By Barb Arland-Fye
Even as she struggled with breast cancer, Beth Calabotta took a day off from work to fly to Minneapolis to accompany a single woman newly diagnosed with brain cancer to her doctor’s appointment. Beth learned about the woman through Facebook. She accompanied other women to doctors’ appointments after they received cancer diagnoses. “She would say to that person, ‘You can’t go alone; you need someone to guide you.’” She did that multiple times, recalled Mary Jo Godwin, Beth’s mother, and member of Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire.
I spoke with Mary Jo and her husband Bob about their daughter, a recognized technical leader in the biodiesel and ethanol industry and an avid swimmer. She died in March of metastatic cancer at her home in Quincy, Ill. The Beth Calabotta Swim Challenge will be held in her honor Sept. 2 at the Davenport West High School Swim Club to raise money for metastatic cancer research through the nonprofit foundation, Cancer Couch. There’s still time to register for the event. Visit www.iowamasters.org or call Ruth Johnson in Davenport at (563) 323-7316. Ruth coached Beth, a stand-out swimmer at Davenport West High School in the mid-1980s.
Beth, who would have celebrated her 50th birthday Sept. 13, graduated from the University of Iowa summa cum laude in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. She earned an MBA at Washington University in St. Louis in 1996. Her 25-year career with a major agricultural business included accolades, awards and eight U.S. patents.
Accomplishments aside, I was drawn to her story because of her perseverance, compassion and faith in God. Diagnosed for the first time with breast cancer in 2008, she lost her job the same day. But a colleague’s grant funds allowed her to continue working, Mary Jo said. In 2014 Beth learned she had metastatic breast cancer, the most advanced stage of breast cancer. “It was all over the place,” her father said.
“She swam a lot during the course of her cancer,” Mary Jo said. Beth “was a firm believer that if you kept moving, it would prevent neuropathy.” During her swims she became acquainted with young swimmers and grew close to them. “She encouraged them,” Mary Jo added.
Although she didn’t attend church regularly, Beth lived her faith through her actions, her father said. Among other volunteer activities, she coordinated a project to build a playground for a United Way day care center. “She was very bright, very talented, a very giving person,” he said.
After undergoing surgery for her second bout with breast cancer, and still very ill, Beth asked if she and her husband Dave could be the godparents of a baby nephew. Mary Jo choked up recalling how Beth told her, “I’m doing this because I know how much your faith means to you, Mother.”
Beth could barely walk the day of the baptism. “The priest realized how uncomfortable she was and asked if he could give her the sacrament of the anointing of the sick,” Mary Jo said. All who were present remarked that they had never participated in such a spiritual, moving experience.
When Beth told her mother that she would have a CT scan, Mary Jo asked, “How long does that take?
“Two rosaries,” her daughter replied. Another procedure would take “only a couple of Our Fathers and Hail Marys.” “Is that how you get through the procedures?” Mary Jo asked. “Yep, I pray a lot,” her daughter said.
As Beth lay dying, her mother leaned over and said, “Honey, I hear God calling you.’ And with that, she smiled and took her last breath,” Mary Jo said.
Please consider joining me at the Beth Calabotta Swim Challenge on Sept. 2 at Davenport West High, or make a contribution to the Cancer Couch.
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at email@example.com.)