Weathering the Storm

After battling cancer, a Northeast Ohio artist and author shares her positive outlook.
Eight pairs of green rubber boots in various sizes are artistically arranged near the side door of Kathleen “Boo” Whitmer’s home in Akron.
“Do you think the boots look silly here? Are they too much? I don’t even know how the first pair got here,” says the 72-year-old artist, speaker, writer and teacher. “Someone just left them at my doorstep. But I love them all.”

Most of them are gifts from grateful people who have read Whitmer’s inspirational books about finding happiness in life no matter how high the flood gets. Her first tome, “Green Rubber Boots: A Joyful Journey to Wellness,” published in 1997, is now in its fourth printing. A children’s story published last year, “Blue Boo and Her Colorful Friends,” features a character based on Whitmer’s childhood nickname.

The Canton native taught art to public-school students before becoming a professor at Kent State University. In 1978, at age 42, Whitmer was diagnosed with sarcoma, a devastating form of cancer that attacks muscle tissue. She was among 200 patients who volunteered for experimental chemotherapy treatments at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The patient boldly donned a red dress and red shoes for her trip to Bethesda, arriving on what she remembers as “a gorgeous Monday morning” with attorney Jerry Whitmer, her husband of 47 years.

“I was excited about the research. I saw it as a new adventure,” says Whitmer, who was told she had three months to live. “It was a way to help others. If you saw someone about to jump off a bridge, you wouldn’t hesitate. You would try to help them. This was my way to help.”
She recalls how the drug Adriamycin was brought to her hospital room by “people wearing protective clothing like space suits.” The red, thick medicine reminded her of a bottle of catsup.

Ultimately, Whitmer beat the cancer. But like many of those taking the experimental medicine, which had only been tested previously on rodents, she developed serious coronary problems. Nine years ago, she received a heart transplant at the Cleveland Clinic. The donor was a 29-year-old woman who had been in a coma for 10 years following a car accident.

“I have always been an accepting person. I know I’m not the one in charge,” says Whitmer. “I have always been fascinated by what makes people happy and I want to share what I’ve learned.”

She became a volunteer at Akron General Medical Center’s oncology department, helping patients express themselves through art, and is now a popular inspirational speaker. For her efforts, Whitmer received American Cancer Society’s Courage Award, given to those whose encouragement to other patients is extraordinary.

An artist-in-residence at Old Trail School in Bath Township, Whitmer maintains a studio there, working primarily in oils. Her paintings reflect the beauty of the world — iridescent white clouds, mystical moons, blue and green waves that seem to roll off the canvas and bright fields of daffodils and tulips so realistic they appear ready to be picked.

Whitmer’s love of art and the human spirit are evident in her books. In “For the Asking, A Joyful Journey to Peace,” she compares people to crayons:

“Age and time alter Crayons. Some get broken, some stay sharp, some stay tall and straight and some just wear out. But all Crayons have a purpose — to make the world a more colorful, kinder place.”

For details, write to Peach Publications, 444 Burning Tree Drive, Akron, Ohio, 44303. 
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