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Art auction will fund cancer treatment for Potsdam artist, business owner

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POTSDAM — Otto E. Czerepak stands surrounded by pieces of haphazardly arranged artwork in the basement of his hybrid tile store and art gallery. Many of them are his own creation: a cubist mosaic mounted on the wall, a bust inspired by Greek mythology on the floor, sketches and paintings scattered here and there, the accumulated clutter of a man devoted to the arts.

“I’m going to auction a lot of it off, make room for something new,” he said.

He speaks in a whisper, a symptom of his Parkinson’s disease. The auction will be held next weekend, with a mission of raising $7,500 to fund an alternative treatment for the lymphoma that started in his lungs and has spread to his bones, beyond the reach of chemotherapy.

Mr. Czerepak arrived in Potsdam by train in 1953, and has lived here ever since. He admires the region and the people who live here, citing their ability to persevere through difficulty.

“There are people who know how to get together in hard times, and you don’t see that too often,” he said.

He has seen more than his share of hard times. He was diagnosed with throat cancer 18 years ago. He recovered, but two years ago he had to have one lobe removed from each lung to check the spread of lymphoma.

In 2009, his daughter Katya S. Czerepak Greer died shortly after giving birth to her second child. She was an artist, like her father. Mr. Czerepak created a scholarship in her honor at SUNY Potsdam.

Now the lymphoma has returned, but he refuses to let his hardships keep him down.

“I know how to get over it. It’s called work and a positive attitude,” he said.

He points to all the times in his past when he was able to succeed despite hardship. How he still works at his store despite being past retirement age and in ill health (he is 70). How he plays racquetball regularly despite the arthritis in his joints and the Parkinson’s disease that makes his hands shake uncontrollably. How he is an American citizen and military veteran despite his foreign birth.

He grew up in an Austrian refugee camp. He tells the story of his grandfather, an Austro-Hungarian general who faced dishonor for marrying a peasant woman.

He has never felt the desire to leave Potsdam since arriving here more than 61 years ago, saying the diversity and culture of the small town are the source of much of his artistic inspiration.

“This community is a gem,” he said.

He opened the Tile Co., 6 Raymond St., 15 years ago, and followed it up with an art gallery in the basement. He rents out studio space to local artists.

Although he focuses on mosaics and sculpture, Mr. Czerepak dabbles in all forms of art. In the 1970s, he took classes in glass blowing and terra cotta at a Mexican university.

In February he will return to Mexico to search for a cure for his cancer.

With traditional treatment a non-option, Mr. Czerepak has put his hopes in Hoxsey Therapy, an herbal treatment offered by a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.

Part of the treatment involves a strict diet consisting largely of vegetables and herbs.

“It will be tough for me,” Mr. Czerepak said. “No coffee, no milk, no dairy products, no wine, no meat, no sugar, no wheat.”

Studies have found little evidence supporting Hoxsey Therapy’s effectiveness.

“You have to give it a try,” Mr. Czerepak said. “I’ll try to be cured, or at least extend my time on this earth.”

The fundraiser starts with a concert Friday, with live music by local bands from 6 p.m. to midnight.

It will be followed by an art auction Jan. 25, with pieces by Mr. Czerepak and many of his artistic friends who have donated some of their works to the cause.

The community response has been uplifting, he said.

“It makes you feel good. It’s a kind of popularity you never thought was around,” he said.

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