September 28, 2004
Meeting a long-lost sibling extended Mike Rapier's family. Leanring that his brother needed his help would change both their lives.
by Evan West '99
It’s not uncommon for Wabash College juniors to describe studying abroad as a life-changing experience. Nor is it unusual to hear alumni say they left Wabash with more brothers than they had when they came in. But Mike Rapier ’87 is one of the rare grads who can say that it was his homecoming from Europe that altered his life. And when he says he left Wabash with a new brother, he means it literally.
Rapier spent the second semester of his junior year, spring 1986, studying in Salzburg, Austria. He returned to his parents’ home in Orlando that summer, breathless from his adventure in Europe, and spent the first day back unpacking and relaxing. He had barely settled in when his parents approached him. They led him to their bedroom and asked him to take a seat on the bed. His mother, Mary, sat down next to him. His father, Jim, took a seat in a chair facing them.
“Mike,” his father said, “there’s something we need to tell you.”
Rapier swallowed hard and braced himself. He thought his parents had decided to divorce and waited until now to break the bad news so they could do it in person.
“You have another brother that you don’t know about,” said his mother.
Rapier, of course, was shocked. But there was more.
“He has leukemia,” said his mother, “and he needs you and your brother and sisters to be tested as potential bone-marrow donors.”
“And by the way,” she added. “His name is Mike.”
The society in which Mary Rapier lived in the early 1960s, before Murphy Brown, high divorce rates, and other cultural factors loosened the stigma attached to single parenthood, was not as supportive to unwed mothers as it is today. When, in her early 20s, Mary learned that she was pregnant, the option of keeping the child seemed difficult.
“Things were different in those days,” says Mary, who lived in Louisville at the time. “My parents and minister told me I was being selfish by even thinking about keeping the baby.”
So she and the baby’s father, Jim, whom she had known for just a few months, decided to put the child up for adoption. They opted to use the resources of the Catholic diocese of Louisville because they felt it had the best adoption services, and, halfway into her pregnancy, Mary moved into a convent, where she remained until the birth of her first child. She saw him only long enough to know that he was a boy.
Mary and Jim would eventually marry and have two more sons, Dave and Mike, as well as two daughters, whom they raised in modest, middle-class neighborhoods around Louisville. Jim worked as a pre-need cemetery salesman and Mary stayed at home with the kids. It was, in many ways, a typical Midwestern American family. Dave, the older of the two brothers, grew up playing sports and Mike, younger by 13 months, followed in his footsteps. When Dave took up football, Mike did the same, and the gridiron became their favorite field of play. They were unaware that, just a few miles away, in another middle-class neighborhood, on another quiet suburban street, a brother they had never met was playing football, too.
When Rapier was in junior high, his family moved to West Lafayette, Indiana, where he would later emerge as a standout on the high school football team. It was Rapier’s football ability, in fact, that event-ually caught the attention of Wabash football coach Stan Parish, who, after inviting him to Crawfordsville to watch the Little Giants beat DePauw in the Monon Bell Classic, persuaded Rapier to join the Class of ’87 and play on the football team. Halfway through his junior year, he set out for Austria.
In the meantime, things were not going quite as well for Rapier’s lost brother, Mike Conder. He’d had a very happy childhood with his adoptive family, had grown up right, and had recently married a lovely young woman. But when he went to his family doctor in Cincinnati to get a blood test for what he thought were allergy problems, he received an ominous diagnosis. He had an abnormally high white-blood-cell count. Leukemia.
With a chronic condition such as his, the doctor explained, they could treat Conder for awhile with radiation and chemotherapy. But eventually he would need a bone-marrow transplant for any chance of long-term survival, preferably from a blood sibling.
“That’s going to be tough,” Conder told his doctor, “because I don’t have any blood siblings—I was adopted.”
Still, Conder’s doctors pressed the issue, and after about a year they persuaded the adoption agency that had placed Conder, which is usually very guarded about releasing the identity of biological parents, to contact his birth mother.
“I was one of those guys who, if I had not had an illness, would not have searched for my biological family because I had a very good childhood,” says Conder. “But then I got a call from my doctor. He said they had found my birth mother and father and that they had gotten married and had four more kids. ‘You’ve got a very good chance of a match for a bone-marrow transplant,’ he said. ‘I think we should pursue it.’”
