In sickness and in health
In the 28 years of their love story, Tracey Repp was the celebrated one, and his wife, Lolita, was the teacher and mom.
He was a heroic cop, then an FBI agent, then an undercover cop. He was runner-up for Kansas Teacher of the Year, and won a state championship as a soccer coach at Andover High School.
Lolita Repp taught language arts to middle-schoolers. She coaches cheerleaders and sells jewelry on the side.
Tracey ran the Pike’s Peak marathon. He ran 40 miles on his 40th birthday in 2009, “just because.”
Lolita writes lesson plans and grocery lists.
Tracey is beloved by many.
Lolita by her own description is easy to dislike.
But this is a love story.
When Tracey got deathly sick, Lolita defined what love is.
She even had a sign painted as a symbol of that love.
Honk three times
If you ever walk by the Grant Telephone building in Old Town, you’re likely to hear car horns at all hours, three quick honks each time.
It started after Tracey got depressed on May 26.
He was lying on a couch in his apartment, too weak to get up.
He’s 47. But by May, anguished friends, and even Tracey himself, began to wonder whether he’d die soon. He was losing weight, getting weaker by the day.
On his phone, he wrote a post on his Facebook page:
“If you know where I live (southwest corner of 1st and Rock Island) do me a favor,” he wrote. “If you pass by this spot, honk three times to say hello. This may be stupid but it will make me feel better! God Is Good ...”
Car horns began to honk right under his living room window. They’ve honked every day since.
“Thank you to the person who honked 3 times at 3:06 a.m.,” he posted one May day. “I was lying in bed wide awake and then you honked. Shortly thereafter I was able to sleep. God knew I needed that! God Is Good ...”
Lolita likes the honks.
They remind her she’s not alone.
Tracey got sick in 2012, with cancer on top of Lyme disease. After that, Lolita sometimes came home to find him unconscious after seizures.
Sometimes she’d find him lying in a pool of his own blood from a head gash he got by falling. He broke a cheek bone once.
She woke up one night to find him dying on the floor. She broke one of his ribs doing chest compressions that brought him back. “Breaking a rib means I did it right,” she said later.
Lifting his head off a pillow takes effort, even when he rises to see who’s honking below his windows.
He sometimes has silent seizures; he drifts off, eyes glazed over.
His right hand trembles. He speaks in a halting stutter now, though he still tells jokes. For example: “Lolita and I have been together 30 years, if you count the two years I stalked her.”
His weight dropped from 185 to 138 pounds on a 6-foot frame. He has lost kidney function.
Lolita teaches every weekday at Haysville Middle School. At night, when not writing lesson plans, she takes care of Tracey.
Before he got sick, Tracey was a street cop, then a gang-unit cop, then a detective, then an FBI special agent, then an undercover cop working once again for the Wichita police. Retired and current commanders from the Wichita Police Department regard him with admiration.
He switched careers in 2002 to become a school teacher and soccer coach.
One year after that, the boys soccer team he coached at Andover High School won the Kansas 4A state championship. Five years later, he coached the girls team to so many wins that he was named Kansas Coach of the Year.
Tracey two years later was named runner-up for Kansas Teacher of the Year.
Two years after that, as an assistant principal at Campus High School in Haysville, Tracey revamped some of the school’s more-advanced classes and overhauled teacher training.
For fun, he ran at least 8 miles every day, often 13 miles, sometimes 20. He ran the Pike’s Peak Marathon in 2007, which meant climbing 7,000 feet in altitude over the first 13 miles.
He made marathons look effortless.
“I am easy to dislike,” Lolita says.
Lolita says this one day in August, sitting across from where Tracey is resting on a couch.
“No!” Tracey says.
“Yes, I am,” she says. “I’m not going to lie. There is a lot wrong with me.”
“No!” Tracey says. He says the word almost as a moan. He looks exhausted, weak and hurt.
Lolita had just come home from Haysville Middle School to kick off her shoes and sit with him. It was near 7 p.m., and Tracey often goes to bed at this hour, meaning Lolita is alone for hours.
Tracey looked pained again as Lolita recited examples of past conflicts she’s had.
She got fired from a teaching job at Southwestern College in Winfield in 2015
She says she and Tracey have a troubled relationship with some of Tracey’s doctors and hospitals.
Tracey later says these conflicts happen because many medical people don’t understand Lyme disease, and because Lolita has sometimes been blunt with them.
They lost everything
After he got sick, doctors declared that Tracey had ALS, (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Then they diagnosed Parkinson’s.
