The community will have one more chance to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Gordon Klatt this year. On Sunday, Aug. 24, at 1:30 p.m., friends and admirers will gather at – and probably fill – the stadium at Mount Tahoma High School to honor the man who founded the international Relay for Life movement.
That movement, active across the United States and in 23 other nations, has raised more than $5 billion to fight cancer. It does that work at every level, from research to transportation for patients, and against every kind of cancer. Much of the money stays to work in the community where it was raised.
Klatt died of heart failure Aug. 3. He was 71, and had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in May 2012. It’s a testament to the joy he brought to the fight against a grim disease that Relay had already filled Mount Tahoma’s stadium once this year. On June 13 and 14, thousands of walkers, survivors, teams and medical professionals turned out to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Klatt’s big idea.
In 1985, Klatt was a colorectal surgeon who spent much of his time cutting rotten cancer out of good people. He was also a runner, an accordion player and a good guy. He was particularly angry at cancer that spring, and wanted to find a new way to raise money to kick it off the planet.
The answer did not lie with the accordion. Instead, he came up with a blatant stunt he hoped might raise $10,000. He would walk and run around the University of Puget Sound’s track at Baker Stadium for a solid 24 hours, and his friends would back him with pledges. For a modest fee, they could also join him on that track.
At the end of that day and night, he covered 83 miles, brought in $27,000 and got people wondering what might happen if more people walked for 24 hours, and asked their friends to donate. The next year, with the help of organizers including Tacoma Public Schools public information officer Pat Flynn, they tested the idea with 19 teams and raised $33,000.
They have refined the event as it has grown. It starts with a survivor lap each year, filling the track with the patients, caregivers and survivors who walk as proof that this disease can be beaten. Come the darkness, they light luminarias to honor people who have died of cancer, as well as survivors and caregivers. They close with the Fight Back Ceremony, and Klatt’s cheer, “Keep up the fight!”
The event has grown into the American Cancer Society’s single largest fund-raiser.
It has also given cancer foes a way to wage their war in solidarity. When the American Cancer Society posted its tribute to Klatt on its website, www.cancer.org, 237 people around the globe posted messages on it. Most of them never met Klatt but, like his dearest friends, call him Gordy.
Willie Stewart of Tacoma was among the first to post. The former principal of Lincoln High School, Stewart is a prostate cancer survivor and leads a support and information group for men fighting the disease. He’d known Klatt, his wife, Lou, and his children, Julie Sullivan, Lisa Steudel and David Klatt, for decades. He honored Klatt for his career in the military, from which he retired as a colonel before going into practice at K-Y Surgical Associates in Tacoma. And he mourned the loss.
“I have lost a great friend who has great compassion for others,” Stewart wrote online. “His main mission was to find a cure for all cancers. He also served our nation as an outstanding officer. My heart-felt sympathy for Lou and family.”
On Tuesday, Stewart, who also retired as a colonel, added, “I was honored to have served as the Executive Officer under Col. Klatt from 1987 to 1990. He was the commander of the 50th General Hospital, 1,000 beds, at Fort Lawton in Seattle. He was a great commander who was comfortable delegating duties to his subordinates. Under his command, the mission of the 50th General Hospital was accomplished with flying colors. He was the recipient of many military honors, and he was committed to promoting cancer awareness during his command.”
From East Sydney Technical College in Australia, Danny Brombal wrote: “Thank you, Gordy. For the gift of Relay for Life, for the Hope that brings families, friends and communities together. Mostly thanks for giving us the chance to Fight Back through Relay.”
Terry Schmeckpeper of LaCrosse, Wis., wrote: “The positive steps in fighting cancer that came about because of Relay For Life are almost beyond measure. The credit for that progress sits on Dr. Klatt’s shoulders. And we owe him a huge debt.”
Monica Van Hoomissen chaired the Relay in San Jose, Calif., this year. “We were celebrating the second day of our Relay on Aug. 3, the day we lost you,” she wrote. “I was a patient of yours in Tacoma before moving to San Jose. I became involved in Relay last year to remember my Dad, only learning through my training materials that you founded the Relay for Life movement. So humble and modest were you that in my several visits to your office I never saw any sort of ‘bragging rights’ about Relay for Life. … Thank you not only for being one of my healthcare providers, but also for giving so many the opportunity to do so much for so many more.”
There were tributes from London, from the island of Molokai, from Nagano, Japan, Zambia, and this, from Mumbai, “We at Indian Cancer Society would like to share our deepest condolences and grief at this moment with the Klatt family. Thank you for the gift of Relay for Life, it has brought hope to many fighting cancer. We at Indian Cancer Society are very proud to be part of this worldwide event to fight against cancer. He will be missed and remembered by all. May his soul rest in peace.”
Friday evening, June 13, Dr. Gordon Klatt sent greetings to participants celebrating the 30th annual Relay For Life. His friend Harvey Rosen read Katt’s message:
Thirty years ago, I stepped onto the track at the University of Puget Sound with the vision to raise money for the battle against cancer. With the support of the Tacoma community and my colleagues, we have now grown into a global event. Each year, millions of people in over 23 countries raise much-needed funds and awareness to save lives through the Relay for Life movement. Relay has raised more than $5 billion to help with groundbreaking research and to provide free information and services for patients and their families.
My wife, Lou, and I are very grateful for all of your help with this vision. Without the dedication from all of you here in the Tacoma Community, we would not have grown to where we are today!
Let us keep fighting for every birthday that is threatened by cancer in your communities and everyone else’s.
Let us celebrate the survivors for what they have overcome and remember those who have lost to their disease.
Let us honor the people who have fought and are fighting cancer.
Let us thank our caregivers and families who have never given up. Let’s celebrate the 30 years of hope, and let’s finish this fight!