Remembering a pillar of the East Rockaway community

Toni Wilson led Girl Scout troop despite cancer

Toni Wilson, left, enjoyed one final Christmas Eve with her mother, Evelyn Henn, and daughter, Elizabeth, before succumbing to cancer on Feb. 26.
Toni Wilson, left, enjoyed one final Christmas Eve with her mother, Evelyn Henn, and daughter, Elizabeth, before succumbing to cancer on Feb. 26.
Courtesy Diane LauKaitis

During her lengthy battle with cancer, Antoinette “Toni” Wilson never let illness prevent her from giving everything she had to her church, her Girl Scout troop or her community.

“She didn’t let it stop her,” explained her friend Elizabeth Virgilio-Rice, who helped her teach Bible school classes. “Everybody else was still important to her, and I think that’s part of what kept her motivated to keep fighting.”

For Wilson, the fight ended on Feb. 26, after her ovarian cancer spread. Friends and family members said she died peacefully at home surrounded by loved ones. She would have turned 54 on March 10.

Wilson grew up in Lynbrook and attended East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School. After she and her husband, Chris Wilson, married, they moved to East Rockaway and had two children: Elizabeth, 21, who is a senior at SUNY New Paltz, and Peter, 17, who is a junior at East Rockaway JSHS. Chris and Toni marked their 25th wedding anniversary on Feb. 22.

Wilson was diagnosed with breast cancer on her 34th birthday, but overcame it. She then dealt with several other health issues before her cancer returned, this time in her ovaries. She had an up-and-down battle with it for about six years, Chris said, but in February she was told she would not survive much longer.

“She had medical issues that would slow a lot of people down,” Chris said, “but it didn’t slow her down. She was very giving, and a very warm person.”

Despite her illness, Toni remained the leader of Girl Scout Troop 2282 in East Rockaway and active in her church, Island Park United Methodist, until a week before her death. As troop leader, she organized trips, designed costumes for plays and led functions. At her church, she taught Bible school and ran an annual Angel Giving Tree, which helped provide Christmas gifts for less fortunate children.

Virgilio-Rice said that she met Wilson outside the church, during a service, when her daughter, Alicia, didn’t want to sit inside. She said that Wilson, who was watching her own daughter, offered to look after Alicia, and their friendship grew from there. “I just had a very good feeling of trust,” Virgilio-Rice said. “To this day I still don’t usually leave my daughter with anyone.”

In addition to her volunteer work, Wilson was an occupational therapist at the Park Avenue Extended Care Facility in Long Beach, a job her husband said she loved. Chris kept the house in order when his wife was working and volunteering.

“She loved doing service projects and doing arts and crafts, especially with the young kids,” he said. “That’s why she was also involved with Bible school and Sunday school. She was like a second mother to the kids, basically.”

During her battle with cancer, Wilson underwent blood transfusions and several operations to remove tumors, and lost her hair from chemotherapy. In November, the cancer continued to spread, and she realized she would be celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas one final time with her family and friends. She spent the last months of her life in and out of the hospital, before returning home under hospice care.

“She had an even temperament about it,” Chris said. “It would make her sad, but she kept up her personality and her strength. And she was an example to her kids and to me about persistence and being strong, and to the other people that she touched.”

He added that hundreds of people attended her memorial services on Feb. 28 and March 1 at Donza Funeral Home in East Rockaway, and her funeral on March 2 at Island Park United Methodist, — some of whom he didn’t know. “Our family sincerely appreciates the love and sympathy and empathy, and all the considerations that people have given us,” he said.

The Wilson family requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Wilson’s honor to the Tell Every Amazing Lady About Ovarian Cancer, Louisa M. McGregor Ovarian Cancer Foundation, also known as TEAL, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the disease.

Diane LauKaitis, a school friend of Wilson’s since 1975, said they always stayed in touch, even when they attended different colleges and started families. “She had an infectious smile,” LauKaitis recalled. “Whenever you saw her, she had a smile on her face. Every picture that I have of her, every picture that there was, she’s smiling. Every single one. She’s definitely my rock. She was the one that kept me grounded.” 

LauKaitis shared a story about a fundraiser she organized to support her friend after her diagnosis. LauKaitis shaved her head, and Wilson stayed by her side for moral support. “Here she’s got cancer and all I did was shave my head, and she’s consoling me,” LauKaitis said with a laugh.

Wilson was told her cancer had spread to her colon two days before LauKaitis’s son’s wedding in October, but she still came and was smiling and dancing at the event, LauKaitis said. In December, in the midst of her battle, Wilson attended a wake for LauKaitis’s brother-in-law and showed her support.

The day Wilson died, LauKaitis was at her bedside along with Chris and their children; Wilson’s parents, Joseph and Evelyn Henn; her two brothers, Edward and Joseph Henn Jr.; and her sister, Lisa Ligis, who traveled from her home in Alaska.

“I was there when she took her last breath,” LauKaitis recounted. “It was peaceful. When I cried at the end when she passed, it wasn’t as much as missing her at that point. It was just that the suffering was over and the pain was gone.”

Wilson’s legacy of giving survives her: Chris said he was at a recent community event and strangers approached him to share stories about how his wife impacted their lives.

“I hope that everybody that she touched would try and treat people the way that she treated them,” he said. “That would be the best thing.”