They prescribed medications for each diagnosis, and Tracey swallowed them. When doctors realized he did not have ALS or Parkinson’s, they prescribed other medicines.
One medical person suggested psychological counseling.
Pills, ambulance rides and hospitalizations sucked out their finances.
Tracey and Lolita used to make money outside their jobs. They would live in a house for two to three years, making improvements. Then they’d sell, make money from improvements, and buy a more costly home.
When Tracey got sick, they had $60,000 in the bank, and their home, in the 600 block of North Brookfield, including the 16-by-40 foot swimming pool, was worth $234,000.
After Tracey got sick, Lolita sold the home, and spent the proceeds and their savings on pills and doctors.
They lost their good credit rating.
They are now $80,000 to $100,000 in debt, (Lolita’s estimate).
Lolita cannot afford to hire anyone to watch Tracey when she teaches. During seizures, he sometimes walks out the front door barefooted and out of his head.
Not dead yet
Paramedics have taken Tracey to hospitals at least 12 times, Lolita said.
She summoned them several times. At other times, she said, strangers called 911 when they found Tracey in the street.
In one of those rides, Tracey heard a paramedic in his ambulance tell emergency dispatchers on the radio that Tracey’s condition was “code yellow.”
Tracey raised up and spoke. “I am not code yellow!”
They looked at him, puzzled.
Code yellow means “serious condition.”
But years ago, when Tracey was a cop, “code yellow” meant “dead.”
It takes Tracey about 24 hours after the seizures to remember who he is, that he has a wife, and that her name is Lolita.
There are several constants in these memory lapses:
Tracey tells the hospital staff that his name is Terry, not Tracey.
He tells them he is not married. And that he was born in 1979, 10 years after his true birth year.
“He’s not lying,” Lolita said. “He’s just out of his head. And he tells the same things every time.
“I’m always the last thing he remembers.”
When Lolita talks to him in this condition, sometimes bluntly, Tracey thinks she’s a nurse, and complains about her: “That nurse is not very nice.”
She brought him home one night.
“This hospital room is really nice,” he said of his home.
Lolita tucked him in. He told her it was a good hospital bed.
But when she crawled in beside him, he looked embarrassed.
“Nurse,” he said. “I don’t think we should be doing this.”
“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” she replied.
But instead of sleeping, she sat beside him all night, watching him breathe.
Tracey Repp met Lolita Self while both attended Sterling College, 73 miles northwest of Wichita.
She majored in education to become a teacher. He majored in behavioral science to become a police officer.
For Tracey, it was love at first sight. But Lolita did not give him a second look for two years.
At a party in Wichita, after she’d transferred to Newman University, he kissed her. “And she let me,” he said.
“I was dumb; it took me a while,” she said. “One day I realized: ‘This is a good man.’”
One day I realized: ‘This is a good man
She gave Tracey an ultimatum: Propose marriage within a year, or say goodbye.
They were both 20. None of their friends placed bets that they’d last, Lolita said.
Tracey was gentle, easy to love.
Lolita, by her own description, was “mean to people as only mean girls can be.” She ran with a wild crowd.
Two weeks after her ultimatum, Tracey said “I think I want to engage you.”
She grinned at his odd phrasing.
And she stopped running with the wild crowd.
“He’s going to leave me.”
Lolita this year took up selling jewelry to make extra money. Some months she makes little to nothing. In July she made $2,000; in August: $740.
In June, their finances were so far in the red that Lolita broke down one night after she got bills she could not pay. She slid off the couch, as though melting. She stayed on the floor for two hours.
“After he got sick, we blew through everything so fast, trying to make him well,” she said. “We blew through that $60,000 and had to put the house on the market in less than six months.”
She rubbed the tip of her left thumb along the rim of her wedding band.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought I needed to sell my wedding ring,” she said. “I love it, but - it - is - all - we - have - left.
“Tracey said if I do (sell), he’s going to leave me.”
Losses and blessings
In mid-August, their son, Garrett, who lives in Lawrence, came in the door and fanned out dozens of crisp, new $20 bills, as though fanning out a deck of cards.
Lolita frowned. “Where’d you get that?”
“It was stuck under your door,” Garrett said.
The envelope had no return address, only “Tracy Repp,” with Tracey’s name misspelled.
Lolita counted $4,000.
There are other stories like that. In June 2014, when the Repps’ Chevy Tahoe quit on them, Tracey’s retired police commander, Paul Dotson, and his wife, Nancy, gave Lolita their 2005 Toyota Camry, after buying new tires for it.
Eighteen months later, when the Camry’s brakes failed, Dotson found out – and paid the $1,500 repair bill.
