Student leaves memories of love, laughter

Leslie Arntz

Nikki Kukwa, senior flight technology major, poses with other female flight team members (not pictured) at the SAFECON competition at Western Michigan University last October. FILE PHOTO BY GAVIN JACKSON | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: John Proppe

Since she was 11, Nikki Kukwa knew she wanted to be a pilot.

But she never wanted to be a commercial pilot; she wanted to own her own flight school and teach others about her passion: flying.

The senior flight technology major left her mark on the aviation program at Kent State, winning the safety award at regional competitions two years in a row and helping found KSU Women in Aviation: The Flying Black Squirrels.

Yesterday morning, Nikki died after battling leukemia for almost two years.

Diagnosed in January 2005, she was unable to pass the aviation program’s medical exam because of her medication.

“It broke her heart that she couldn’t fly anymore, but it didn’t break her,” her mother, Debbie Kukwa said.

“The glass was never half full with Nikki,” her father, Russ Kukwa said. “It was always full.”

He described her as someone who distributed hope to everyone she encountered.

“(Leukemia) is the scariest thing to go through,” said senior nursing major Heather Kasberg, who was one of Nikki’s nurses at University Hospitals in Cleveland. “It’s not like breast cancer. It’s cancer that’s throughout your whole body. But to the very last moment she was hopeful.”

On Oct. 4 Nikki wrote in her journal, “Wish for a speedy recovery so that way I can be out of here … I miss all you guys and can’t wait to hang out again. Love you …”

Audrey Kukwa, Nikki’s aunt, said she was courageous and never lost her faith.

Though she was not licensed to fly, her classmates and fianc‚ Dave Laule, a former flight instructor, let her behind the controls as often as they could.

Mike Fox, junior flight technology major, recalled a flight they took a year ago, on the way to a flight competition. He said after the plane was in the air, she took the controls.

“You could tell by the look in her eyes … you could tell how much she enjoyed being in the front seat,” he said.

The last time Nikki was able to pilot a plane was Labor Day weekend when she and her family flew from Kent to Toledo.

“She was unbelievably happy — it was the best time of her life,” Laule said.

Nikki also enjoyed movies, friends and her faith. She made an impression.

“The stoic doctors, who are very clinical, who show no emotion, came in with tears in their eyes,” Debbie said.

She added that Nikki never wanted anyone to worry about her. She was always concerned about others.

Russ said Nikki ended every e-mail or note with a favorite saying that she embodied to the end.

“Live, laugh, love.”

Funeral arrangements have been made at Vodrazka Funeral Home in Independence from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday. Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Matthias Church in Parma.

Contributions can be made to “Friends of Nikki” at Huntington Bank. The funds will be used to create an aviation scholarship for female pilots.

Contact College of Technology reporter Leslie Arntz at [email protected]. Enterprise reporter Kate Bigam contributed to this story.