Gloria Walker got her wish. She flew 5,600 miles to Egypt. She got a private tour of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. She got the keys to a city, and she sunned by the Red Sea with her whole family.
But as she and those around her knew all too well, this was her final wish fulfilled.
Mrs. Walker, 56, a longtime hospital dietitian from Northeast Philadelphia, died of bladder cancer on Monday, June 7, about three weeks after returning from Egypt with 13 members of her family, the youngest being her grandson Elias, 5 months old.
The trip was funded by her son Dustin Vitale’s cheesesteak sales campaign, which drew international attention this spring.
Mrs. Walker was treated like royalty, even before the Egyptair jet left JFK on May 7, said Vitale, 26, who teaches history at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School. The Egyptian government upgraded Mrs. Walker and her husband, Henry “Tone” Walker, to first-class air tickets.
“We were literally celebrities over there,” Vitale said. “Everyone knew who we were.”
At Giza, Khaled Al-Anani, Egypt’s minister of antiquities and tourism, met with her and Vitale in the square in front of the Sphinx, an area usually off-limits to tourists. They also visited the pyramids. Mrs. Walker asked her son to extend the trip to a beach resort in Sharm El Sheikh, where they were given ceremonial keys to the city. Al-Anani also gave Mrs. Walker a replica of Ma’aat, the goddess of justice and truth.
That Mrs. Walker even attempted the trip amazed her family. She had been hospitalized for a week before the departure but hushed any talk of canceling, Vitale said.
“She did a 52 fake out on us,” he said. “She fought for Egypt. She got herself up. When we were there, she was walking around, making jokes, and being her normal self. This was the happiest we’ve ever seen her — even before she got sick.”
Only hours after her return to Philadelphia on May 16, she returned to the hospital. She was fading. Soon after, she entered hospice care at the Northeast Philadelphia home of her son Dustin and daughter-in-law Hailey Vitale, who are expecting a baby in October.
Mrs. Walker, the oldest of Linda Birch’s six children, was born Feb. 22, 1965, and helped take care of her siblings growing up in Northeast Philadelphia. She started working at Frankford Hospital as a teenager and raised three children — Jessica, Denny, and Dustin — first in South Philadelphia and then in Kensington. “She embodied love,” Vitale said. “She made you feel like you were the only person in the world.”
“She provided for people,” he said. “She was everyone’s mom.”
Last Christmas, a few months after her diagnosis, which forced her to stop working, Vitale asked his mother: “If there’s one thing in the world you could do, what would it be?’”
“She said, ‘I’d like to see the pyramids,’ " Vitale said.
“Ever since she was a little girl, she’s wanted to see them.”
Mind you, Mrs. Walker had left Philadelphia twice in her whole life: to drive to Niagara Falls and to fly to Puerto Rico for the wedding of her daughter, Jessica Holmes, according to her son.
Vitale decided to make the trip happen by selling cheesesteaks out of his house, starting in February. Chef Michael Solomonov, who had met the Vitales at K’Far, one of his restaurants, dropped by on March 6, bought a few sandwiches, and posted his rave review on Instagram.
The post exploded with interest. An Inquirer article about the son’s gesture was picked up by news outlets internationally and merited a story on the CBS Sunday Morning show. Terry Dale, president of the United States Tour Operators Association, saw the story, then reached out to the Egyptian Tourism Ministry, which connected Vitale to Wings Group, a travel operator.
Donors contributed beef, onions, cheese, and rolls. Mike Hauke, who owns the Tony Boloney’s sandwich and pizza shops in New Jersey, rolled up in his food truck on March 14 and sold about 1,000 sandwiches, handing all proceeds to Vitale.
The sales covered all but $7,000 or $8,000 of the costs, Vitale said. His mother’s request to extend the trip bumped up the total. The Coral Sea Sensatori, a beach resort, eased the sting by comping the rooms.
Though financially in the hole, Vitale said he was unsure if he would resume the sales.
But he did get to thinking about cheesesteaks’ role in his life. He eats two or three a week. Three years ago, on a dare to eat 100 steaks in one year, he ate 100 by May and finished with 192.
After his mother’s death, his grandmother handed him a photo taken the day he was born, Oct. 20, 1994. It shows his mother in her hospital bed, wearing a gown, with a cheesesteak resting on her chest, her first meal after delivering Dustin.
“It’s as Philly as it gets,” Vitale said. “I’m my mother’s child.”
Last week, Dustin and Hailey Vitale learned that they will be having a boy. They’ll call him Glory.
Mrs. Walker is survived by her husband, Henry Walker; sons Denny and Dustin Vitale; daughter Jessica Holmes; her mother, Linda Birch; six grandchildren; three brothers; and two sisters.
Service will begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 16, at Liberty Baptist Church, 431 E. Indiana Ave., Philadelphia. Viewing will begin at 10 a.m. Burial will be at White Chapel Memorial Park, Feasterville.