Looking back on the ride of his life

Looking back on the ride of his life

What really matters? Helping others, says doctor in his final days.

He’d smile and say he wanted this carved on his gravestone:

What a ride.

Dr. Mark Baxa loved to laugh, tell stories and travel the world. He got married on a high cliff in Norway after a three-hour hike to get up there. He served in the military, and once was the ground flight surgeon for the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as President George H.W. Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle and their families.

He was a paramedic. An ER surgeon. A cosmetic surgeon. An Air Force Flight Surgeon. A farmer. A friend.

A proud Husker.

Mark grew up in Nebraska in a family with little money. Through the GI Bill and a job as a paramedic, he made it through both the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. It was a struggle, he’d say, because he wasn’t a top student.

But how many people ever discover a new species?

That happened while he was doing research at UNL’s Cedar Point Biological Station near Lake McConaughy under acclaimed biologist John Janovy. Mark discovered a new bivalve species and published a paper on it — as an undergrad. He’d say he felt that paper was the key to getting him accepted into medical school.

In 2004, he discovered the love of his life.

His wife, Deborah.

They met by chance in New York City. Mark had a medical practice there at the time. Deborah was on a business trip. (Her father, a minister, married them on that high cliff in Norway in a ceremony they’d kept secret until the last moment.)

“What impressed me was his lust for life, his high energy, his drive and motivation and how much he just truly enjoyed the awe and wonder of each day,” she says. “He had a childlike wonder and appreciation for so many things.

“When people would ask if we had any children, I would point at Mark and say, ‘Just him.’”

And, along the way, Mark learned to give back — both in his life and in his will.

He and Deborah, both Burnett Society members, created a fund at the university to build a new cabin for students who stay at Cedar Point. (UNL architecture students will start building it soon.) He and Deborah also plan to support students in many other ways including scholarships, fellowships, research and money to travel.

But Mark will not ever get to see his cabin:

Baxa House.

The ride is nearly over for him now, even though he’s only 59. He’s dying of cancer. His words are few and faint.

“The time has passed for him to talk on the phone,” Deborah explains.

So, sitting beside him in their home in Charlotte, North Carolina, she asks him the questions for this story, about why he gives back to the University of Nebraska, and she takes down his answers:

Q: Many young people will stay at Baxa House for years to come and benefit from your support. As you look back on your life, Mark, what would you want them to know — about what truly matters in life?

Mark: What truly matters is setting goals, doing you very best and helping others. Live life to the fullest, and don’t take anything or anyone for granted.

Q: Why is giving back important to you?

Mark: As a doctor, I have skills to help others. I feel that it is both my privilege and responsibility to give back.

Q: How does it make you feel, to give back to the University of Nebraska?

Mark: UNL started me on my journey to become a doctor. That included a very special and important time at Cedar Point which gave me the opportunity to see how other life forms function and understand the intricacies of all life forms. I will never forget my experiences there and the special people I met, including Dr. John Janovy.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Mark: My hope is that students at Cedar Point seek opportunities to give back and help others.


Deborah has already written the eulogy for her husband’s funeral. Her theme:

What a ride.

“Mark made the world a better place for me,” she will say, “and he made my life wonderful and complete. I hope that when you think of Mark, now and in the future, you will remember what a loyal friend he was, his joy and zest for life.
“And I hope that in some way, he made your life better.”

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