SHELBY – True servants of the Lord do not call attention to themselves.
They do not serve for the approval or recognition of others. Whatever they do to serve the Lord, they perform each task in quiet. And if recognized for their service, they humbly accept but do not allow recognition to distract from their work.
As such, the story of Tony Lugo’s life would never have come to light had it not been for one comment in a Facebook group dedicated to the community of Shelby -- and the incredible response that comment elicited.
Tony Lugo does not live his life, doing the work that he does, for any sort of recognition. But after learning of his impact on the Shelby community, Tony’s mother Jean Lugo decided it was time to tell his story.
“I’ve spent a lot of time explaining that he’s not out here to hurt anyone,” Jean said. “People have called him a weirdo. And I would say if you knew his story, you’d be more understanding.”
A grim diagnosis
Tony Lugo is a man who, when he meets you for the first time, says, “It’s nice to see you again!” and then insists on a proper hug as you leave.
Part of this is due to the fact that his friendliness knows no bounds. But more seriously, it is due to a medical problem that reared its ugly head nearly 20 years ago.
At 25 years old, Tony Lugo was working as the manager of a Cheddar’s restaurant. He was studying to become a psychiatrist with the goal of working with troubled children. He hoped to marry and have four children.
But his life plan was turned on its head in the summer of 1997.
“We were sitting and talking in my home, and he wasn’t making sense,” Jean recalled. “After about 20 minutes of him fumbling with his words, I threw up my hands and said Tony, something is wrong.”
The dates stick out like a sore thumb in Jean’s mind: On Aug. 11, 1997, a Monday, Tony attended his first doctor’s appointment. On Thursday, Aug. 14 he had an MRI. That same night, doctors called to say Tony would need to go to the Cleveland Clinic. They’d found an abnormality on his brain.
Initially, test after test came back clear, but the fact remained that an abnormality was there – it was a matter of finding out what. A biopsy of Tony’s brain finally provided an answer.
“At two o’clock on the 26th of August, the doctor came in the room and said they had found central nervous system lymphoma,” Jean said. “It was not a tumor, it was lesions around the memory part of his brain. And it was inoperable.”
Central nervous system lymphoma is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the lymph tissue of the brain and/or spinal cord. The doctors told Jean there was no cure, no hope.
Treatment options were limited, but the Lugos pressed on, grasping for any kind of improvement. An Ommaya reservoir dome, designed to deliver chemotherapy directly to Tony’s cerebrospinal fluid, was inserted just underneath his scalp. He also endured 28 sessions of radiation.
Throughout his treatment, Tony only saw his mother break down once – the night he started losing his hair due to radiation treatments. As Jean stood crying, watching her son pull his hair out in the bathroom, Tony suddenly took her by the arms.
“He said 'Mom, I’m glad this happened to me because I would have never known God,' ” Jean said. “And then he went back off into another world. Those were moments I had my son fully back.”
March 3, 1998 was Tony’s last treatment. It was all the treatment he could ever have, with no options left for doctors. He was given three years to live.
“They said to let him live his life the best he could,” Jean said.
An unlikely miracle
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic taught Jean how to help Tony walk. A hospital bed was brought into her home in Plymouth, and that’s where Tony stayed for the next few months.
Jean’s entire life began to revolve around caring for her son. She would feed him, bathe him, and take him to the bathroom. She recalls being so focused on Tony’s care, she often forgot to eat or take care of herself.
“I had to be his mind, and be my own mind, too,” she said. “That was devastating.”
As Jean speaks, pausing occasionally to collect herself, Tony listens intently but often glances at this reporter with a sheepish smile and a shrug. His mother might as well be talking about a stranger. With the cancer wiping most of his memory, Tony would often ask Jean what was happening to him.
“I didn’t tell him about the disease, because I didn’t have the strength to,” Jean said. “And no matter what I said, he wasn’t catching on. It went on like that for…I don’t know how long.”
The one place Jean found comfort was through prayer, and her unwavering faith. For weeks, Jean would get down on her knees and pray the same prayer: “God, you have given him to me for 25 years. Now I am giving him back to you.”
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Jean said. “As a mother you do everything, when your kids get hurt you put a bandage on and kiss them and hug them and tell them it’s going to be OK. I couldn’t do that.”
Jean would pray the same prayer over and over again, but would take it back as soon as she stood up. Then one day, after repeating her prayer yet again, she felt a release.
“It was like a burden came off of me, and I realized I had to get out of the way so God could do whatever he was going to do,” she said.
A couple days later, Tony was sleeping in bed as Jean sat nearby reading her Bible. Suddenly, Tony opened his eyes and sat up at the edge of the bed. Confused, Jean asked him what was going on.
“Tony said, ‘He told me to get up and that I was well.’ I said, 'Who told you to get up?' And he said 'God,' ” Jean said. “I couldn’t move.”
