By Laurel Walker
Journal Sentinel columnist
April 22, 1999
Brookfield -- Steve Olszyk chased his passion, television news, first on foot and finally on scooter.
Then, a year ago, his heart and mind told him what his body had been trying to tell him for a while -- that it was time to leave his job as news and special projects producer at WITI-TV (Channel 6) on disability.
But leaving a job because of multiple sclerosis and quitting on himself are two entirely different things.
Olszyk said his condition is progressive, slowly adding to his weakness and fatigue. But a home computer and sharp mind allow him to keep his fingers in news consulting projects across the country. His desire to share his personal experience -- as others have shared theirs with him -- keeps him involved as a peer counselor and fund-raiser for the Wisconsin chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, based in Waukesha County.
And of late, Olszyk's been riding herd on construction of a house in Menomonee Falls -- often making three trips a day to the site, sometimes having to crawl down the basement steps to get where he needed to be. Olszyk, 47, his wife, Carol, 48, and their cocker spaniel, Coco, are moving out of their two-story Brookfield condominium and into the ranch-style house next week.
In the news business, we like to tell the world what's happening, and why. No loose ends. But when it comes to MS, no one has many answers. "Wish I knew," he said more than once.
MS is a disease that randomly attacks the central nervous system, wearing away control over one's body. Symptoms can range from numbness to paralysis, temporary vision problems to blindness. It is not fatal, just unpredictable. Those with MS don't know when the attacks will occur, how long they'll last, or how severe they'll be.
Olszyk learned to love the news business early in life under one the best teachers -- his father, Arthur L. Olszyk, a pioneer in Milwaukee television news who died in 1996. Steve Olszyk worked in news departments in Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio and Milwaukee, including at Channel 12 and the last seven years before retiring in 1998 at Channel 6. Jill Geisler, the former WITI news director who hired Olszyk knowing of his illness, said, "He followed his passion until the illness took away his ability to do as much as he wanted to do."
She remembered that as Olszyk's legs became weaker, and as he moved around unsteadily by holding onto chairs, she suggested he might consider a cane. After he came to work with the cane, Geisler recalled, Vince Gibbens -- the popular anchor who died of a heart attack at age 46 -- appeared with a very stylish, ornately carved walking stick and said, "A guy like you needs a stick like this." Then came the scooter, less stylish but more practical.
Olszyk, a workaholic who put in long hours and at any time of the day or night, if that's when the story was happening, said it was hard coming to grips with his limitations.
"Everyone with MS tries to hide it for a long time," he said. He was diagnosed in 1986 while in Ohio, after he noticed vision problems and then was hospitalized with severe weakness in his legs.
"My sister came up to the hospital and made fun of me all night, and we laughed ourselves silly," he said. "As a result, I didn't have to mourn." With the help of medication, he was back on his feet in a month -- even running and, when that became clumsy, bicycling.
When symptoms worsened, "I was the king of denial. I drove people nuts," he said. "In 1994, it just all of a sudden started to get worse." He could barely type. His speech slowed. "I finally had to admit, ya, there's a problem here."
For the first time, he turned to the Multiple Sclerosis Society for advice. He was put in touch with an area man with MS who'd retired on disability. Olszyk decided to do the same, and "I felt liberated by that."
Carol, a management consultant who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, might have had the harder time with it.
"I was sad at first," she said. "The prime of life is in our 40s, and to go into retirement . . . I wasn't quite ready for that."
But her husband has spent his time finding out what he can do, rather than what he can't. A big part of that has been volunteering weekly at the MS Society. He talks to those who call with questions or concerns, helps them find out what they can do, not what they can't.
"We want to find everyone with the disease and let them know they are not alone," he said.
On Sunday, the family participated in its second MS Walk, among the 6,000 participants statewide who raised $625,000.
When Steve Olszyk considered the walk last year, he wondered, "Who's gonna pay for a guy to ride around on a set of wheels and batteries?" Coco was the key.
"Coco is a very selfish dog," he deadpanned. "But once a year, Coco surprises everyone and does something nice for people."
The dog walked 7.5 miles, accompanied by Steve on his scooter.