The story of Erik Flom: an unwavering optimist leaves a brilliant legacy

The Erik Flom Memorial Award, unlike the other graduation bowls, is only given when the senior class and faculty strongly believe that someone’s characteristics align with what the award symbolizes.

This award, named after Erik Flom – brother to Middle School French teacher Kris Flom – was created in honor of him after his passing in 1976.

“My parents created the award as a way to honor the giving spirit that my brother Erik had,” Kris Flom said.

In the spring of 1973, when Erik Flom was in 9th grade, he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous Leukemia. Caused by spontaneous chromosome mutation, this illness is a rare blood-cell cancer – causing only about 0.4% of all cancer cases – that originates in the bone marrow.

“He broke his leg while downhill skiing and routine blood tests showed that there was an abnormality in his blood,” Kris Flom wrote in a piece for an Upper School Faculty Meeting and for the 1998 senior class.

For the following two and a half years, Erik was able to live a relatively average life – the only disruption to the normalcy being an inability to participate in contact sports, occasional medications, and consistent blood tests.

“I didn’t think of my problem as leukemia because it didn’t affect me in my day to day life. I was just aware that I had a blood problem,” wrote Erik Flom in an article for The Rubicon in 1975.

At the end of the same summer, before writing the article, Erik Flom had to remove his spleen which was enlarged due to the leukemia – soon, he went into remission.

“I was sent home and told that I was being ‘taken off the front burner and put on the back shelf,’” Erik Flom wrote.

A family friend said Erik ‘was happy from the time he woke up until he went to bed.”

— Kris Flom

Soon after, he fell ill and doctors decided to hospitalize him and begin total body radiation with a bone marrow transplant. In Erik Flom’s article, he writes about his situation optimistically – even humorously mentioning “some rare, expensive machines at the hospital” used in the transplant process and “some other complicated biology” involved in matching chromosomes between him and his older brother, Joe Flom.

Erik Flom decided to shave his head since his hair would have fallen out as a result of radiation anyway, writing in his article that his friends took up a collection for a blow comb.

“He did the collection by having my sister, Karen, who was an SPA ninth grader, put up a polaroid picture of him bald and asking people to donate to his hairdryer fund… A family friend said Erik ‘was happy from the time he woke up until he went to bed,’” wrote Kris Flom.

At the end of the article, written in November of that year, Erik wrote “I hope I’ve made my situation clear to you. I learn something new every day and it is intriguing. I miss you all and I hope school goes well.”

Just two months later, after 99 days and nights in the hospital, Erik Flom died on Jan. 3, 1976.

Although he passed away, his family, friends, and others who knew him remembered him for his humor and endless optimism. Despite his circumstances, he never let his illness smother his exuberant personality.

“His omnipresent smile and good will were far more than contagious. His effusive optimism, in all its sincerity, emanated from his being … His unbelievable courageous realism ever produced cynicism or self-pity, nor was his inextinguishable hope ever dampened,” alumnae Kelly McCullough O’Neill wrote in Erik Flom’s 1976 yearbook dedication.

After his passing, 12 evergreens were planted by Erik Flom’s peers near the MS wing as a living memorial for him and the Erik Flom Memorial Award was established to commemorate Erik’s spirit and recognize other students over the years who emulate his strong, caring, and joyful soul in the face of his/her own or someone else’s obstacles.

“This award is intended to honor one of these two traits: a person who, while facing difficult circumstances, is still able to live life to its fullest like Erik did; or, a person who has shown exceptional ability to help others like those people who helped Erik, my parents, my three other brothers, my sister, and myself,” wrote Kris Flom.

Overall. Kris Flom said that the award is meant to honor life spirit, service, perseverance, fortitude, courage, and a sense of humor – all traits that Erik Flom and those who played a large role in helping him during his illness embody.

The 2004 recipient of the award is Martha Polk, – US English teacher Lucy Polk’s daughter. When Martha Polk was in 7th grade, she fell ill to a rare autoimmune disorder that pulled her away from school that year and again in her senior year.

“It was a tough time in terms of missing school trying to stay on top of classes, missing the end of my soccer season, feeling weak and depleted from the day’s ordinary activities, and taking a lot of medication that made it hard to focus and difficult to be in my body,” Martha Polk said.

She managed to get through high school with a positive and strong spirit despite her difficult situation.

“[During graduation] I had this slow realization that Ms. Flom was talking about me. I felt my heart start to speed up and my face go red,” she said.

The award meant a lot to her as it recognized everything she had gone through and dealt with over the years in front of her classmates.

“The award came as a powerful recognition and validation of all that really is grueling mental and physical work … And it’s a really beautiful thing to have an award that recognizes other kinds of work that kids are doing outside of their scholarly and athletic endeavors,” she said.

Martha Polk’s spirit along with her hard work are symbolic of what Kris Flom and her parents want to celebrate with this award.

“[Martha Polk] was upbeat, hard working, concerned about the well-being of others, and also had a fantastic sense of humor,” Kris Flom said. “Just like Erik.”

Update: Lucy Polk retired from the English department in 2018.

This story was published in the Inaugural Issue of the Aureus feature magazine.