Tracey as a new police officer patrolled a beat around 21st and Broadway. Gangs had taken hold; he dealt with robberies, drive-by shootings and worse. He fought hand to hand, yanked guns out of hands or waistbands sometimes. He memorized makes and models of gang member cars, and learned the given and street names and gang affiliations of local gang members.
He ran 8 to 20 miles a night for fun; at work he ran down every suspect he ever chased. “I never, ever, lost a foot race.”
Some gang members grew a grudging respect for him, and gave him a street name: “Gappy,” for the gap in between his front teeth.
Tracey believed so much in Lolita’s strength that one day, when gang members on his patrol threatened Lolita, he laughed at them.
“Hey, Gappy,” one gang member said. “We know where you live. And that your wife is home alone. Maybe we ought to go over there.”
“Be my guest,” Tracey said.
“She’s a lot scarier than I am.”
He quit the FBI
After Tracey joined the FBI as a special agent in 2000, Lolita thought they had it made.
Tracey was making more money than ever. They had money in the bank. Her credentials as a teacher meant she could work anywhere, including El Paso, where the FBI assigned Tracey to work drug cases on the Mexican border.
They moved happily.
But Tracey quickly realized: The FBI didn’t fit him.
He quit after a year. They moved back to Wichita, and he rejoined the Wichita police.
He volunteered in 2001 to become an undercover cop.
He punched steel piercings into his ears, pulled on saggy pants, grew a goatee and grew his hair out.
Lolita put his hair in cornrows, and helped him groom a beard-strand growing down from the goatee. She helped him develop the image of an arrested-development drug buyer “who had emotionally failed to grow up,” as Tracey put it.
For his undercover role, he took the name “Tyler.” When the need arose, Lolita and their son Garrett became part of Tyler’s cover.
If Tracey took them to a restaurant, and one of his criminal contacts came in, Tracey would quickly whisper: “Time to pretend.” Lolita and Garrett would fall into role-play to protect Tyler’s cover.
“To the drug people I knew, Tyler was single and had no kids,” Tracey said.
“When we ran into those who knew me as Tyler, (and it happened a couple of times), Lolita became my sister and Garrett was my nephew, who called me Uncle Tyler. And Garrett was the son of my brother, who was locked up in prison, and I was showing my nephew how to be a man.”
And while Tracey did all this, he went back to college because he felt he had made a mistake by choosing law enforcement over teaching.
‘I wanted what she had’
By day he attended Newman University, taking classes to turn himself into a teacher. He was so happy that he got by on two hours of sleep at night.
People at Newman stared at his cornrows and the beard-strand. He sometimes had to pull out his police badge, to show he wasn’t a threat.
He did his student teaching at Maize Middle School. His third-graders stared at him.
“I’d run out of the school after the last bell, change into my saggy pants again ... and go meet up with some of the city’s worst people.”
“Sometimes I’d work at night, in a house of prostitution, trying to make a drug buy off a pole dancer,” he said later. “And while I was doing that, I was writing lesson plans in my head for third-graders for the next day.
“I wanted what Lolita had,” he said.
“She is a great teacher. And she was happy.
“I wanted that.”
He got it.
For 10 years.
‘Concrete is not forgiving’
Tracey saw blood in his urine one day in 2012.
He went to many doctors, who could not figure out what was wrong. Lolita saw tremors in his hand and saw his memory failing.
By then he’d spent 10 years in public schools. He was an award-winning teacher, a state champion soccer coach, and a superb assistant principal at Campus High School.
He began falling over. “Concrete is not forgiving when you fall on it,” he told friends.
In only weeks, Tracey went from walking, to walking with a cane, to walking with a walker.
Lolita talked bluntly the doctors. What is wrong?
By 2015, a doctor in Columbia, Mo., Charles Crist, diagnosed Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that can devastate lives and cause neurological impairment.
And there was an ugly and apparently unrelated twist:
Two years before that diagnosis, a CT scan found tumors in Tracey’ chest.
On May 18, 2013, biopsies showed he had cancer: Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
The tumors were so advanced they’d started to wrap themselves around his lungs and heart.
Tracey and Lolita took a selfie photograph of themselves the night they learned he had cancer.
In the photo, Lolita is snuggled next to Tracey in the hospital bed, her head resting on his left shoulder.
In the photo, they smile and look carefree.
That same day, Lolita contacted a custom sign company, and commissioned a sign to be painted for their home.
She did not tell Tracey.
For the words on the sign, she opened a Bible, and turned to a passage in the Old Testament from the Song of Solomon 3:4.
