Tom: Chris, welcome and thank you for joining us.
Chris: Thank you for having me.
Tom: I always love origin stories and i really want to know, how did you and Mary K meet?
Chris: We met in college, actually the first day she arrived at college I was a junior, she was a freshman. I had my antennas up for the new incoming freshman and I was coming out of the gymnasium, and her mother was the one that introduced us. Her Mom saw that I had a Nebraska shirt on, and she made the comment, “Hey there’s somebody from Nebraska”, and we were in Kansas at the time, so that’s how we we met. Fast forward four more years, and we were married, and married happily for thirty two years.
Tom: In hearing your origin story, I love how fortuitous it was for you to wear a Nebraska shirt that day, and how delicate the chance. What if you didn’t wear that Nebraska shirt and Mom Didn’t notice you right out of the crowd. Although you still stand out in a crowd, standing six foot three … so you’re noticeable regardless
Chris: That’s right we were both athletes and we were working out in the same gymnasium frequently as well.
Tom: So as you said a few years later, four years right, you got married… right after she graduated college?
Chris: That’s correct.
Tom: And you spent the next several decades building a great relationship and a large family
Chris: Yes, Well I initially started as an assistant college baseball coach, and then i was recruited into the commercial insurance world, where I had a long career with that for about twenty three years moving up to the executive ranks.
But having seven children it was a challenge, because as you move up, the travel becomes more daunting and Mary K was very willing to help, to stay at home and care for the kids, so that was what i needed from the respect of my career.
And we worked well together in that respect, so after many years of the insurance career, great years and making a lot of money, I made a decision to start spending more time with the family, and so I stepped back, taking a job with a university out of Ohio and helping them build a fundraising division, which led to becoming the leader of Catholic Charities and eventually the President of Ava Maria University. Through all of that, you know you have your ups and downs and challenges, but it was a great partnership. In that respect we kind of served our own roles.
Chris: As you mentioned earlier, she had cancer. With that hit, it changed a lot of dynamics. I think, as you said fortuitous early in our life, it was fortuitous also at the time, where I had already stepped down from my executive career when the cancer came, because I was ready and prepared, to be able to take care of her in a greater way.
Tom: I was not in that same position, unfortunately. I was still running my company, responsible for twenty or so families besides my own, as Founder and CEO of the company. I was the road all the time, and it made it really really difficult. It was so good that you were able to be there and be home for everything. Tell us a little bit about when Mary K first got diagnosed with breast cancer.
Chris: The initial diagnosis was a shock because she was not someone who should have ever had cancer. She had no family history of cancer – her mother, her sister – no one we could find. She was under fifty so, there were no markers, she never took a contraceptive, she never had an abortion, she exercised every day, she ate healthy, she was not overweight… all these things that lead typically to breast cancer.
It was like, why … why her… and you questioned God on that a lot of times.
But you couldn’t get hung up on that question. Instead, it was for me to help her navigate the huge medical labyrinth, all the stuff that comes at the cancer patient, especially when it’s brand new. I had a great employer that allowed me to really step in to make the time that I needed to per focus on, to find the right care and the right doctors and the navigate that whole system
Initially, when she went through everything, she had sixteen rounds of chemo, this is 2015. She had radiation. She had surgery, the whole works. And we thought we were in the clear at the end of 2016.
We were able to live cancer free a couple more years before it came back. The initial cancer diagnosis was a shock because it was not something that we thought she would ever have and coming back was even more unexpected.
