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Mike ‘Bear’ Ruehle’s legacy
to live on through donation of bears

By KATIE LEFEBVRE, Globe staff reporter
(Email Katie)

The Ruehle family of Sioux City recently made the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) “beary” happy.

Six of the Ruehle family members traveled to Omaha on March 2 to deliver 15 contractor-sized bags of bears to the medical center in hopes of changing countless lives.

Members of the UNMC staff met them at the door with four double wheelchairs and a luggage cart to transfer the close to 600 bears into the hospital.

When Mike “Bear” Ruehle lost his 12-year battle with cancer on Feb. 6, his family never thought the outpouring of support would be so great.

Instead of sending flowers, the family requested people bring bears to be donated to the UNMC.

The bears will be distributed to patients on the seventh floor oncology/hematology special care unit, where Mike was a patient. The family was able to deliver a few bears to brighten the day of current patients.

“The response was completely overwhelming. Not every family gets a story like this to remember a loved one,” said Ashley Locke, the middle child, who is a middle school literacy teacher at Sacred Heart School in Sioux City. “The hope is that we will continue to collect and donate bears each year to the hospital in February (when he died) or March (his birthday month). We don’t want it to be a onetime thing.”

Rhett Ruehle, a Sioux City chiropractor and the oldest child, said they knew there would be a lot of bears, but they thought it would be between 200 and 300. He was amazed when they first walked into the church for the visitation to see the amount of bears that had already been donated – the table designated for the bears was already full.

“I knew Mike touched a lot of lives, but I had no idea this many,” said Kerry Ruehle, Mike’s wife and 30-year parishioner at Nativity Parish in Sioux City. “The messages I have gotten. The bears we’ve gotten. The support we have gotten has been overwhelming.”

She added the bears are not only for children with cancer, but also for children of parents, grandparents or siblings with cancer.

“I think the response we've gotten has been nothing short of amazing,” said youngest child, Nate Ruehle. “It really goes to show how big an impact he made on the community due to the support we have received, not only from bears, but support from friends and other family.”

Why bears?

Nate, a junior at Briar Cliff University, said his dad’s nickname, Bear, came about when he was in high school.
“Rhett and I were downstairs playing Wii baseball and Dad came down to watch,” he said. “We asked if he wanted a go at it, and so he tried it out. His first hit was a line drive to the outfield, and Rhett said, ‘Wow. That was a bear shot.’”

Kerry commented the thought to collect and donate the bears came to her the night Mike passed away.
“I was lying in bed. I was thinking, ‘Send me a message,’” she said. “As I just started to doze, I woke up and thought, ‘Why not collect bears for the kids?’”

To those who donated bears, Kerry said, “Their love and appreciation of Mike will live on through the lives they’ve touched.”

How would Mike have reacted?

Mike was diagnosed in 2002 with squamous cell carcinoma of the vocal cord. In 2003, he had a laryngectomy followed by a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2004. He was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) in 2013, which resulted in a stem cell transplant on Aug. 13.

On Dec. 30 Mike went back to the hospital in Omaha with graft versus host (GVH) disease. The funeral for Mike was held on Feb. 11 at Nativity Church in Sioux City.

“I think he (his dad) would be happy. He’d be proud,” said Rhett of his dad’s reaction to the bears.
Nate said he knows his dad “would be so touched and proud of all the bears we’ve received. He was always preaching about giving back to others and helping out. It’s amazing that Mom thought of this because it’s exactly what he would've wanted.”

Kerry said Mike would be smiling if he could see all the bears. When Mike was in the hospital, they would see children walking around the hospital walking around with their “chemo poles” or see the children with shaved heads walking around the cafeteria.

“Knowing what their situation was, our hearts just broke for them,” she said. “We knew we had a tough situation, but you can’t imagine a parent going through that with a child. We saw so much of this that I think he would be thrilled that we thought of the children.”

Ashley also thought her dad would be “incredibly proud. It is cool to know that somehow, somewhere someone is having a better time and can hug something tangible because of you.”

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