For 26 years, not a day had gone by that Mary didn’t think about her first-born child. She felt guilty about giving him up and daydreamed about what his life was like.
“That was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” she says. “I always wondered if he was safe, well taken care of, loved—if he was all right.” Now she had the answer. And no, he was not all right. But here was an opportunity to help the son she had given up. It was a chance for redemption, and when it came time to save Conder’s life—though she and Jim had kept his existence a secret for all those years—she knew she could call on the rest of her children.
Rapier was still overseas when his siblings heard the news. When his parents told him, the first thing he wanted to know was whether he would get to meet his new brother. And, as it turned out, he would, because Conder had made arrangements to visit the family at their home in just three weeks. He and his wife, Stephanie, flew in from Cincinnati and, when they walked in the front door of the Rapier home, three of Conder’s siblings were assembled to meet him.
“When he came in, it was almost like I was looking at a taller version of myself,” says Rapier. “He and I probably looked more alike than anyone else in the family.” They both have dark hair, brown eyes, and strong builds.
“It was almost like walking into a club that you’re not a member of,” says Conder, “but that was something that came and went pretty quickly.”
After about a half-hour of ice-breaking and awkward silences, it was as though Conder had been one of them all along. It turned out he had the same dry, sarcastic sense of humor. And the next morning, when Conder kicked his shoes off while lounging on the Rapiers’ boat, the deal was sealed: He had the same large ugly feet as the rest of the family. “We knew that he was definitely of the same mold when we all put our feet together,” says Rapier. All the kids removed their shoes, stood in a circle, and snapped a picture.
He had the same large ugly feet as the rest of the family. "We knew that he was definitely of the same mold when we all put our feet together."
Conder, who had an adopted sister growing up but no brothers, spent the next two years leading up to his projected bone-marrow transplant getting to know his newfound siblings, visiting them frequently.
“Growing up with a sister is different than growing up with brothers,” he says. “We share the same interests, like sports and golf. That bonding process was a lot of fun.”
In the meantime, the Rapiers sent blood samples to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where Conder was to have the procedure, to see which sibling’s blood had human lymphocyte antigens, [HLAs] that were closest to Conder’s.
Throughout his senior year, Rapier made repeated trips to the Wabash infirmary to give vials of his blood, which were then sent off to Conder’s physicians in Seattle—one of whom was, incidentally, Dr. Robert Witherspoon, Wabash Class of ’65. “They took my cells and his cells and put them in a petri dish to see if they would grow together,” says Rapier. “And they did.”
When Rapier arrived in Seattle in the summer of 1988 for the transplant, Conder was still in good shape. He even remembers he and his brother taking on two other guys in a game of two-on-two basketball at the center. But in the days leading up the procedure, Conder would have to undergo an aggressive regimen of radiation and chemotherapy to kill off all his body’s bone marrow before Rapier’s could be introduced. And for those few days, the cure was worse than the disease. Conder’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was on a steady dosage of morphine and in and out of consciousness. Rapier, knowing that that Conder’s chemotherapy would cause his hair to fall out, shaved his own head in an act of solidarity.
“There were times when I thought I understood the pressure of being in his spot,” says Conder. “Because if the transplant didn’t work, that’s probably something he would have to carry around with him for a long time.”
While Rapier was in the donor ward, he met other families whose loved ones had come in for a transplant and hadn’t survived. And in those dark days leading up to the procedure, the situation for Conder, at least by appearances, looked bleak. Once a strapping young athlete, he was simply worn down. He had to eat through a tube and, because his immune system had been effectively eliminated, he was not allowed any direct human contact. “At that point I didn’t know if I was only going to have known him for a year or if I would know him for the rest of my life,” says Rapier.
Rapier faced the least-risky part of the procedure, which required doctors to insert large needles the size of ball-point pens into his pelvic bones to extract the healthy bone marrow. The only complication was that Rapier’s bones, it turned out, were some of the hardest the attendants had ever seen.
“Sometimes, if the bone is hard like marble, it bends the needles,” says Dr. Witherspoon. As a result, removing Rapier’s marrow took several more hours than it was supposed to, and Rapier was beaten up pretty badly in the process.
