Faith, courage guide Hiller man in challenge of his lifetime
By Ron Paglia, For the Herald-Standard
He's been a law enforcement officer, a lay minister and a marathon runner. But it's Richard (Rich) Kara's firm faith, positive attitude and spirit that set him apart from many.
"My (religious) beliefs and confidence in my ability to do the job, whatever it might be, have always guided me," Kara, a lifelong resident of Hiller, said. "I have always had faith in God to get me through whatever comes my way."Those qualities, and others, continue to guide Kara, 68, as he confronts the greatest challenge of his life - the uncertain prognosis of the pancreatic cancer, which threatens his very existence. "No, it's not very good," Kara said of the outlook. "What can you say when you have a disease that claims, within one year, 75 percent of those who are hit with it? You try to be optimistic and think you are going to be in the other 25 percent - those who survive for maybe two years - but you also have to face reality."
Despite the harsh turnaround in his life over the past four months, Kara remains more upbeat than anyone can completely understand."I have no fear (of death)," he said. "I am totally comfortable with where I am and what might lie ahead. I don't ask, 'Why me?' I have accepted (the fate) God has chosen for me."Kara, a state police officer for 33 years and a member of the Washington County Drug Task Force for 10 years after retiring from the state police, was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer in May."We thought it was just indigestion," Kara said of the discomfort that struck not long before he and his wife Marlene prepared to leave for vacation in Florida.Medication prescribed by his family physician, Dr. I. Prakorb, alleviated the problem but only temporarily. Upon his return home, Kara underwent further testing including an endoscopy. The outcome was a mandate to "immediately" see a specialist, Dr. Kenneth Lee, at UPMC Presbyterian Pancreas and Billary Center in Pittsburgh.
The downward spiral continued."They did a biopsy and discovered the cancer had spread to my lungs," Kara, a 1958 graduate of Brownsville High School, said. That diagnosis sent Kara to the Dr. Nathan Bahary at Hillman Cancer Center, the flagship treatment and research center of the UPMC Cancer Centers Network. He's now undergoing and enduring chemotherapy (eight hours of treatment once a week) and is one of only 150 people in the United States involved in clinical trials to study new drugs for treatment of pancreatic cancer. According to the Web site www.MedicineNet.com, researchers across the country are studying pancreatic cancer. They are, the site says, "trying to learn what causes this disease and how to prevent ... looking for better ways to diagnose and treat it."
"If my part (in the research) is meaningful, if what I'm doing can help find a breakthrough, that's fine," Kara said. "I'm fully aware of the ACS (American Cancer Society) statistics and my chances (of surviving). I've told the doctors to tell me what to do and I'll do it. I don't have false hopes, I'm realistic about everything. But I'm not giving up." That determination stems from Kara's faith and trust in God, and his avocation of nearly 25 years as a lay minister. In that latter role, he said, he has always tried to treat people with compassion and understanding."I don't try to convert anyone," he told writer Gary Thomas in a 2002 interview. "I just want to get them to start thinking and talking about religion, make religion a part of their lives."
Kara, one of seven sons and two daughters born to the late John G. and Rose Kara, said he had the "best of both worlds" in being raised as a Protestant in a Hungarian Presbyterian Church but also being schooled in the teachings of the Catholic Church."My father was Protestant and my mother Catholic," he said. "There's an old Hungarian saying that 'Boys follow the father and girls follow the mother.' I was fortunate to learn both (religions). I attended Calvin United Presbyterian Church in Brownsville. In catechism as well as everything else I learned, it was reinforced twice with two languages. I learned everything in English and then again in Hungarian. In fact, I could speak Hungarian before I could speak English."
Kara's path to religion and eventually becoming a lay minister was directed with great influence from the Rev. Victor Bodnar, pastor of Calvin United Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. Kalvin Nemeth, pastor of the former Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church of Brownsville."Father Nemeth escaped Hungary during the 1956 revolution there and went to Canada," Kara said. "He later came to Brownsville. I was 10 years old when I met him because my mother was a member of Sacred Heard. He couldn't speak English and was surprised and happy to learn I could speak Hungarian. So I became his translator."Kara said one of his fondest memories of Father Nemeth is that "he was very open minded" in his approach to religion."He never said you should be a Catholic or anything else," Kara said. "His philosophy was, 'We all worship the same God ... we just use different approaches.' I've never forgotten those words and have tried to follow his advice anytime I'm at the pulpit."