Tom: I remember that when my Judy was diagnosed with breast cancer, she did have a family history, so it wasn’t completely unexpected. Unfortunately her Mom has had it, Aunts had it. You mentioned how the medical system all of a sudden throws so much at you and it really is overwhelming. You know they try their darndest to make sure that you understand what’s going on with everything, and I remember reading”The Emperor of all Maladies”, a book about cancer, to try to get up to speed and also started to consume all kinds of care books because if you’re like me, as a typical man you’re the solver right…you immediately go into business mode like okay there’s a problem, let’s understand how we going to solve this, how we’re going to get you the best care, the best this, the best that …
Chris: And I think it’s so important for the person going through a serious illness like that, to have someone to help navigate everything, and that you’ve got to have a role in that respect. And that was what it was for me. And boy it was overwhelming to her. You know she couldn’t understand it all… all she could hear was the “C”-word – Nothing else she couldn’t functio, hearing everything, and the chemo was tough, because she never put anything unnatural in her body, throughout her whole married life I never saw it. And to think, she was gonna put chemotherapy in. She at first vowed never to do it, but then she said “I don’t have an option”
And we looked at different things, but yeah, in the end we fell back to chemo. But this poison took a toll on her physical health, and mental health as well.
Tom: I remember the chemo that we leveraged for my Judy – one was a derivative of mustard gas and the other was a tree bark poison essentially that the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest used to kill wild game. And then radiation, that’s another poison.
Chris: Yes, I don’t remember the exact chemotherapies… i just remember they called her first four treatments “the red devil”, that’s how bad it was. It just turned everything red. It was bad and made her so sick.
Tom: It was a long battle, and unfortunately just like my beautiful Judy, Mary K did lose that battle. Tell us about her passing, those last couple of days and moments.
Chris: Yes, it was really unexpected. The cancer came back in April of 2019, and they said it was a different type of cancer. You’re not questioning, you just got to go back into that trigger mode at that point. So she went through chemo again, and came out of that in December of 19. It was around then that we discovered that the cancer was now in her brain. They said it was a separate cancer, but I question that today.
Tom: For Judy, we got that diagnosis as well, that in her brain it was actually a separate type of Cancer, that it was not breast cancer.
Chris: So they removed the tumor out of her brain, and it was about the size of a golf ball.
I had accepted the position as University President at the time, and they assured me and everyone else that everything was good, and that we could move forward with the plans for the new job and relocation, that she was going to be fine and well.
Two weeks after we moved to Florida from Kansas City, she wasn’t feeling well, so we put her in the hospital, and we found out after lots of tests that she had microscopic cancer cells within her spinal fluid and brain fluid. Once we discovered that, she passed away within two days.
It was quite a quick discovery and shock you know. So you look back and i shouldn’t have been, but I had no no real idea. We thought she was going to maybe get through this or at least have chemo, and gain some time … three to six months.
Tom: Chris, that was just two weeks after you all had relocated
Chris: Yes, we never unpacked a box in the house when we moved.
Tom: I am so sorry. All the kids were home, or had some already gone off to school?
Chris: My four youngest were still at home. We had a lot of help initially. Eventually, my two older sons, one went to college the other one you know i encouraged him. He was in his early twenties and I said “You know you really don’t have to be a caregiver here. You have to get on with your own life, and Dad has to figure it out”. So, a little bit reluctantly, he did it and he left. It was the best for him, because he loved taking care of his younger siblings and it would have consumed him.
So there I was, with my two youngest, two girls, and trying to run a University and manage the home. Even though I had a lot of support from the local community, it was difficult at best and when I saw the continued decline of my girls in respect of the trauma I said “somethings gotta happen here”. I found an opportunity, a window to step away from the University and did so in July of 2021
Tom: Probably a lot like me, after the passing, I had to get back to work as my company was failing and there were those twenty families relying on me, and my girls were still home and relying on me. Talk about your dive back into work, about how you did this almost as an escape
Chris: Yes, I did dive back into work, leading the University, right away. if you recall in 2020 what was going on in the spring, it was the start of the global pandemic, and there was a lot of pressure to make decisions immediately on what you’re going to do, and everything was coming at you, daily it was changing.
I stepped off the airplane from burying my wife in Nebraska, and the board were already asking for a decision if we were going to keep the campus open or not, and the plans for the Fall.
