The bonds of brotherhood know no bounds.
For Elio Domestici, Giuseppe Di Benigno and Elliott Needleman, the brotherhood began with the opening of Dante Ristorante in Great Falls in the mid-1990s. So strong was their relationship, Domestici and Di Benigno have vowed to help fight the leukemia that robbed their brother of his life and to look after Needleman’s wife, Nancy, because that is what family means.
"Elliott was diagnosed with leukemia in 1996," Nancy Needleman said. Her husband, chief executive officer of American Systems Corp., was a man who believed in living life to its fullest in spite of his illness.
"After he was diagnosed, we both committed ourselves to research projects, medical testing and various fund-raisers," she said. "He always believed that we couldn’t do the research ourselves, but we could help fund it. We could buy time … research gave patients and their families hope. We lived off that hope for 10 years."
The Needlemans were frequent patrons at Dante Ristorante since the night it opened, Domestici said.
"We’ve been friends for 16 years," he said. "When we opened the restaurant, the first day, they were here because she’s Italian American and there aren’t too many places to go in Great Falls."
The men became fast friends and were soon spending holidays and vacations together, often traveling to Domestici and Di Benigno’s homes in their native Italy.
"Me and Giuseppe, we loved the guy," Domestici said.
"Elliott was a very dear friend of ours," Di Benigno said. "There are so many little things about him that we miss. I remember playing pingpong on the beach in Italy with him. There’s nothing we can do for him, but we want to help others in his situation."
DURING THE WEEK of June 6 through 12, a portion of every check from Dante Ristorante will go to the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society, in honor of Elliott Needleman. The week he would have celebrated his birthday, those who love and remember him will celebrate his life and continue his battle.
The few months since Needleman lost his battle with leukemia have not been easy for his wife of almost 20 years.
"Oh, I miss him … I miss his smile, his joyful nature, his enthusiasm for life," Nancy Needleman said.
Her voice becomes shaky, the tears return, the loss as painful now as it was in February when she lost him.
"I’m trying to be like him, but he was extremely special," she said. It’s important to talk about him, she said, so others might be inspired to continue fighting to prevent others from losing their loved ones.
"We went through hell with the chemo," Domestici said, his eyes gazing out the window of his restaurant, as though he had the cancer himself. "Whatever he did he kept us informed, we went through this all together."
Nancy Needleman said her husband’s friends are her family now. She still plans on going to Italy this summer with Domestici and Di Benigno as they had planned.
"When we had the ceremony at the cemetery, it was only our family, Elio’s family and Giuseppe’s family," she said. "What does that tell you about how close they were? They came to the hospital with us every time, they suffered through this disease with him. They are so fed up with this disease."
Honoring their friend with a fund-raiser for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society was a way to keep not only his memory alive, but his fight as well.
"The more money they have, the more good they can do," Domestici said of the Society. "I think we should do this every year to remember him until they find a cure for everyone else."
Domestici and Di Benigno decided to hold the fund-raiser shortly after Needleman’s death, when Nancy Needleman told them she did not want any flowers in her husband’s memory.
"She suggested that we make a donation to the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society for him, so we started talking and decided to do this," he said.
IN THE RESTAURANT during the fund-raiser, Di Benigno said there will be fliers on the tables to let patrons know of the event.
"Our regular customers will know what we’re doing," he said. "It’ll be normal dinner as usual."
The memory of his friend will be in abundance that week.
"If everyone chips in, hopefully we can put an end to it," he said of leukemia. "We can’t get him back but at least we can do something. At least we can try."
The relationship between her husband and the two men has helped Nancy Needleman through some dark days since his death.
"Men have a different way of bonding, but once they do, stand back," she said. "They’re determined to beat this in their lifetimes."
Having the passion and drive legendary in Italian men, she knows that her place with them, and her husband’s place in their hearts, is permanent.
"Once you fall in love with an Italian, you’re like family," she said. "It’s a lifetime love."
Elliott Needleman died a week before he was to meet Lorraine Kammerer, donor development coordinator for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society.
"From what I understand, Elliott was an amazing spirit," she said. "His friends and his family are just trying to pay tribute to him."
Restaurant fund-raisers are a common way people try to raise money for the Society, she said. "It’s not always necessarily on such a personal level as this one is, however."
The Leukemia/Lymphoma Society will be providing fliers with the information on Elliott Needleman and leukemia, she said.
"Currently, about $41.5 million is spent on grant programs for research through the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society annually," Kammerer said.
"Elliott would have loved the idea of a fund-raiser to cure this disease," his wife said. "The fact that it’s going to be the Elliott Needleman Annual Fund-raiser, that would be hard for him to accept. He was always very humble."
The love of good friends that have stood by her through her dark days is priceless, she said.
"I am really blessed because of my family and friends," she said. "I have a very strong faith, so I’m OK. I miss him. He was a tremendous person … he was an inspiration to so many."