Kara began his service as a minister as an elder at Calvin United Presbyterian Church. He was asked to deliver occasional sermons in the absence of the Rev. Alexander Jalso. Subsequently, he became an elder at First Presbyterian Church in California and was chosen for similar "fill-in" duties by the late Rev. John R. Rankin, the highly respected area clergyman who died earlier this year after more than 50 years in the ministry."Rev. Rankin asked me to sub for him at Sunday worship because he was going out of town," Kara recalled. "He knew I had done sermons a few times at other churches in the area and that I had public speaking experience with the state police. He said he was confident I could handle the job. I wasn't so sure, it seemed so daunting. But (Rankin) gave me spiritual guidance, told me to tell the people what I believe. It worked and I feel totally comfortable, truly at peace behind the pulpit."Kara and Rankin also became "very close" friends over the years."He was my confidant, I could talk with him about anything," Kara said. "He was a gentleman and a gentle man."
Kara, who performs full worship services, bases his sermons on life experiences; that is, his work in law enforcement and his personal life."People were leery of me at first, I guess," he said. "They knew I was a police officer and probably wondered, 'What the heck is this guy doing behind the pulpit?' "But I speak from the heart and try to use thoughts and themes to which the congregation can relate."
Kara's wife of 42 years, the former Marlene Johnson of Allison, said her husband has had a "significant impact" on many lives. To emphasize that point, she poignantly points to Robert Kelly of Greensboro, a close-knit community of about 300 in southern Greene County."(Rich) was filling in at the church there when he met Bob," Mrs. Kara said. "Bob never went to church, although his wife was a member of the congregation. She and their friends tried to convince him to 'go to hear Mr. Kara ... he will change your life.' He insisted he would never set foot in church, but he finally relented and did a complete turnaround. He became a deacon and an elder of the church and tells everyone that Rich 'Brought me to Jesus.' He regularly calls to check on (Rich) and sends the most beautiful cards."
Rich and Marlene are the parents of two daughters, Heather Filoni (Aldo) of Fairfax, Va. and Holly Segie (Ron) of Canonsburg. They have three grandchildren, Jordan Kara, 18, Miranda Segie, 14, and Samuel Segie, 9.Mrs. Kara said the family was "devastated" by the news of her husband's cancer."We were in shock," she said. "But we know this is in God's hands. He will direct us and we are prepared to accept His decision. The best outcome would be to beat (cancer) and keep it in remission. "Whatever happens, we see this experience as God's way of using Rich as an example (of courage and faith) to the many people whose lives he has touched. I firmly believe he's not done."
As a patient at Hillman Cancer Center, Kara is being treated by the same oncology professionals who cared for Dr. Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who died July 25 after battling pancreatic cancer for nearly two years. Pausch became an inspiration to millions with his positive attitude and a video and book based on his final lecture at CMU."Dr. Pausch was truly an inspiration," Kara said. "I read his book ("The Last Lecture") and it has helped me in so many ways. His impact on the lives of cancer patients and others is immeasurable."Those who know Kara say he is having a similar effect on them."He's an inspiration in every sense of the word," Lenora Byrd of LaBelle, one of Kara's classmates, said recently at the 50-year reunion of the Brownsville High School Class of 1958. "His courage and strength gives hope to all who love and respect him."
Treatment of pancreatic cancer is very strong and side effects, which vary among patients, can be ravaging to the body and mind. Kara, for instance, has lost 60 pounds since May (when he weighed 230)."I've also lost my taste buds," he said."That's a real Catch-22 situation, isn't it? I know I have to have food and nourishment but I have no desire to eat."As of Aug. 14 Kara had undergone seven successive weeks of chemotherapy. Depending on the outcome of further tests, he may be facing several more weeks of treatment. "It's comforting to know that I'm in the hands of the best doctors, nurses and staff at Hillman," Kara said. "They do everything there - the MRI, the blood work, etc. - in a professional and caring way. I appreciate their straightforward approach, their honesty. They pull no punches in letting you know where you stand."Kara is resigned to his fate and reaffirms his acceptance of "whatever God chooses for me.""You know the old saying, 'Only time will tell,'" he said. And the clock is ticking.
Read Rich Kara's Sidebar:
By Ron Paglia, For the Herald-Standard
Richard (Rich) Kara knew early in life that he wanted to be a member of the Pennsylvania State Police.