If you’ve lived in Lawrence more than a few years, you’ve probably crossed paths with Bob Silipigni. Since 2001, he’s traversed the streets of his hometown and raised almost a million dollars in the fight to end cancer.
Soft-spoken and friendly, Silipigni (pronounced Sill-uh-pee-nee) wears a full mustache that covers part of his smile. He’s retired from a career spent working with people with disabilities. Silipigni often wears athletic gear that reflects his love for two alma maters: Lawrence High School and the University of Kansas.
“I left my heart at Lawrence High School,” Silipigni said of the place where he ran cross-country.
Silipigni’s love for the Chesty Lions shows in his annual efforts to raise funds and awareness for the Douglas County Relay for Life — a local event that’s part of the American Cancer Society’s global efforts to end cancer. He participates on a team named to honor the LHS Lions.
Back when Silipigni began his fundraising efforts, he raised $1,500 for the 2001 Relay for Life, according to Carolyn Zeller, senior development manager at the ACS. Silipigni makes an individual goal each year to best his last. This year he raised a personal record — $98,000. That puts him within $6,000 of a $1 million all-time total, a goal he plans to surpass in 2024.
Although Silipigni has logged a lot of miles during 22 years of door knocking in the Lawrence community, he’s unlikely to be seen wearing a fitness tracker.
“I don’t care about that. I’ve got too many other things on my mind,” he joked.
From January to early June and for at least three hours a day, Silipigni walks and talks. He visits the homes of between 1,700 and 2,000 previous donors who’ve financially supported the cause in recent years, and he stops by the homes of new residents and potential donors.
Silipigni has watched Lawrence residents come and go — some because of the very disease he’s working to eradicate. Silipigni’s dedication to the cause was sparked by the deaths of his grandfather, an uncle, and an employer from cancer.
He’s forged friendships among donors and even joined them for holiday celebrations. During the upcoming “off season,” Silipigni hopes to socialize with some who’ve invited him back.
“My favorite part of fundraising has been to get to know so many gracious people in this community,” he said.
And the animals are a bonus, said Silipigni, a pet lover and dog dad himself.
“There’s just one that stands out, especially to me, and you’re not gonna believe it,” he laughed. “I came across a Rottweiler-basset hound mix. Oh, just imagine a Rottweiler on basset hound legs. And her name was Layla.”
Today people focus a lot on our differences, but humans remain more alike than different, according to Silipigni. Those similarities are exposed during his walks from neighborhood to neighborhood. Lawrence residents share a mutual concern for the well-being of their families and friends, Silipigni said. He credits that love for his successful fundraising.
“I mean, every year, it doesn’t fail. I’ll have someone break down in tears over the loss of someone or a hardship of someone,” Silipigni said. “As these are people who have feelings about somebody else. It does exist. You have commonalities still.”
The 2023 Douglas County Relay for Life takes place from 6 to 11 p.m. Friday, June 2, on the track at Rock Chalk Park, 6100 Rock Chalk Drive. This year’s theme is Glow for Hope. More than $128,000 has been raised locally for the 2023 relay, according to the relay website. The money raised supports research for a cure as well as cancer survivors, their caregivers, treatments and programs.
Silipigni emphasized the family-friendly aspects of the evening, including a kids zone with face painting, bouncing inflatables and twisted balloons. Food vendors, games, races, a scavenger hunt, performances, raffles and a silent auction also will be available. See the full schedule at this link.
Survivor-focused activities include a free barbecue dinner, shirt, bingo and prizes. The opening ceremony will pay tribute to those who’ve battled cancer starting with a survivors and caregivers lap. Pre-registration is encouraged but not required.
Silipigni’s favorite part of the event — the Luminaria Ceremony — is scheduled for 9 p.m. He looks forward to reconnecting with his friends every year over a common cause.
“We’re all in this mess together and we know it,” Silipigni said. “Setting up the luminaria is meaningful. It has brought joy to people’s faces and I’ve seen people cry. It’s an event of highs and lows.”
Donate to the Relay for Life, sign up to volunteer, form a fundraising team, or sponsor a $10 luminaria in honor or memory of a loved one at this link.