Support from Aloha State felt all the way in SoCal

LIHUE, Kauai — Maggie Thilken isn't a Hawaii resident, but she knows all about the aloha spirit.

Just about two years ago, Thilken was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as acute myeloid leukemia (AML) that nearly took her young life. After more than six months of treatment that confined her to the Children's Hospital of Orange Country, Thilken was finally discharged in the summer of 2022.

A week ago, the now-18-year old Thilken graduated from Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Southern California.

Like his daughter, Thilken's father, Bill, also does not call the 50th state home, but he might as well be kamaaina.

Bill Thilken, more commonly known as Billy Tees, has a long-running relationship with many of the state's high school coaches and administration as the owner and operator of Billy Tees, Inc., a merchandising company based in San Juan Capistrano, California.

As he has since 1990, Bill Thilken is among the vendors present at this week's 62nd annual Hawaii Interscholastic Athletic Directors Association taking place at the Royal Sonesta Resort on Kauai. But for Thilken, this trip just meant a little more than his previous thirty-plus visits to the HIADA conference. That's because some of Maggie's biggest supporters during her health scare were ADs from Hawaii that her father had developed relationships with over the years.

This, despite that fact that none of them had actually ever met Maggie Thilken.

Bill Thilken expressed his appreciation for the love that was shown to his daughter and family from HIADA Executive Director (and former Mid-Pacific and Chaminade AD) Bill Villa, McKinley AD Bob Morikuni, HHSAA Director of Information Natalie Iwamoto and most especially for Aiea football coach Wendell Say.

"I've known Wendell for years from coming to the conference and we would talk and some of the other guys from the school there I knew and we had a nice, casual relationship and everything — well, somewhere here they heard about my daughter being sick and Bob Morikuni and Wendell are in a prayer group together and all of a sudden, Bill had the priest at Chaminade, they were sending cards and holding masses for her. I mean, there was a group of people over here that were praying for her and I tell them, there were moments that were really bleak and then all of a sudden something would lift you up and you didn't know what it was and I can only think that it was them and everyone else around the world that were praying for Maggie," Thilken said.

Say, the father of a special needs daughter, immediately took to the cause of uplifting Maggie — who missed all of her junior year at Santa Margarita while fighting for her life — and the rest of the Thilken family and he even got the Na Alii football team involved.

"I kept thinking about what she was going through as a junior, not being able to go to school and with Billy and his wife taking turns spending 24 hours a day in the hospital with her and I just tried to encourage him and pray for him," Say said.

Bill Thilken and his wife Tammy, a teacher at Santa Margarita High, switched off staying with Maggie in the hospital.

"She took the year off while Maggie was in the hospital and she'd stay there during the week and then I'd come up on the weekend and let her go home and take a shower and sleep in her own bed and we did that for about nine months," Thilken reflected.

He explained that Maggie's white blood count got so low that her body was unable to fight hospital-born infections that proved elusive to any antibiotics and there were many times that the Thilken family wasn't sure that their daughter would make it.

"It was bleak and, in fact, there was another girl that came in the same week as my daughter and they were about five days apart age-wise and she had the same thing, the same gene mutations, but she didn't have a hundred percent donor match and she had her transplant and it worked for a while and then she passed away about eight months ago," Thilken said.

Courtesy Bill Thilken    View image

While he surely appreciated the encouragement from near and far, it was juxtaposed against Maggie's usual-upbeat demeanor that grew weary over her long ordeal.

"Listening to my daughter moaning in pain was hard and she would say, ‘Dad, I can't do this anymore.' She told my wife one night, she goes, ‘Mom, I don't want to go to sleep because I don't know if I'm going to wake up.' It was awful, but fast forward a year or so and it's a completely different story," Thilken expressed.

Among those who sent messages of support to Maggie were Philadelphia Phillies all-star outfielder Bryce Harper. But the videos from Say and the Aiea football team were a constant source of inspiration for her.

"He'd send me pictures from after games and the kids were making signs and they would cheer for her, they'd do videos and cheer for her, ‘Get well, Maggie. We're rooting for you' and all that and you know, these kids don't know my daughter and that's Wendell. I mean, that was his influence on the kids and it was so inspiring, I mean, it really was," Thilken said.

Say got his players to buy in, while also reminding them of their many blessings.

"We constantly sent encouraging videos, sometimes after the games — especially when we would wear the pink (jerseys) — so we take videos of kids and they would just try to encourage her and to me, I told our kids that, you know, here's someone that can't have her high school year as a junior and you guys need to appreciate that you're healthy," Say said.

He added that while the Thilken family felt uplifted by the messages from his players, they, in turn, found fulfillment in supporting Maggie through her situation.

"Yeah, I mean, you know, it's something that our kids gotta know because it's real life and it happens, so just trying to get them to understand that you're lucky in the situation that you got because there's always someone that's having those struggles and for our team, I'm always trying to teach our kids character building, so that's part of it," Say said.

Maggie Thilken eventually received a blood transplant from her older brother Wyatt.

"She went through four rounds of chemo, bone marrow transplant, stem cell transfusion, but she got back into school this past fall and graduated last Friday and she's doing great now," Bill Thilken said.

Maggie won an award for courage at her school — the second highest honor given annually at Santa Margarita — and even got to lead the school's football team out onto the field on homecoming night last fall. She has been heavily involved in the school's theater group and will continue her education this fall at Saddleback College. Eventually, she hopes to transfer to USC and would like to pursue a career in cinema. Later this month, Maggie, her mom will be traveling to France with the school's chorus group.

"She's kind of out of the woods, although I still can't exhale because you just don't know," Bill Thilken stated. "She's got doctors appointments for the next couple of years, so they're going to keep an eye on her but little by little they've kind of let her get on with life."

Needless to say, Bill Thilken couldn't wait to reunite with his support group at HIADA this week.

"Last year she had just been released from the hospital and we were in a way better place than we were the previous year, but yeah, I come here now and man, I look forward to seeing Bob Morikuni, I look forward to seeing Bill, I look forward to seeing Wendell because they mean a lot to me, they really do and my attitude is way different now and obviously, it's cliche, but it puts things into perspective when you've gone through something like this," he said.

The HIADA conference continues Wednesday. ADs from 95 member schools and all five leagues that comprise the Hawaii High School Athletic Association will conduct voting on up to 34 concerns/proposals in committee Wednesday. Any proposals that pass out of committee will be voted upon by the membership at Thursday morning's final general assembly. All items that gain HIADA approval will then be forwarded to the HHSAA Executive Board, which meets Thursday afternoon and can approve, amend or deny any HIADA recommendation.

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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