Now, I was supposed to be on a six week bereavement leave and so I Made the decision then on faith to keep the campus open. Ii said we’re going to do lessons in person and we need to do some virtually for whoever is immunocompromised, for the concerned professor, student, whoever. All those decisions were coming and then we had lots of other things that just didn’t stop, and even though i was trying to have bereavement, I didn’t have time to really grieve the way I probably needed to.
It takes time. Grieving, you can’t put a time frame on it. Some people can take six months, others take years to recover and it’s all okay
Tom: I agree with that, I think that there’s a lot of expectations sometimes on us with time lines. Well it’s six months, you should be done grieving. It’s a year, you should be out dating again. I mean there’s all of these kinds of expectations from the community and expectations from friends and family and everyone is different.
You know there are people I know who did get a lot of the grieving out of the way during the illness, and they’re able to heal perhaps a little bit quicker. There are others, like Chris and I, where we threw ourselves into work, and as a result I really don’t think I addressed the grieving process at all. So you know some four and a half / five years later you’ll pass me in a coffee shop and I’ll be writing and the tears are coming down and you know i feel i’m right back there in the battle or right back into whatever the sadness is … a proof point right there that there is no timeline. Five years later I can still feel so raw, and that’s normal behavior, a normal emotional reaction.
As I got to learn your story and see some interviews that you’ve done, your spirituality … that’s something that I did not have. I had it when I was teenager, and lost it as an adult, not really getting it back until maybe eight months ago, and so throughout the whole disease process, through the battle and in the passing, spirituality wasn’t a part of my life. It wasn’t something I could rely upon, and I looked at your story and said Wow what a superpower that you had to be able to leverage that spirituality and the comfort in God. Tell us a little bit about that.
Chris: God is the super power, I will say that. He’s our creator, so I am nothing without Him, He was the guiding light for me, was my faith in Christ, that there was something that was meant to be and would come of what happened with my wife. That we are all destined for heaven or hell, I firmly believe that, and so the goal should be heaven, and so if that’s the goal and that’s where we’re going to live in eternity, our life here is but a speck of dust in eternity.
And so I tried to focus on that. My goal is to get all my kids to heaven, and my wife got there much quicker than what I would have desired. Here on earth, once it happened, like you said I relied back on my faith and my prayer life to say: “Okay God, this is your will”. I don’t like it… no one likes suffering…but in that suffering it helped me to grow in a way that I can be greater for Him and greater for others.
Ultimately I looked to my own family and questioned, am I doing more for the University or more for my own family. In my faith, it should be my family and my work in that order. Then I was skipping a beat with my family where I needed to step back and get my faith in order. I truly needed to take care of my two daughters, who were young: eleven and fourteen at the time of my wife’s passing. It was time to step back and help them and ultimately my other children too.i shouldn’t just exclude them because they were older. They needed me too.
My son, who’s now nineteen, made a comment the other day, even though it had been two years having returned home after some time away, sometimes it only feels like she’s been gone about five months. And so he’s in a different grieving stage of his process. When he comes home, he has to re-process things that maybe the girls have already, or aren’t needing to process at that time.
You might be good and then look at a picture and it brings all the grief feelings back again. That’s where my faith played a significant role. I just kept praying and I never stopped. I don’t know where I’d be without my faith. It’s the guiding light in the midst of the chaos that’s going on.
Tom: Like i said, envious that you had that guiding light. Instead, I threw myself into my work and relied on my work identity to carry me through.
You said that one of the big things, your mission and purpose, is to make sure that you get to heaven and importantly, that all of your children get to heaven too. How do you work on that through a period where many of our children, like my daughters, where they question “Why Mom?”. She helped so many people, especially others with cancer. “Why her?” is what they ask, and as a result they’ve questioned their faith a lot of
How do you make sure that they are going to be saved, on that good path or at least set up for that good path to be with you in heaven?
Chris: I think God helped me a little bit in preparation. There was a book many years ago, probably twenty, twenty five years ago, written by Dr James Dobson called: When God Doesn’t Make Sense. It’s about how we have all these tragedies in the world and perhaps in your life, where you question why God is allowing this, and why he doesn’t just step in.
