Founder, survivor inspires

There are countless, often highly personal reasons people participate in an American Cancer Society Relay for Life event.

Some walk in support of a friend or family member fighting cancer.

Some walk in memory of someone they lost that they hope will never be forgotten.

Some walk in defiance of a foe they’ve conquered or the battle they’re raging.

For Dr. Gordy Klatt, the founding inspiration for the Relay, the connection to cancer was professional.

A colorectal surgeon, Dr. Klatt wanted to find a meaningful way to raise money for the Tacoma chapter of the American Cancer Society. A marathon runner, he decided to test his endurance by running for 24 hours around the track at Baker Stadium on the campus of the University of Puget Sound. He took that first step in the spring of 1985 and after 24 hours had elapsed, he had logged 83 miles, raised $27,000 and inspired what would become a global block party where community members gather each year to “celebrate, remember and fight back.”

Twenty-seven years after Dr. Klatt took that first step, there are over 5,200 Relay for Life events spanning 18 countries that are on pace to raise over $4.8 billion this year. What started with one man taking a single step around a Tacoma track has blossomed into the planet’s largest non-profit fundraising phenomenon.

The 24-hour Relay for Life begins with a kick-off rally where speakers often acknowledge and honor Dr. Klatt’s inspiration and enduring dedication. Colorful T-shirts fill the stands designating each participants’ role in the event. Typically, blue denotes a team captain, white, a team member, bright green, a caregiver, yellow, a committee organizer and, red, a super fundraiser. The most honored color is purple and it is reserved for survivors who are cheered and celebrated. The first emotional lap of every relay belongs exclusively to them.

This year, at the June 8 Relay for Life rally in Tacoma, Dr. Klatt offered the keynote speech wearing a purple survivor medal around his neck. In March, he was diagnosed with gastric endo carcinoma, or stomach cancer, and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. He anticipates that surgery to remove some or all of his stomach will follow this summer. In spite of his medical challenges, his spirit and commitment to the Relay for Life remain unbroken.

Just as he did in 1985, Dr. Klatt stepped out on the track for that significant first lap once again. Although the journey this time is personal, he knows that he doesn’t have to walk alone. Thanks to his efforts, no one does.