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Cincinnati-area fundraising event boosts cancer research via Huggins memorial fund

Linda and Pete Zulia (from left) present a donation to WVU Men’s Basketball Coach Bob Huggins and WVU Cancer Institute Director Hannah Hazard-Jenkins at the 2020 Bob Huggins Fish Fry.

Linda and Pete Zulia (from left) present a donation to WVU Men’s Basketball Coach Bob Huggins and WVU Cancer Institute Director Hannah Hazard-Jenkins at the 2020 Bob Huggins Fish Fry. The funds were contributed by the Zulias, their employees and business partners to benefit the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment at the WVU Foundation.

Cancer fosters bittersweet connections. Virtually everyone has felt its devastating impact one way or another – including West Virginia University alumnus Pete Zulia, who lost his father to lung cancer over 25 years ago.

“Cancer touches the heartstrings of everybody,” Zulia said. “Anytime you talk to anyone, they’ve always got a story, and it’s never a good one.”

Zulia and his wife, Linda, hope that shared experience motivates people to contribute to the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment Fund at the WVU Foundation, established by WVU Men’s Basketball Coach Bob Huggins in memory of his mother. In fall 2019, the Zulias donated $50,000 of their own money and $50,000 from their Cincinnati-based business, Oxford Physical Therapy Centers, to launch a fundraising campaign that focused first on their employees. Now, they are welcoming Huggins back to the Queen City for a public benefit weekend to boost their efforts to raise money for cancer research.

Presented by Oxford Physical Therapy Centers, Fleet Feet Cincinnati and Central Bank, the inaugural Huggins Homecoming comprises three events June 13-14 – a 5K run/walk, post-run bites and brews, and a dinner event featuring Huggins and special guests. The dinner event will be available to the public via a tickets-required livestream, with a limited on-site audience. All proceeds will benefit the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment Fund.

“We just thought we could make a difference,” Pete Zulia said. “You’ve got to do more than just your job. You’ve got to help people. … When you have a desire to help, it’s not hard. It’s just a matter of figuring out how.”

Zulia devoted his entire career to helping people as they recover physically. He accepted a position with an Ohio-based physical therapy firm after receiving bachelor’s degrees in athletic training and secondary education from WVU and a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from the University of Pittsburgh. In 1992, he co-founded Oxford Physical Therapy Centers. The business has since grown to 18 facilities with services spanning Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana thanks to a forward-thinking approach reflected in the company’s slogan: Begin with the end in mind.

Zulia put that same can-do spirit to use for WVU, where he later completed a master’s degree in business administration and his son, Chandler, earned a bachelor’s degree in business management and master’s degree in sports management. In 2016, the Zulias established the Peter and Linda Zulia Endowed Scholarship to provide opportunities for WVU athletic training students. Pete Zulia also provides support for WVU as co-chair of the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences Visiting Committee.

Building upon cancer bonds

The Zulias’ efforts to bolster the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment Fund were inspired by Pete’s burgeoning friendship with Coach Huggins, who previously coached the University of Cincinnati men’s basketball team from 1989 to 2005. The pair bonded over their Cincinnati ties after Pete Zulia participated in the annual Bob Huggins Basketball Fantasy Camp about six years ago.

Eventually, Zulia shared the story of how his father, Simon, died at 69. A twin and “Greatest Generation guy” from a Greek family, Simon Zulia was a Bronze Star World War II veteran whose daily rations included two packs of cigarettes. He quit smoking in 1985, about 10 years before his fateful cancer diagnosis. He died four months later.

“It hit him hard,” Pete Zulia said. “I can remember the day. I can remember the time. When your hero dies, it never leaves you.”

Huggins established his memorial endowment fund to support cancer research after his mother, Norma Mae, lost her battle with colon cancer in 2003. To date, the fund has raised more than $7 million to support cutting-edge clinical research trials aimed at finding newer, better ways to treat cancer. After discussing their cancer connection, Huggins suggested Zulia invest in clinical research to help make a lasting difference.

“Pete and Linda are amazing people, and I can’t thank them enough for the great work they are doing,” Huggins said. “They too have been affected by cancer, and they are doing their part to fight back. For them to lead the charge on raising money to beat this horrible disease makes me very excited to go back to Cincinnati. I am determined to help them accomplish their goal of raising $1 million for my mother’s endowment to benefit the WVU Cancer Institute.”

Huggins Homecoming: June 13th and 14th, Cincinnati, Ohio; wvucancer.org/hugginshomecoming

‘Let’s win’

With support from Linda, Chandler and daughter Chelsey, Zulia donated to the Norma Mae fund and challenged about 130 employees at Oxford locations to do the same, offering a dollar-for-dollar match up to $100 per employee. As an added incentive, every $25 donation earned employees an hour of paid time off.

A November 2019 visit to the WVU Cancer Institute by Pete and Linda Zulia with Oxford representatives provided greater insight into the research performed using donor dollars and its significant impact in advancing cancer care far beyond West Virginia’s borders. They were joined by Fleet Feet owner Frank DeJulius, who contributed $25,000 with his wife, Stacey. Their collective takeaway from the trip is now the slogan driving the broader fundraising efforts: Cancer Research and Care for Everyone … Everywhere.  [CR1] 

The Huggins Homecoming events offer an exciting opportunity for Cincinnati-area fans to catch up with Huggins, support local businesses and boost cancer research. The 5K run/walk will begin at the new Fleet Feet Cincinnati location at Fifty West Brewing Company, where anyone can grab a bite afterward to learn more about the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment Fund. The livestreamed dinner is a ribs and chicken throwdown event at Ohio’s original Montgomery Inn, complete with auction, special presentations and Huggins’ one-of-a-kind commentary. A limited number of sponsorship packages are available.

Pete Zulia hopes the ambitious fundraising efforts by his personal and professional families inspire other donors to think bigger than individual contributions. He knows it will take teamwork to achieve the sports-minded goal he shares with Coach Huggins: “Let’s win,” Zulia said. “It will take little wins getting to the big win. When we generate funds for various clinical trials, put that into action to find a cure.”

To register for the 5K run/walk, become a sponsor, purchase a livestream dinner ticket or learn more, visit hugginshomecoming.com.

All contributions to the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment Fund are made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that solicits and administers private donations on behalf of the University.

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