Life is a lot about the decisions and choices that we make and so God allows us complete freedom. He loves us so much he gives us that freedom to make choices even if it is walking away or turning away from Him.
And so what I do is I try to relate to my kids as best I can, in my earthly fatherly role, as God would teach them. I’m nowhere near perfect by that means, but when I make those decisions, when my kid gets into trouble, I can give them advice, but I can’t force them to make decisions that I like.
So you have to give them that freedom, to make those decisions, and then they have to suffer the consequences for those choices whether good or bad
And so I’ve watched some of my children suffer in that respect, and then I related myself to God the Father and how he allows us to do the same darn stuff and why.
Tom: I love referring to Him as Father because, now that my daughters are almost raised, the lessons are there like you said.
Chris: He lets us fail. He lets us love. He lets us go awry sometimes so we can learn the lesson and so relate it to our kids. Hopefully we’ve given them a foundation when they were younger, maybe a prayer life and relying on God and scripture.
It doesn’t matter what faith you are … you could be Jewish or Muslim, Christian … you’ve given that foundation and I just have to pray for that. If they stray hopefully they will come back. I will say that some of my children have come back and then maybe sometimes within a tragedy, some people will change their life, so that my wife’s passing could be that catalyst for them to come back to their Christian roots… in their faith to be able to get closer to Heaven.
Now again, my kids have made that choice. It’s not easy to praise God. They’re still practicing their christian faith and it’s a beautiful thing to watch, and it’s a constant reminder.
I also remind my girls to not stop talking about Mom. I talk about her all the time and try to recall the great memories, and we laugh. I think sometimes, if we don’t talk about it, they’re still thinking about what we are not talking about.
There is a thin veil between heaven and earth. Our walk in faith holds that the soul and the body are connected as one while on earth. When the soul, the spirit leaves the body it’s still alive, and it never stops.
Tom: As you discussed making sure that you’re talking about Mary K, still making sure she’s a part of particularly special events. I know one of the mistakes that I made is not talking about her on those special days, not acknowledging the absence for that special event or holiday. In particular one Thanksgiving comes to mind.
Talk about this a little bit, how you try to get through every special holiday or occasion.
Chris: We have these good memories, particularly holidays, because she’s been a central part of my kids and who they are.
Mark K home schooled all of them to a certain point, so she is a big part of their lives.
To celebrate, let’s discuss her birthday. What i’ve done on her birthday the last two years is we prepare her favorite meal for the family, and serve a dessert that she would never eat because she didn’t like sugar but we do it in jest, to have fun and laugh knowing that Mom would never eat these brownies, but we’re going to serve them anyway.
Maybe a little more difficult is Mother’s Day, especially now because everybody’s celebrating for their Mom’s and at school my daughter gets: “hey you want to make something for your Mom”, and her not able to.
Making it more difficult, her gravesite isn’t close, so to rethink the holiday. On Mother’s Day we had all the kids send texts sharing a favorite memory.
Again, the key is not to ignore it, but to celebrate her life as best we can
Tom: Absolutely love it.
Now we talked about Spirit, but I always like to talk about body and mind as well through the healing process.
Talk about some of the things that you’ve done there and how that have been important to your personal healing process and your growth
Chris: When I was going through the fight for my wife’s life, I gained a lot of weight.
Tom: Me too.
Chris: There’s only so much you could do and you’re working and trying to get to the hospital, then you’re grabbing stuff on the run.
During the global pandemic I was hiding out in her room, and we were lucky enough to have a doctor that allowed me in so I could be with her, but now I’m eating hospital food, and the cafeteria was out as I was locked in the room.
So she would share her food if you can imagine, but anyway through all of that I gained weight.
Once it was over, I went back and started getting physical, exercising again, and I started reading a little bit more again to get my mind back in order too. Working out, diet, it’s so important to get the physical in order, and mentally getting counseling and those types of things, those are all key components.