But Conder faced the most difficult test of his life. At that time, bone-marrow transplantation was still in its infancy, and even though the Hutchinson Clinic had pioneered the procedure and was probably the best in the field, the survival rate was only around 65 or 70 percent. While Conder’s and Rapier’s HLAs had appeared to match in tests, there was still the chance, explains Dr. Witherspoon, that Conder’s body would reject the transplanted tissue.
When it was time for the transplant, Rapier, who sat in a wheelchair and was still badly bruised from the bone-marrow removal, was wheeled into the room with his brother. He watched as doctors hung a bag of his marrow by Conder’s bed and, intravenously, dripped it into his body. As the marrow flowed in, the two brothers watched the Celtics and Lakers compete in the NBA Finals on TV. Neither said a word.
If a bone-marrow recipient lives for five years after the procedure, he is thought to have been fully cured of leukemia. Eighteen years after Rapier donated his bone-marrow to the brother he once never knew existed, Conder is in excellent health. When he was in the Hutchinson Center, he and
his wife befriended one of the attending nurses. Because his cancer treatment prevented Conder from having children of his own, the nurse connected him to a young woman she knew whose circumstance was very similar to that of his own birth mother; Conder and his wife would eventually adopt the woman’s daughter. They picked her up from the maternity ward in the same Seattle hospital where Conder received his treatment. To Conder, the adoption was a sign that his life had come full circle. And his bond with Rapier, forged around a surprise reunion and a dramatic, life-saving transplant, is one of the most important in his life.
The two Mikes with children Matthew and Lindsey.
“Mike and I are as close as you can imagine,” says Conder. “I love him like a brother. We talk to each other all the time. I can’t think of any adult other than my wife that I’m closer to.”
“He called me last summer,” says Rapier. “He said, ‘Man, I’m stuck in traffic, and it looks like I’m only going to be moving a few miles an hour for the next hour. But you know what? It’s June 2nd—and I am alive.’ I knew that was his way of telling me that it was the anniversary of the transplant.”
The Arizona Connection
Mike Rapier’s first job out of Wabash wasn’t exactly ideal. Working for a finance company in Illinois, he was responsible for claiming repossessed items. After a few years on the job, he left on an assignment to repo a mobile home. But what started as a routine run turned into a nightmare as the mobile-home owner, vowing to keep what was his, discharged a shotgun into the air to scare Rapier off.
“I crawled under his pickup, in the rain, in Champaign, Illinois,” says Rapier. “That’s when I decided I needed a career change.”
After brief stints with a paper manufacturer in Dallas and textbook publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Rapier become manager for a struggling Phoenix concern called Maxwell Paper. No more than a year into the job, he sensed that he could turn the venture around and persuaded the owner to sell it to him.
Three years later, Rapier’s company, Liberty Paper Products, is on the fast track, averaging 12 percent annual growth in a unique market niche. “We take jumbo roles of material and convert them into finished products,” says Rapier, “anything from ATM and cash receipts to ultrasound-imaging rolls.”
Liberty’s most interesting jobs, however, come from its custom orders. The company has contracts with roughly half the teams in the National Football League to produce video-imaging media used for photo printouts of on-the-field action, which coaches use to review strategy between plays.
Liberty also makes specialized paper for several U.S. Department of Defense missile systems, which print out telemetry readings after each launch, and among the systems Liberty supplies is the famous Patriot. “During the ’90s, when Patriot Missiles were knocking down Scuds,” says Rapier, “our paper was right there, printing the results.”
Now, thanks to Rapier, Wabash students have a chance to get in on the action. Rapier helped recruit young men for the College from the Phoenix area: seven students from Arizona attended Wabash last year. When Elliot Vice, ’06, called about an internship for last summer, Rapier was happy to oblige; before he knew it, he had two more Wallies, both from Arizona, signed up, Billy King and Aaron Lafitte, both Class of ’07.
And he’d never formally established an internship program!
Nevertheless, Rapier is letting them “get their feet wet” around the company of 50 employees, where they’ve tried their hands at everything from shipping/receiving to sales; he’s even given lodging to Vice.
“I really hadn’t planned on three interns, but we’re making it work,” says Rapier. “As long as there’s a kid from Wabash calling me and asking me for an internship, I’ll probably keep doing it.”