'He always had your back': Lymphoma walk, garden dedication to honor late Naperville parks manager
Chuck Papanos lived by a specific motto, whether he was managing the Naperville Riverwalk and various park properties, or assisting a loved one, or battling T-cell lymphoma until the very end.
"Do nothing?" he would say. "Not an option."
Papanos, who died last summer, worked nearly 20 years for the Naperville Park District, most of which he spent as a Riverwalk and north parks operations manager.
He was known for his can-do spirit and passion for giving back, said his wife, Ann Marie. In his fight against cancer, he wanted to make sure physicians were learning from his case so they could help future patients, she said, even if they couldn't save him.
Ann Marie and a coalition of Naperville community members and friends are now carrying out his mission with an inaugural "Walk On!" event in Papanos' memory. Scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, July 30, at the Riverwalk Grand Pavilion, the 1.5-mile walk benefits the Lymphoma Research Foundation, which Ann Marie said served as a critical education resource while her husband was undergoing treatment.
"In his work and personal life, he was just a do-something kind of guy. He never sat back and relied on others," his wife said. "With this walk, we're all proud to be doing something in Chuck's memory and for everyone touched by lymphoma."
Earlier in the day, the Naperville Park District is holding a ceremony at a garden planted along the Riverwalk in Papanos' honor. The dedication, to be held at noon and open to the public, was initially planned as a tribute ahead of Papanos' retirement last year but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having worked for the park district since 2001, Papanos was the "quiet hero" behind the Riverwalk's care and corresponding festivities, such as the Riverwalk Art Fair, Last Fling and the Healing Field of Honor at Rotary Hill, colleagues said.
The day of an event, he would arrive before setup began to ensure a smooth process, said Jan Erickson, the city's former Riverwalk administrator who worked closely with Papanos. He was attentive to detail and respectful of every organizer and donor he encountered.
"He had so much ownership in the way all of this appeared to the public," Erickson said. "He was the real deal."
Papanos' lasting impact is evidenced by the outpouring of support he and his wife received after his lymphoma diagnosis in early 2019, Ann Marie said. She has since found comfort in the stories shared by colleagues, friends and family about his generosity, mentorship and willingness to go above and beyond, no matter the circumstances.
"He was authentic. He always worked on behalf of others," Ann Marie said. "He always had your back."
Papanos even left an impression on his physicians at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota -- so much so that his oncologist and hematologist, Dr. Gita Thanarajasingam, is planning to attend Friday's events.
"He worked himself into the hearts of my entire lymphoma care team here at Mayo," Thanarajasingam said in a video message to walk organizers. "Honoring Chuck's memory by funding research is a perfect tribute because Chuck recognized the importance of research to find better treatments and cures for difficult lymphomas like his."
To donate or register for the walk, visit lymphoma.org/NapervilleWalk. For more information, email WalkOnForChuck@gmail.com.