NORFOLK - Too many people look for the light at the end of the tunnel.
Theresa Marsh would tell them to open their eyes. “There is light inside the tunnel,” she said. “You just have to see it.”
The 18-year-old Norfolkan, who will be among the 42 Norfolk Catholic High School graduates on Sunday, lives that philosophy on a daily basis.
“I’ve had low times ... been down in the dumps ... but I’ve had times that have been better than I could ever have imagined for myself,” Theresa said.
While she has encountered difficult challenges over the past decade — including both of her parents battling cancer — Theresa has persevered and remained focused on the positives.
Theresa was an eighth-grader when her father, Mike, was diagnosed with cancer. He died from a brain tumor in November 2012, a year and a half after his diagnosis. He was 59.
In reflection, Theresa said, “Honestly, I couldn’t be more thankful for the year and a half I had the chance to value his presence in my life.”
During the ordeal, Theresa said she received “unbelievable support” from the Norfolk Catholic administrators, faculty and students. “We developed a more personal relationship because they knew what I was going through,” she said. “They were able to help and work with me.”
“He shared my love of music,” Theresa said of her father. “He played trumpet and sang. We watched ‘The Lawrence Welk Show’ together and would dance around the living room.”
Her mother, Harriet, was diagnosed with breast cancer when Theresa was in first grade. “She was very sick and wasn’t supposed to survive,” Theresa said. “God knew I would need her later in life so she won her battle.”
“My mother is very loving and headstrong, very much so,” Theresa said. “She does what she thinks should be done, whether it’s easy or not, and I admire her for that.”
Early this year, Theresa lost a grandmother to cancer.
Through her trials, Theresa said she finds comfort in this Bible verse: “Do not be terrified; Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” — Joshua 1:9.
“I’ve always heard people say, especially after the fact, that you’re so strong in your faith,” she said. “I don’t see myself that way. I do think, however, (that the trying times) strengthened my faith.”
However, she said, “I didn’t really own it until this last summer when I attended a Teens Encounter Christ weekend retreat. It really helped me grasp on to what I believe. I don’t know where I’d be without my faith. It sounds cliché, but it is true.”
Theresa said, “I am definitely blessed. I can’t even put it into words. Despite all of the sad times, the good things have far and beyond outweighed the bad.”
Norfolk Catholic Principal Jeff Bellar said, “Theresa has handled herself very well through challenging circumstances that we pray our students never have to go through.”
Her musical and swimming activities are among her treasured high school moments.
“I’ve always had a passion and love for music,” Theresa said. Her earliest memories, she said, include “singing, running around the house, putting on performances for my parents.”
She took piano lessons early in her elementary school years and now also can play the saxophone, guitar, bass drum and bells.
“I feel that God has given me a musical strength,” Theresa said.
She has been a member of the Norfolk Catholic High jazz band, playing tenor and alto sax all four years. Also for four years, she has played the alto sax in the concert band and been a member of the show and concert choirs as a soprano.
Theresa also has been involved in her school’s one-act play productions and annual musical. Two years ago, she auditioned for the lead role of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Theresa said she told herself: “You’re only a sophomore.”
“I was very ecstatic when I received the role,” she said. “It is definitely a memory I will have for the rest of my life as one of my favorite high school memories. I’m really luck to have done that.”
For the past four years, she has been on the Norfolk Aquajet swim team, competing in the 200- and 500-yard events. Students from Norfolk Catholic, Norfolk High, Lutheran High Northeast and Wisner-Pilger High School are on the 2014-15 team.
Theresa has been swimming for a decade. “It’s something I hold near and dear to my heart,” she said.
She has suffered from asthma since her junior year. “It definitely caused a change in my competing,” she said.
Her other school involvements include Future Business Leaders of America, speech team, Norfolk Catholic Ministry and Nebraska Future Problem Solvers.
Theresa carries a grade-point average above 3.9 but isn’t even ranked in the top 10 in her class. “It’s a very academically gifted class,” she said, with nearly all of her fellow graduates headed for college or military service.
“I’ve enjoyed high school, but I feel I am ready to move on to college,” she said. “I am excited to take the next step.”
In August, Theresa will head eight hours away to Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D. She said choosing a college involved “lots of prayer” and “was not an easy decision. God was calling me to Black Hills State.”
During her college visit there, Theresa said she had the opportunity to sing with an audition-only choir.
“They really welcomed me,” she said. “They emphasized that the music department isn’t just a music department; it’s a family, and I felt that and felt part of the family.”
Theresa plans to major in music education with minors in speech and theater. Following college graduation, she can envision herself somewhere in Wyoming, teaching high school music and directing theatrical productions.
“I am definitely blessed,” Theresa said. “I can’t even put it into words. Despite all of the sad times, the good things have far and beyond outweighed the bad.”
Leisa Piper, development and alumni director at Norfolk Catholic, said that what impressed her the most about Theresa “is that she never wanted to be viewed as the victim. She wanted her situation to inspire something better for herself and those around her.”