Determined Hopefulness: Old Northeast Rallies Around Neighbor

This is a story about an unexpected and shocking diagnosis, a couple’s determination to never give up the fight, and a community rising up, circling the wagons to lend support.  

On August 28, 2022, Jim Wilson, a former professor of law at Cleveland State University, lost his balance, the room started to spin, and his muscles turned to rubber. As he started to slide to the floor, his wife Mimi Lord guided him to the couch in their classic Old Northeast Craftsman-style home. “We thought it was a stroke,” said Jim. 

The couple rushed to the hospital, and after multiple tests, doctors told Jim the terrible news. He had a glioblastoma, a fast-growing, aggressive brain cancer that can spread from the initial tumor site like a spider-web. “The diagnosis was totally mind-blowing. The doctors would not even let me go home. I had surgery to remove a 1.3-lb. tumor from my brain,” said Jim, still sounding in disbelief at the thought of such a large tumor. 

“I had lost my sense of smell and taste, and I had lost my balance twice, but I thought it might be symptoms of long-COVID,” Jim told me when I visited with the couple recently. In fact, he said he had scheduled an appointment at a clinic to check it out. That he might have a life-altering diagnosis of brain cancer was not even imaginable.

Jim and Mimi in front of their house in the Old Northeast.

Jim and Mimi’s journey into the frightening territory of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and many side effects, has been a roller coaster of emotions. But in his book, Cancer Be Not Proud, Jim writes that despite everything “his interactions with friends, family, healthcare providers, neighbors and others have led to a conclusion that I could never have imagined. My terrifying diagnosis has been one of the most inspiring periods of my life, restoring a great deal of faith in human nature during these increasingly fractious times.”

It had been only two and a half years since the couple retired from their respective careers. Jim had been on the faculty at Cleveland State for 35 years, which included two years on an exchange program in England teaching English constitutional law. Before that, he practiced law with the Legal Society in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mimi started out as a reporter and has a master’s degree in journalism, but later, went back to school and received her PhD in management from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She worked as a stock analyst doing research and then as the chief investment officer at an investment firm.

Their children – Lee, a software engineer, and Nathan, a musician – were grown, and living and working in San Diego. So, after the death of both of their mothers, they decided to sell their home in Cleveland and move to sunny St. Petersburg. Their move just happened to coincide with Halloween, and as anyone who lives in St. Pete knows all too well, the Old Northeast is the ultimate destination for trick-or-treating, with thousands of kids descending on the neighborhood. For Jim and Mimi, the timing was the perfect introduction to the sense of community for which the Old Northeast is known. “We were fortunate to be invited to a Halloween party, and from there we got invited to more parties,” said Jim. 

Jim with daughter Lee and the manatee she knitted for him.

Over time, their circle just kept growing, especially thanks to regular walks in the neighborhood with Nina, a mixed-breed rescue who was their constant lovable companion. Then there were the early morning gatherings at neighbor Warren Alessi’s bench by the bay, where everyone watched the sunrise and talked. Informal porch parties, a regular part of community life in the Old Northeast, brought even more new friends.

“Jim built a strong network of neighbors and friends by practicing ‘front porch diplomacy’ by simply sitting on his front porch and saying hello to people as they walked by,” said Lois Slavin, a neighbor and friend of Jim and Mimi’s – and the person who shared the couple’s inspirational story with the Northeast Journal. “Family, friends, dogs, sports, sticking together and growing closer over time in a beautiful neighborhood by the water. It’s very much an Historic Old Northeast story,” Slavin wrote to me.

News of Jim’s diagnosis spread quickly and “brought an outpouring of help and support from so many friends and neighbors,” said Mimi. Much of that support came in the form of comfort food. “In the first three months of my treatment we must have had 50-60 home-cooked meals delivered to us,” said Jim.  

Jim receiving a diploma for finishing radiation at Moffitt Cancer Center.

It reminds me of Dr. Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages. Food is certainly one of the love languages and a generous act of service. So many people wanted to bring meals that Alicia Reyes, their close friend and neighbor across the street, stepped in to help schedule deliveries so multiple meals wouldn’t arrive on the same day. “Alicia and her husband Rob [Shapiro] took us under their wing when we first arrived in St. Pete and gave us all kinds of tips and recommendations,” said Mimi. “During COVID, Jim, Nina and I, spent countless hours on their expansive porch, perfect for social distancing.” 

To show their gratitude for the community’s love and support, Jim and Mimi hosted an appreciation party in their backyard. “We had 35 people and it was wonderful,” said Jim. “We wanted to reciprocate for all the amazing gourmet meals.” Mimi invited those attending to send their favorite songs in advance so they would have a playlist at the party. Photos of the home-cooked meals they had received were strung out over the patio. 

But initially, while the couple was still recovering from the shock of the diagnosis, they weren’t thinking about celebrating. In fact, after all they had experienced, there was still one more loss – the death of their beloved dog, Nina. “She died [of cancer] three weeks after Jim returned home from Tampa General,” said Mimi. “It was really rough.”

Jim with Nina on their front porch.

To stay strong physically, emotionally, and mentally – and to help improve his prognosis, Jim changed his diet, gave up sugar, and started weekly at-home massages, as well as exercise sessions with a fitness trainer. The couple also began referring to their house as Fort Wilord, a “cheerful blend of our surnames,” said Jim. “My doctor told me I had one major thing going for me – my wife of 45 years; my caregiver, Mimi.” A plaque with the inscription “Welcome to Fort Wilord, where determined hopefulness reigns,” a gift from their friend Michelle Gray, now hangs above their front door.  

Jim continued to rely on his regular 20-year meditation practice to keep the emotional lows in check, and he reached out to his former Tai Chi teacher in Ohio, who sent videos to help Jim remember how to perform each step. To keep his mind sharp, he started sharing reflections about his cancer journey through a series of newsletters posted online on under the title “Cancer, Be Not Proud.” His wit and sense of humor shine through with chapters like, “Chicken Little,” “Bucket List,” and “Topsy Turvy.” With Mimi’s help, he published the collection of articles as a book with the same title.

Unfortunately, Jim and Mimi’s journey isn’t over. Last November, an MRI showed a recurrence of the cancer. More chemotherapy and radiation followed, along with new side effects. But Fort Wilord is staying strong. As Jim wrote in one of his first newsletters, “This will not always be comforting reading; I have been abiding too long in the shadow of the Valley of Death. But where there is death, there is life. Where there is life, there is love and kindness.”

Fort Wilord hangs by the front door.