Clear as day, Tony asked his mother to use the bathroom. After months of helping him with his every move, Jean watched her son stand up and walk to the bathroom all on his own. Then, Tony asked if he could go upstairs to his bedroom – a place he hadn’t seen in many weeks.
“I said you sure can,” Jean remembered. “From that day forward, he started going outside.”
A servant's heart
Once he was up and moving again, Tony spent some time trying to find out what happened to him. Living in Plymouth at the time, the Plymouth Police Department often had to bring him home when he wandered too far and could not remember his way home.
“He would take off trying to find some answers,” Jean said. “He thought he did something wrong.”
The Lugos made the move to Shelby in 1999, but Tony would always go back to Plymouth trying to find answers. One time, he went missing for four days. To this day, Jean has no idea how Tony made his way home.
Eventually, Tony’s outdoor adventures led him to taking care of Shelby.
“It makes me real happy,” Tony said. “Helping out and finding a lot of things, I love doing that.”
Sitting quietly on his mother’s couch, Tony wears a simple red-checked shirt, a pair of glasses with duct tape on the right frame, and a Shelby Little League baseball cap. His salt-and-pepper 5-o’clock shadow betrays his youthful demeanor. At 43 years old he still shaves his face with the help of his mother.
When he walks, Tony explained he often wears jeans and a sweatshirt and carries a bag and a pair of gloves. Any trash he might find along his path, he picks up and carries with him.
“I’ve told him before to go out and just enjoy himself,” Jean said with a laugh. “No, not Tony, here he comes with bags of trash.”
There is nothing Tony enjoys more than being around children. Before his life turned upside down, Tony was studying to be a psychiatrist, always wanting to help troubled youth.
“I look at it now, and that was not the plan God had,” Jean said. “This was always the plan.”
Kids will often come to the door of their Meadow Estates apartment to ask if Tony can come out to play. Jean said kids don’t look at him as an adult, because doctors say his mindset is that of a 14-year-old.
Tony speaks quietly but with passion when talking about the children he knows, and can’t go more than a few seconds without telling a joke – often jokes he makes up off the top of his head.
“They’ll hand me the mail and I’ll say, I thought that was marsh-mail-ow,” Tony said with a laugh. “That’s what I do with kids, I come up with jokes all the time. Even if things are going rough, if I can get kids laughing and smiling all the time I like that a lot. Especially kids, they need a lot of love.”
A community's love
During his adventures, Jean would worry about Tony’s safety. She worried people wouldn’t understand him, or that he would be made fun of. That changed with a post to the community Facebook group “You know you’re from Shelby when…” asking about the man who picked up trash on Mansfield Avenue.
The post quickly took off – currently 117 people have “liked” the original post and a thread of more than 40 comments shares stories of appreciation for Tony. One Shelby resident even created a GoFundMe account with the intent of buying Tony breakfast; 10 people have donated $315 thus far.
This is not the first time Tony has received tokens of appreciation. Richland Co. Commissioner Marilyn John said during her tenure as mayor of Shelby, she had the honor of presenting Tony with a gift card donated specifically for him as a thank-you for his work in the community.
“If you’re out and about around Shelby, you’ve seen Tony whether you know him or not,” John said. “He does a great job of cleaning up around our community, but my favorite thing about Tony is he always greets you with a smile. He loves life and he loves his community, and I appreciate everything he does.”
Reading comment after comment about Tony’s work, Jean said she bawled like a baby. She said she has tried to thank each commentator individually.
“I had no idea this town felt that way about him,” Jean recalled, tears shining in her eyes. “They don’t know what they’ve done for me – no money in the world could buy what those people have said about my son. Because I didn’t know.”
An uncertain future
Tony still has problems with both short-term and long-term memory. Some facts stick, like his birthday.
“Five two one seven two,” Tony recited automatically – May 21, 1972. He will be 44 this year. And his continued existence baffles doctors.
“The doctors say, ‘Tony, are you still here?’” Jean said.
Tony giggles mischievously.
However, doctors are quick to quell much optimism. Jean has attempted to schedule follow-up appointments only to be turned away, with the advice to let her son live his life. There are no known survivors of central nervous system lymphoma – the longest known survivor lived five years. And then there’s Tony.
“In 1997, they only gave him three years. And this is 2016,” Jean said, incredulous. “He’s gone through a lot, and we’re still at the point where I don’t know if I’m going to keep him tomorrow. But I have to leave him in the Lord’s hands.”
For Tony, living his best life means continuing the work of his servant’s heart. For Jean, it’s hoping people see her son for who he really is.
“Tony is a good guy,” Jean said. “But he’s not your typical guy.”
“You know why I’m not typical? Because I like to tip things over, and I think I’m really cool,” Tony added, always quick to the joke.
“I just like helping everybody and going everywhere,” he said. “Everybody knows I’d help anybody out. And the Lord is with me. It feels good.”