For me I was going to church and I was praying each day in the morning and in the evening just trying to keep myself focused on spirit first.
Tom: All three, spirit, body and mind are so important. For me I found that the exercise and working on my body, particularly got me moving forward – walking and running, those kinds of things.
There’s something about forward momentum and they use that to treat PTSD sufferers, like in war veterans and I would argue Chris, that what you and I have been through, it is definitely a form of PTSD. We were in the fight for a long time, and during the last moments having to say goodbye to our wives face to face and embrace and that’s absolutely traumatic.
So moving forward and getting back to exercise and then starting to see something improve. For me I went from 250 lbs to a healthy 180 lbs, a huge weight loss. It gave me a confidence that said, I can grow out of this and create a better version of myself, one that she would be proud of and for me it started with body,
I think you had the spirit as your starting point but regardless I think you have to work across them all.
For my mind, I was in a very sad, depressed state and started going out consuming a lot of growth mindset podcasts. This got me hearing other people’s tragedy stories, many worse than mine, and how they overcame great obstacles to still go and create a new version of themselves. That was really important to my process
Chris: Yeah that was very good for you. I think I may have had the spiritual component, which was my faith, that guiding light, but the physical was not there, and definitely the mind either. There’s a lot more anxiety building up the stress from trying to balance so many things and praise God for the support I had in the local community because they served us meals for Months.
But not everybody has that benefit of a community like we had, even though it might have been new, it embraced us. They really did, they wrapped their arms around me and my family.
I didn’t lose as much as you did, but I am 30 lbs lighter, and it’s a nice feeling. You know you can move and just feel better about yourself.
Tom: And I know that my girls are happier with it too because they see Dad being healthier and I think they worry about being left alone, and so that was a really big motivator for me and i don’t know if it was for you.
Look, I was abusing myself through this process. I was drinking way too much, I was eating way too much, I wasn’t taking care of myself, for good reason but there was no good reason anymore. If I didn’t start taking care of myself I was not going to be around two or three years on. I don’t think I would have lasted until today at the rate I was going.
Indeed, my girls needed me, and I think that you know for nothing else, there’s motivation in that. They need to know that I’m going to be around.
Chris: I agree. My kids never verbalized that but believe me I’m sure they’ve thought it
Tom: I know that leadership is a big driver for you. It’s a passion that you have, to codify leadership from what have you learned about through this tragic journey that you’ve been on: Leadership amid tragedy
Chris: I don’t know how people can do this without faith, but it really was my steadfastness in truth.
What I kept doing was trying to make decisions that were NOT based on my emotion. So I had to have facts and figures before me to be able to move forward with decisions. So for example during the global pandemic, I was contrary to a lot of where others went with their decisions. I was studying data and not seeing things like others were. Indeed the disease was bad, COVID was bad and it was taking lives, but it wasn’t at the same level of other diseases and so I wanted to be sure we weren’t over-reacting. And so I kept navigating, relating it all to my spouse’s cancer, a very rare form of cancer that she had and how she was basically this 1%.
It didn’t matter to my family that it was rare and 1%, but it’s kind of the same with COVID … you can’t make decisions on all of society based on the one percent of a population. If someone has a particular type of cancer you can’t treat them all the same and I think they said there’s a billion different types of cancer and here’s a billion different types of treatment.
Like a scene, what I heard is not one size fits all and so that’s the approach that I took, and it’s been actually my approach throughout my whole life of leadership. I study the data. I think as leaders you can’t be overly emotional. You have to really rely on the data, and people see this as strength, and it’s not a lack of empathy or lack of sympathy or any of that type of thing.
Leadership takes strength and it takes understanding that we’ve got a guiding light. We’ve got all these bombs going off all around us and we still got to decide to move our troops forward or do we hold steady, or is it now time to retreat and there can be a lot of lives at stake.
