Former Belleville mayor fights health problems with friends, family and faith
Former Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert was spending time with his grandchildren, helping out with the family business, getting involved in local causes and hoping to do some traveling with his wife, Rita.
Then bad news dropped like a bomb on Nov. 10.
Eckert said an unusually fast heartbeat prompted him to drive himself to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital in Belleville, where a scan revealed suspicious spots on his lungs, liver and spine. Biopsies later confirmed cancer.
“It came out of the clear blue sky, and I was shocked,” he said. “I was really enjoying retirement.”
Since that time, Eckert’s life has been filled with medical tests, doctor’s appointments, hospital stays and chemotherapy treatments that zap his energy and worsen his pain.
“It’s serious,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it. I’ve got cancer in several spots. I’m optimistic, but I know that I’ve got my fair share of cancer. It really has made me wake up and realize that a lot of people go through some heavy suffering and pain on a daily basis. I’m just starting to learn what that means.”
Eckert turned 67 on Jan. 18.
He took time out Sunday for a “small” birthday party at Cutter’s Bar & Grill that grew by word of mouth. Close to 100 friends and family members showed up to shake his hand, offer words of encouragement and laugh a little.
“After all those years with you as alderman, I’ve finally lost my hair,” Eckert told former Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella, running his hand over his head of thinning white hair.
“He’s trying to look like Dennis Korte,” Kinsella shot back, referring to another “follicly challenged” member of the ROMEO Club, a group of retirees who meet on Saturday mornings at Denny’s.
Korte, a former Belleville Township supervisor, came up with the acronym, which stands for “retired old men who eat out.”
The party gave Eckert a chance to see another old friend, Joe Hubbard, and his wife, Julie Hubbard, for the first time since Eckert was diagnosed. Joe Hubbard, 80, a community volunteer and retired head of Catholic Urban Programs, has had his own issues with diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
“He’s a wonderful man,” Hubbard said of Eckert. “I talk to him (on the phone) almost every day. We just check on each other.”
Mayor for 16 years
Eckert served as Belleville mayor for 16 years and four months after being appointed in 2004 and winning elections in 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2017. Before that, he was a Ward 5 alderman and community activist.
Current Mayor Patty Gregory defeated Eckert in the April 2021 election. The loss was hard on the whole family, according to his two daughters, Kate Kotler and Lucy Eckert.
“We’ve always been so proud of him and what he’s done for the city,” said Kotler, 33, a human resources business partner. “We always kind of internalized his love for Belleville. I got rear-ended one time, and it wasn’t like, ‘What kind of car am I going to get?’ It was, ‘What kind of car am I going to get in Belleville?’
“He had to get into politics to do what he wanted to do for the city. But he didn’t care about the politics. He cared about the city.”
Kotler and Lucy Eckert recalled their father attending hundreds of meetings and community functions over the years and getting calls at all hours of the day and night from local residents. He never turned off his cellphone, they said.
Mark and Rita Eckert also have two sons, Matt and Luke Eckert, and four grandchildren. Thanksgiving this year included friends from Belleville’s sister city, Paderborn, Germany.
“It’s always been Belleville first,” said Lucy Eckert, 24, a third-grade teacher. “That’s really all I’ve ever known.”
After the election, Mark Eckert began helping his wife more at Eckert Florist. He joined the Belleville School District 118 Foundation Board and renewed his involvement in the Franklin Neighborhood Community Association, where his activism began in the early 1990s.
The community center needs a new roof, Eckert noted in an interview Monday. That was going to be his next project.
Mark Eckert was able to take a family trip to Branson, Missouri, with his brother and drive him to medical appointments before Mike Eckert died in October. Mike Eckert had retired after working 34 years for the city.
“He was seven years older than me, and he was always a good brother,” Mark Eckert said.
Also after the election, Eckert said he worked to lose about 50 pounds to prepare for knee-replacement surgery. He has lost another 30 pounds since beginning chemotherapy in early December.
Doctors prescribed four rounds of treatment, each administered over a three-day period at Siteman Cancer Center in Shiloh with 21 days in between. Eckert has undergone the first two. The third started Tuesday, and the fourth will be in February.
“Then the doctors will reevaluate,” Kotler said.
Sunday’s party guests included several past and present aldermen, other city officials and City Clerk Jenny Meyer, who lit the candles on Eckert’s chocolate birthday cake.
“You’re still trying to make Mom’s cake, aren’t you?” he called out to Kotler, referring to a running joke that family members have been trying for years to get his mother’s recipe right.
Dave Pusa Sr. showed up for the party with his daughter, Sue Pusa, and son, Dave Pusa Jr. They met Mark Eckert in the 1980s, when Eckert was a hospice volunteer caring for one of their relatives.
Eckert and Dave Pusa Sr., 77, a retired electrician, became friends in the early 1990s, when both volunteered on a home-rehab project in the Franklin neighborhood. Dave Pusa Sr. was appointed Ward 2 alderman in 2020, finishing the term of his wife, Jane Pusa, who died of brain cancer.
Sue Pusa, who lives on Woodland Court in Belleville, said she often saw Eckert in her neighborhood.
“When we’d lose a tree during a storm, he was always the first person to show up,” she said. “He just wanted to make sure that we were OK and it was being taken care of. Things like that you just really appreciate.”
Late last year, after news of Eckert’s health problems began to trickle out in the community, the family acknowledged what was happening in a Facebook post and invited people to send positive thoughts his way.
Since that time, Eckert has received an estimated 150 get-well cards and dozens of phone calls, texts and Facebook messages. He said he agreed to share his story with the BND because he can’t answer all of the correspondence, and he wants people to know how much he appreciates it.
Eckert has been attending St. Paul United Church of Christ in Belleville since he was born. Whenever people tell him that they’re praying for him, he asks them to keep it up.
“I think I’ve always been a spiritual person,” he said. “I have a pretty deep faith, and I think that because of it, I don’t have a problem facing (cancer). But some nights when I wake up ... Poor Rita, she has worked so hard to take care of me.
“I need a lot of care because it’s so hard to get up. It’s hard to get moving because of the pain. She’s really helped me a great deal. When the pain sets in, it takes two of us to make sure that we keep all of the medications straight.”
Kotler said many local residents have asked what they can do to help the family through this difficult time, so she’s organizing a “food train.” The idea is to give Rita Eckert, who’s still working full time, a night or two off from cooking each week. Kotler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moving forward, Mark Eckert plans to follow his doctors’ advice, spend time with family and friends and try to stay positive.
“At first, you’re a little angry,” he said. “You think, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ I had so much more that I wanted to do and get done. I wanted to keep helping the community, maybe in a different way.
“But then you think, cancer and heart problems don’t know limitations. It can happen to anybody. So I got to the point that I started coming to grips with it, coming to terms with it.
“I believe in faith, and I believe in prayer, and that along with the wonderful medical doctors that we have today, that is how we’re going to get through this. I believe that we can either slow it down greatly or stabilize things so I can share some more time with my family and friends in Belleville.”