memories on his Facebook page. Diane is in several of those photographs with the TMHS majorettes or friends. There is a photo of her and Mark in the old Tewksbury High School parking lot. He sports an impish grin while she looks very much like a teenager in love.
“I love this time of year,” says Brown, before completing the story of his bride’s nine-year journey. He doesn’t want Diane’s life to be defined by her cancer, because she was so much more than a diagnosis. She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a good friend. She was funny, loving, hard working and caring. Diane Brown was so much more than a diagnosis. She amazed everyone with her quiet dignity in the face of mounting odds. That is the legacy of love that a special person leaves behind.
“We knew how it was going to end. She was never in remission, but the doctors were able to hold the cancer at bay. All of the treatments were tough on her liver. She had a very high quality of life until about the end of October.”
Dealing with grief is a subject that many people don’t like to talk about. When asked how he is doing Brown is at ease with saying that he has a plan based on simplicity and love. He walks his dog and makes the trek to Whole Foods. There are the trips to the lake with his sons and grandchildren. The conversation eventually drifts back to friends like Ron Lambert and stories of what Brown calls the high school “Goon Squad” of TMHS underclassmen coached by Barry Sheehan. Dana Rasmussen, Tim Weisensee, Mousey Roux and Brown — a crew of friends searching for a path to playing varsity football.
There is also something special that Mark Brown is working on. What began as therapy for his wife is now a special part of what will help her husband share just how much she meant to him. There is a garden that looks like it will keep on growing in not only size, but meaning. Mark is planting and nurturing a memorial garden on his property in memory of Diane. It’s his way of dealing with loss. It is a tribute in so many ways for a family and a life that lives on in spirit. That is what makes love so enduring. This will never be love in the past tense. It is there. It will always be there. This is a love story.