A lot of people are trying to figure it out and you know whether it’s employees, I’m going to lose this company, I’ve got to keep my eye on the ball and it takes that special steadfastness of calm and that for me was Spiritual, for me a morning time for prayer. For others it may exercise
For me, I could never think when I run. I can’t do that. Some people can run for an hour and they have their whole speech lined out when they’re done.
Tom: I am that way. I meditate, but I’m thinking too. I’m asking questions and seeking answers. And from the breath, from the pain, those answers come.
Chris: Our leadership through tragedy, with everything … all the fireworks going off … you still have to make decisions and you’ve got to be calm and you have to listen to facts, and I tell people don’t ask me for a decision immediately. I may not be able to make the decision right away, so give me a few hours, to make sure that I’m not just reacting because if that happens then that’s when bad decisions start to happen.
Tom: Chris, I love it. There’s a scientific reason for slowing down your decision making, and you articulated it well. When you’re in a stressful situation like we are post loss and dealing with the aftermath, our Amygdala overloaded. So our reptilian brain, the older part of our brain, is more in control, and emotions are raw.
If you try to make decisions off of that oftentimes you can’t. Neuroscience indicates a bias called Amygdala Overload, where you just can’t make a decision one way or the other, and if you do make a decision it’s likely to be very emotional because your logical part of the brain, your Neocortex is not enabled.
So you are right, you’ve got to be able to slow down – think slow and make sure that the thinking part of your brain is activated instead of the emotional, think fast part of the brain,
Chris: So spot on. I think of Winston Churchill, hiding out in the bunker making decisions and not running out in front, not standing on the front line, as that would be stupid to have the leader out getting shelled right and left. Instead, he sat back, and he made the decisions and he was calm through the effort, even while all of London was being bombed and blowing up. So that’s kind of a great example of leadership in that respect, through tragedy and turmoil
Tom: So Chris, a lot of people listening have been through a similar journey. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to them?
Chris: You know it’s going to get better. You know that every day is a little better. Initially it’s a cloud of darkness most of the time, but if you can keep your eyes focused on the light in front of you, you know as people want to help you accept it, don’t turn them away because they’re there.
As I used to tell my late wife, when people wanted to bring meals and that during her cancer treatment she got to the point where she just didn’t want to be around people, you need to allow them to. The grace of God is for them to serve you for a change, and it is your time to be the servant, to be receptive. To receive those gifts and to allow people to receive grace for their generosity.
Tom: For me, this was hard because you view yourself as the one person that has it all together, always. I’m running the company. I’m doing this and I don’t need anybody else’s help. I agree, and especially when the fellowship of other men is offered it is sometimes hard to accept.
Accepting the food was kind of easy, until the fridge couldn’t handle it any more and then we had another fridge stuffed with those blessings.Thank goodness the meal plans were there and everyone was there contributing.
I found it a little bit harder to be able to have a men’s group and to be able to share what I was going through with brothers.
Chris, talk about that a little bit, how you’ve been able to do that.
Chris: Before our brotherhood group started to meet, I had a faith group of men in Kansas City, and I relied on the six other men, and even though I was in Florida, they were walking with me through the whole tragedy.
The men were praying and providing me with support. They called frequently, and they were including me in on conference calls and their meetings the best I could. And it is important as although as men we have different needs than women do, women seek support from other women more naturally, but as men, and being in a men’s group with these company leaders, it was good to be able to reflect on our challenges and what to do about them.
One of them had a wife who had cancer, so we talked through some of the challenges he was able to work through, and it helped guide me on my own journey.
Tom: These other relationships and groups, and now as part of a widowers group… As you know, not a group either of us would love to be a part of, ever desired, or ever saw myself starting over ten years ago when this struggle all started… but it was just what we needed, a unique group, and it’s okay.
Chris: It’s okay, absolutely.
Tom: Chris Ice, thank you so much. Where can find people find and reach you
Chris: You can go to my website for my contact information at:
And on my story, there is a new video that’s up, going to be aired in June on the Catholic Television Network, and you can find that here: