By TESSA ROY One of former Senator William Walaska's final pieces of legislation, a bill to provide Rhode Islanders expanded coverage for experimental uses of prescription drugs, was of personal significance to him. Walaska pressed for passage of the
One of former Senator William Walaska’s final pieces of legislation, a bill to provide Rhode Islanders expanded coverage for experimental uses of prescription drugs, was of personal significance to him.
Walaska pressed for passage of the legislation as he was recovering from his second battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a rare blood and bone marrow disease that is a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Previously, chemotherapy had been ineffective in fighting his cancer and it appeared his options were limited.
However, doctors at Dana-Farber and the Miriam Hospital suggested he try Imbruvica, a cancer drug that had been FDA approved for some patients with his condition, but was still being studied. Once Walaska began taking the drug, he started improving “almost overnight.” Walaska’s cancer shrank, he felt better, and he gained back some of the weight he had lost, he said at the time.
"My own experience has shown me that experimental drugs can save a person's life. I'm extremely lucky that I was able to access the drug that turned my health around when chemotherapy couldn't," he said last August. "I'm gratified that we have now written this into law. We shouldn't say some life-threatening diseases warrant this coverage but others don't."
While Walaska was convinced that Imbruvica enabled him to win one battle with cancer, it failed to stop another form of cancer.
Yesterday morning, Walaska, 71, passed away at Rhode Island Hospital.
Walaska was first elected to the Senate in 1994 and held his seat for more than 20 years. He was the past President and CEO of Tri-State Automotive Warehouse, a co-chair for the Rhode Island Port Study Commission, and chairman of the Board at Greenwood Credit Union.
On Wednesday of last week, Walaska was in a hospital bed receiving treatment as he did a brief phone interview with the Beacon about new Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, a close friend. He offered praise for McCaffrey, calling him “intelligent, fastidious, and very methodical.” When the conversation ended, Walaska said we could call him back if we had more questions.
This week, his peers are remembering him as a family man and close friend. House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi, who had worked on the experimental prescription drug legislation with Walaska, said the former Senator was a “dear friend” who will be “sorely missed.”
“It’s a sad day for Warwick,” Shekarchi said. “He was very helpful to me in my first two terms in the State House.” He added that Walaska was “absolutely committed” to his children and grandchildren.
“They were everything to him,” Shekarchi said.
Senator Jeanine Calkin beat Walaska in the 2016 Democratic primary in a race she called “clean” and “very fair.” She passed on her condolences to his friends and family.
“Senator Walaska was very well loved in the city. It’s definitely a big loss,” she said. “He was very gracious and kind man, and he worked hard for the state.”
State and local leaders released a flurry of official statements, many of which promising “thoughts and prayers” for Walaska’s friends and family.
"As a legislator for more than two decades, Bill advocated tirelessly for people in Warwick and throughout Rhode Island,” Governor Gina Raimondo said in hers. “We will always remember Bill's decency and his love and commitment to serving our state and nation.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said the Senate will miss Walaska’s “warm smile, his sharp wit and, most of all, his friendship.”
"His impact on public policy will benefit Rhode Islanders for many generations to come, particularly in the areas of environmental protection, port development, and improving our economy,” Ruggerio’s statement said in part. “His personal story helped to change the law last year to ensure individuals facing terminal illness can try medications for off-label purposes.”
Mayor Scott Avedisian also remembered Walaska fondly.
“Senator Bill Walaska not only served the City of Warwick with honor and distinction over his tenure in the State Senate but he also was a valued confidante for many of us in city service,” he said. “He was truly a gentleman and a friend.”
Walaska is survived by his wife Marsha, children Leslie, Ann Marie and William Jr., and his grandchildren. His funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday April 8th at St. Kevin Church. Calling hours at Quinn Funeral Home had not been determined as of press time but are expected to be held Friday.