GRAND BLANC — As fans for both the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans gear up for the in-state rivalry football game on Oct. 15, Melissa Danan-Rilko’s goal is to unite the two fan bases for a good cause.
Danan-Rilko lost her husband, Bernard Danan, a beloved trauma surgeon at Hurley Medical Center, McLaren Regional Medical Center and Genesys Hospital, in 2008 at the age of 40 after he was diagnosed with sarcoma cancer.
Sarcoma accounts for approximately 1 percent of adult cancers and is sometimes referred to as being an “orphan cancer,” often getting left behind when it comes to research studies in finding a cure.
“There is no research for it because no one gets it. It’s a horrible prognosis,” Danan-Rilko said. “I promised Bernard though that I would do everything I could so no one would have to go through what we did.”
In keeping with her promise, Danan-Rilko is hosting the 4th annual “Bernard’s Tailgate” to benefit sarcoma research at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The tailgate starts at 11 a.m. on Oct. 15, an hour before the UM versus MSU noon kickoff, and will be held at a new location, Warwick Hills Golf and County Club, 9057 S. Saginaw St., in Grand Blanc. Cost is $65 per person, cash or check, with children 10 and under admitted for free.
Looking to attract more local support, Danan-Rilko said this year’s tailgate will feature more giveaways and a silent auction which includes items such as tickets to Tigers, Lions and Red Wings sporting events, a Disney vacation and accessories such as jewelry and purses. Danan-Rilko will also be donating the rest of her season tickets to the UM football games.
“My late husband went to Michigan and was a huge football fan,” Danan-Rilko said. “Bernard loved to tailgate. We had season tickets and that was our way to spend time together. We do the tailgate now to bring people together in his memory.
“We were blessed to have Bernard,” she added.
Since starting the tailgate fundraiser, Danan- Rilko and her supporters have inspired and touch many lives raising to date $50,400 in Bernard’s name for sarcoma research. The long list of memories of Bernard live on each year during the tailgate as new ones are made, and Danan-Rilko has been lucky enough to add one more special memory from the tailgate fundraiser in which she is a firm believer Bernard made possible.
Now remarried, Danan-Rilko said she believes that Bernard, whom she referred to as the “light of her life,” sent her a gift from heaven: her new husband, Eric Rilko.
Danan-Rilko said she and Eric meet at church after he had read an article in the newspaper on Bernard’s Tailgate fundraiser.
“He e-mailed me saying he read the article and what a nice thing I was doing and telling me good luck with the fundraiser,” Danan- Rilko recalls. “I thought maybe he was touched by sarcoma or I thought maybe he was an old man for some reason.”
As fate would have it, Rilko was far from what she had expected.
Rilko happened to attend the same church as Danan-Rilko and the two children she shared with Bernard. He approached them after church and introduced himself stating he was the one who had e-mailed her all those months ago. Danan-Rilko said from there the two formed a close friendship with Rilko supporting her mission and becoming a huge part of the fundraiser himself. Their friendship evolved and the two are now married.
“I don’t think it is any coincidence that this has happened,” Danan-Rilko said of her new marriage. “I think Bernard put Eric in that church, in that place to be there for myself and our kids. Life had gotten complex and here Bernard put this really supportive, neat guy in our lives to bring us happiness.”
For those unable to make the Oct. 15 tailgate, donations may be made online at www.bernardstailgate.org.