Fundraiser planned for Sewickley police officer recovering from leukemia

Tuesday, January 15, 2019 | 3:12 PM


Officer Mark Smilek is not one to complain.

“I never hear him be negative at all,” said Leo DiCesare of his fellow Sewickley officer. “You never hear him say he’s tired. He’s always upbeat and very confident that he’s going to put this behind him.”

For Smilek, it’s all about getting back to “pre-cancer Mark.”

“My goal is to get back to work and help provide for my family. I want to pay it forward somehow, to the community that has helped me in my time of need,” he said.

Smilek, 45, was diagnosed in May 2017 with acute lymphocytic leukemia, an aggressive form of blood and bone marrow cancer affecting white blood cells. When chemotherapy didn’t completely eradicate the disease, Smilek went through full-body radiation and more chemotherapy to prepare for a stem cell transplant. The February 2018 procedure was successful, and Smilek was able to return to work with the Sewickley Borough Police Department after only six months.

He was on the job for a few weeks when he received a phone call from his doctor as he was driving to work.

A biopsy revealed the cancer had returned.

DiCesare, who was new to the department and hadn’t yet met Smilek, was there when Smilek arrived with the news.

“He walked in and he just looked defeated. Chief said, ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘I just got off the phone with my doctor. It’s back.’ You could hear a pin drop,” said DiCesare. “We looked around at each other. A couple of guys started crying. One guy had to leave the room. I looked across the room and said, ‘Let’s just do a fundraiser.’ (Mark) looks at me like, ‘Who are you?’ And I’m like, ‘I cook pasta.’ Everybody started smiling. And from there, it grew legs.”

In addition to serving as a police officer, DiCesare operates Leo’s Sunday Sauce, a business that supports local fundraisers and sells pastas and sauces created in his Braddock Hills kitchen from a family recipe. He provides the food for events, and all proceeds go to the cause.

With assistance from fellow officers and support from local organizations such as the Sewickley Valley YMCA, DiCesare will cook and serve an authentic Italian pasta meal from 1 to 6 p.m. Jan. 26 at St. James School cafeteria, 201 Broad St. Proceeds will go toward Smilek’s uncovered medical expenses.

Smilek, in his 25th year as an officer, still is recovering from a second stem cell transplant in November.

“Money is one thing, but the look on their faces when all these people come pouring through the door … It kind of feeds their soul,” said DiCesare of the people for whom he has hosted fundraisers. “When you have a huge venue and the people are lining up, it gives them strength. It’s worth more than the money.”

The police department is asking local businesses for monetary donations, gift certificates and items for gift baskets. During the dinner, there will be basket raffles, a 50/50 drawing, desserts, draft beer and live entertainment.

The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children age 12 and under.

Smilek, who lives in Beaver County with his wife, Hilary, and stepdaughters, Gwen and Meredith, said he is humbled and overwhelmed by the support of his department and the Sewickley community.

“They don’t have to do it, but they’re working their butts off to do it,” he said. “I’m very appreciative.”

For information or to attend the dinner, call DiCesare at 412-600-6277.

Natalie Miller is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natalie at 412-324-1408, [email protected] or via Twitter @natalieNRMiller.