Tuesday, May 3, 2016

I’ll take a Liver With That Pepperoni--A Pizza Rebirth

I’ve been thinking about the power of pizza to heal the soul and the body. In a story for May’s PMQ Pizza Magazine, I had the privilege of writing about a remarkable leader from a one-stoplight town of less than 2,000 residents. Don Van Zant reflects exactly what it means to have your tenuous mortality green-lighted. 

The owner of Cardinal’s Pizza in North Lewisburg, Ohio, says be careful not to blink or you’ll miss his 40-seat restaurant 45 minutes northwest of Columbus. Don found out he had terminal liver cancer in July 2012. His doctors said a transplant was his last, best hope, and in October of that year he received a donor liver at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center from a young man who had been critically injured in a truck crash only hours earlier. So, you ask, wasn’t it Don’s team of oncologist and skilled transplant surgeons who saved his life? Yes, technically it was medical science and the selfless gift of a young organ donor named Drew Mason from Owen County, Kentucky, and Drew's family, who returned Don Van Zant to his beloved Cardinal’s Pizza. Don refers to Cardinal’s as North Lewisburg’s info center, adding, “Townsfolk seem to have my place on speed dial.”

But pizza played a pivotal role in Don’s recovery—and the lives of many people he touches. Here’s how.

Since buying Cardinal’s in 1994, his pizza restaurant had been the focus point to Don's dynamic existence as a successful businessman and tribal elder. Cardinal’s is North Lewisburg’s unofficial civic center for community advancement—the gathering spot where little league teams and seniors and church groups and families and the Kiwanis Club convene—and The Donald (This one doesn’t have much hair) holds court. But after Don got a new, unexpected, chance to keep doing the only job he had ever wanted, his life’s purpose, as well as his liver, was reborn.  After meeting his donor’s family in 2013, Don established the “Drew Mason Memorial Scholarship” at Owen County High School in Kentucky, where Drew graduated in 2004. Since presenting the first scholarship gift of $2,500 to Drew Mason’s sister, Don has followed up that pay-it-forward gesture by expanding this year’s annual award to six $1,000 grants.

That’s six lives changed. Six futures improved with a helping hand in a part of the industrial Midwest hit hardest by economic dislocation. Six youngsters picked up by the love of pizza. All the money for the Mason Scholarships, you see, is raised at Cardinal’s Pizza hot-ticket fundraisers. Don, who swears he never met a slice of pizza that wasn’t his best friend, keeps an olive jar tip stasher on the front counter. His still successful transplant means Don can no longer eat his favorite food—as much. But he happily conducts pizza sampler donation parties throughout the year at Cardinal’s and multipurposes the occasions to educate patrons about the vital importance of organ donation. In the end, the example of Don, his Ohio Cardinal’s team and the good folks of North Lewisburg is a case study in how running a pizzeria dedicated to making good pizza and reaching out to neighbors can enrich the human spirit. Those magical ingredients of compassion, dough, sauce and cheese go a long way toward a better world.  But you pizza guys already knew that.