Tracey had promised her long ago that he would outlive her, so that she would not have to live alone.
Now they wondered whether he could keep that promise.
The sign message would be a promise she planned to keep.
Broke down sobbing
Students in the Haysville school district raised $10,000, from bake sales, a 5K run, and other donations. Teachers in the district raised $12,000, most of it from anonymous donors. Friends who set up a Go Fund Me raised $9,000.
Donors bought them meals, gave rides, sent Lolita to a spa treatment once in a while.
None of these donations matched what one student gave.
Lolita took Tracey to visit Campus High School in April 2013, pushing him a wheelchair as he talked to teachers and students, many of whom were still raising money for him. Tracey was so disabled now that Lolita had to do nearly everything for him, including put in catheters so he could urinate.
One special-education student tapped Lolita on the shoulder, as they talked with teachers at Campus High School that day.
The student handed her a quarter.
“Please take care of Mr. Repp,” the student said.
Lolita thanked him.
She told Tracey about this as they rode home.
“I was totally overcome,” he said later.
“I knew that kid. He sincerely thought at that moment that he could fix all our problems with that quarter.”
What Lolita did
Besides saving his life with rib-breaking chest compressions, Lolita in the past four years has catheterized Tracey hundreds of times, cleaned up vomit or urine after seizures, given him dozens of Vitamin B-12 shots in the arm, prepared all his food, lay beside him in the bathroom when he’s thrown up all night, sat just outside the door for all his showers, helped him in and out of the bathtub for the Epsom salt baths the doctors told him to take, fetched him drinks, cheered him up, chided him when she thought he felt too sorry for himself, dealt with all questions involving landlords and bills, picked up thousands of pills for him at local pharmacies, checked every day to make sure he has the pills he needs, checked each day to see that he took the pills at the proper times, helped him to bed many nights, and made all his calls because his speech impairment can make him hard to understand.
Sometimes she takes him for a short walk on the red bricks of the Old Town Farmer’s Market outside their apartment.
When she comes home, he watches her dump her bags in a corner, pull out her laptop, and begin writing lesson plans, or prepare for jewelry party sales.
He worried about her even as his own strength ebbed in September.
“She gets walking pneumonia sometimes, from the stress,” he said.
Tracey watched one night in September when Lolita came in the door. He glanced at the time: it was 8:15 p.m.
He saw her fall asleep two minutes later, at 8:17.
Everybody who knows them worries about Lolita – the Dotsons, and Tracey and Lolita’s mothers, both of whom live in Wichita. And Rachel Tyner, Tracey’s friend from Andover Central Middle School.
“Every time I talk with Tracey, he’s constantly worried about the toll this situation is taking on Lolita,” Tyner said. “And every time I talk with her, she’s feeling guilty for not doing enough for him.”
“I’m not getting the short end here,” Lolita said in early September.
She was curled up on a couch, facing Tracey.
“Yes, I have to do a lot of things I didn’t have to do before,” she said. “So?”
“This guy gives me unconditional love. Do you know what that means?”
Unconditional love means in part that you make promises – and keep them, she said.
One was that they’d never get divorced.
“We came from broken homes,” she said. “So we didn’t want that.”
And there was the promise that Lolita made to Tracey, on the day they found out he had cancer.
She’d lifted nine words for that promise from the Song of Solomon. And she had it painted on a custom-made sign.
She had not told Tracey.
She put the sign above the landing in their home, then in the 600 block of North Brookfield.
She knew what they faced now: Cancer, and the other unknown disease that made him fall down.
She could see the future: The cost. What it would do to him. To her.
They would sell this home, and spend all their money on drugs and doctors. He would get sicker, undergo chemotherapy, and she would take care of him while working full time.
And so she wanted Tracey to have a promise from her, in writing, in tall letters painted onto a sign: A promise that went beyond wedding vows, a promise she intended for all time.
So after doctors released him from that hospital stay, Lolita drove him home.
She took him inside.
He glanced up, above the landing, and saw the sign:
“My soul has found the one whom it loves.”
He knew at a glance what it meant: She would stay with him. Always.
Lolita hugged him.
“We are fighting this disease,” she told him. “Both of us. Together.”
And Tracey knew what he’d known all along:
No matter how many miles he ran, or how many gang members he arrested; no matter how many championships he won, or how many guns he yanked out of the waistbands of criminals, no matter how many people thought he was the toughest guy they’d ever seen, he knew this truth:
He was not the toughest person in his own house.
Contributing: Michael Pearce of The Eagle
The Repp family has created a gofundme site to contribute to helping Tracey Repp.