Doctors gave Wally Zeronsky six months to live.
He said the long, skinny tumor was akin to a kielbasa that ruined his right lung.
“The doctors told me I was going to die,” Wally said, recalling a couple of meetings during which doctors debated whether to operate given that the room could perhaps be better utilized on patients with a realistic shot at survival.
He made plans. He moved into a manufactured home in Middleborough, Mass., shortly before the scheduled surgery as a place to hopefully recover and recuperate. Wally knew about difficult recoveries, having contracted polio as a toddler and worked through his teenage years to free his damaged legs from braces.
Wally had the operation – surgeons successfully removed his right lung and the 7-inch tumor inside it. Then he dug in for the fight of his life. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation simultaneously. It was grueling, and it took all his energy to simply endure.
And from 2008 until the summer of 2015, that’s pretty much all Wally did and all he could do: sit in his house, watch TV, and not have cancer. Even as his body recovered, his mind suffered. He endured some dark times.
The seclusion was particularly tough on Wally, who had strengthened his body in his youth to overcome polio’s devastating effects. He was active, and travelled the world in his work as an aircraft weapons system technician. At his diagnosis, he had more than 800,000 frequent flier miles banked, and now couldn’t use them. Now a trip to the neighborhood pub to watch the Patriots with buddies was all he could muster – on a good day.
“I thought I was gonna die, and I was ready for it, too,” says Wally, cancer-free. “You can only watch so many reruns of ‘Twilight Zone.’”
He had his magazines – subscriptions to Time, Smithsonian and National Geographic – and his laptop, but this wasn’t really living for Wally, who loved trying new foods in far-off places, driving Corvettes, and the rowdy end-zone Patriots season tickets he once held.
“I’m the kind of guy who wants the wind in my face,” he says.
Fast-forward to June 2015. While he was holed up in his living room, Wally’s neighbors took advantage of an opportunity to purchase the land beneath their neighborhood and in 2013 formed Hillcrest Mobile Home Tenants Association, a cooperatively run group that owns and manages the 94-site community 45 minutes south of Boston.
Wally was invited to attend Hillcrest’s annual meeting, and, tempted almost entirely by the barbecue to be served there, decided to go. It was the first time he’d had any community involvement.
The Board of Directors election was a key part of the day’s activities, and the office of president was open. No one had expressed keen interest in running, according to Colleen Preston of Cooperative Development Institute, the Technical Assistance Provider that works with Hillcrest. She spotted Wally and asked if he might be interested.
“I gave her my usual routine – I told her I never got out. Just moving around is a pain and I’m always in someone’s way,” Wally said.
But Preston wouldn’t let him off that easily. She said after talking with him, he expressed a genuine interest in helping out, even if he had no experience working with a Board. Wally relented and said if no one else ran, he would. And he was elected by acclaim.
Wally was tentative at first, learning the ropes of parliamentary procedure and the inner workings of a cooperative organization. He said leading the board has truly brought him out of the insulated life he had been living.
“I have a real purpose now,” he said, sharing stories of working with abutting property owners to tackle wayward trees and limbs, soliciting bids for electrical and water infrastructure repairs, and learning why volunteers and family friends aren’t always the best choice for work done on the community’s behalf. He almost looks forward to slow responses from contractors or town officials.
“If they don’t call me back, I figure I’ll go visit them and see what’s going on,” he said, nodding admiringly to his red Mustang. “I’m becoming the ‘answer guy’ in this community.”
He’s looking to the future of Hillcrest – toward more ambitious projects like individual water meters and a new community electrical system. He wants to build a bustling community center where residents can gather to play cards, watch the game, and just hang out. Wally also wants to equip that building with a generator and supplies so residents in this seniors-only community have a place to get warm and ride out potentially paralyzing winter storms.
“If you told me in 2008 that I’d be on a board taking care of a park with six other residents and we’d have a $200,000 budget we’re responsible for, not to mention a $2.4 million loan we’re paying off,” Wally says, shaking his head and chuckling, “well, there’s just no way I’d have believed you.”