Despite Cancer, Local Worked Hard To Brighten The Lives Of Others

Despite cancer, Bristol man worked hard to brighten the lives of others

Rick Varsell would show up to every day of the LIVESTRONG program at Plainville's Wheeler Regional Family YMCA with a smile on his face.

Varsell, a West Hartford native and longtime Bristol resident who died last year at the age of 69 after a seven year battle with breast cancer, was the first mentor and a fixture of the 12-week cancer survivor exercise and empowerment program.

"When a new participant would see Rick at the beginning of the LIVESTRONG program, he would look at them with a grin because he knew this amazing experience they were going to have and he couldn't wait to share it," said Ben Romann, the YMCA's director of health and wellness.

This year, the Wheeler YMCA will name its annual spin-a-thon LIVESTRONG fundraiser on Sept. 17 in his honor.

Though Varsell was all smiles at the LIVESTRONG program, he did have a harder time at home during his fight with cancer, his wife of 47 years said.

"His thoughts and feelings were different out in public as opposed to what we dealt with at home," said Sandy Varsell. "He had a good outlook for everybody else. It was a terminal thing. He knew it. At home it was not as enlightening. It was tough."

But that didn't stop Varsell from showing up to the program six days a week, sometimes dressed in colorful, zany costumes, made by his wife, to encourage participants and help acclimate newcomers to the program he believed in so much.

"It really brightened everybody else up," Sandy Varsell said. "Even though deep down inside he wasn't feeling that bright, he let it out to everybody else. It kept him going. It gave him an outlet."

One of those people he helped and inspired is Judy FitzGerald, a 74-year-old from Newington who has lung cancer and carcinoid cancer. She took the program with Varsell as her mentor in 2012.

"Nothing was more important to him than the LIVESTRONG program," FitzGerald said. "He encouraged me to keep coming. The cancer wasn't going to define his whole life. He was helping us not to live in the shadow of cancer. We want to live, period. We have cancer and that's the way life is."

And cancer certainly didn't define Varsell's life. The Conard High School graduate had a 45-year professional career working at Pratt & Whitney, where he held seven patents in tool design, and Gros-Ite in Farmington.

Varsell also raced cars, winning Sports Car Club of America Solo national championships in 1985 and 1987.

But the end of his life, his wife said, was particularly dedicated to the LIVESTRONG program.

"He needed something to fall back on," his wife said. "Especially for people going through cancer. There's not much out there for them to keep the faith."

Sheryl Harle, a Kensington resident who participated in the program with Varsell in 2014, survived a breast cancer diagnosis she received in 2008.

"His enthusiasm and love of LIVESTRONG was infectious," Harle said. "It was such a wonderful thing. He was very encouraging. He used to say LIVESTRONG let him live. It opened him up. He didn't take his diagnosis as a death sentence."

Both FitzGerald and Harle were so touched by the interactions they had with Varsell and the program itself that they too became LIVESTRONG mentors.

"I went into the program on a walker," FitzGerald said. "By the end of my 12 weeks, I climbed halfway up the climbing wall. That's what the program does. And I never used a walker again. And that's why Rick believed in it."

Romann said that the spin-a-thon is LIVESTRONG program's main fundraiser and is important because the program is offered for free.

Varsell, knowing that importance, donated $2,500 each of the last few years through a faux company he called "The Whimsical Network."

"His death left a huge gaping void in the positivity of the program," Romann said.

To help regain the positivity that left with him, all of Varsell's costumes will make an appearance at the spin-a-thon.

"He touched more lives than he could possibly imagine," Harle said. "His life and the end of his life had a huge impact on people. He worked hard for the program."

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