Relay touches participants

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 5, 2000

Saturday, August 05, 2000

Like a string of pearls, the luminaries flickered in the darkness.

Were there really 4,000 of them?

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After the music died, Horace Austin Park came alive once again. This time, the walkers around the Mill Pond Pathway were more subdued. There was less laughter and chatter, too. Voices were muffled and more than one walker paused to kneel in prayer by a single luminary.

Into the night they walked until by Saturday morning when the seventh annual Relay for Life fund-raiser ended, more than $56,000 had been raised to fight cancer.

That compares to a record-setting $60,731 a year ago.

Although the $56,000 figure remains unofficial, it would put the seven-year total of monies raised by the Relay for Life fund-raiser in Austin at over $130,000.

"We had less teams this year than before, and that may have been why the total is less than last year," said Rob Schile, one of the organizers. "Still, we’re very pleased with the response."

According to Schile, the monies raised will be used to help education and awareness efforts and go toward research, but much of it will be used by the Mower County American Cancer Society to help support the families of cancer victims as they help their loved ones deal with the disease.

The seventh annual fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society began late Friday afternoon in the parking lot of the Austin Municipal Swimming Pool.

Tents were pitched and campers and trailers were parked for the overnight events.

Dan Conradt and Carla Johnson, husband and wife, served as masters of ceremonies for a succession of performers, whose music alternately lifted the crowd to rousing applause only to touch its collective soul with a hymn

When the last act performed, it was time, shortly after dusk, for the most solemn portion of the fund-raiser: the reading of the victims of cancer and the lighting of luminaries along the walking path around the Cedar River near downtown Austin.

But first a prayer and then a hero.

Cancer victim now ‘free’

Gary Grant, this year’s honorary chairman of the Relay for Life events, spoke to the crowd of his battle with cancer.

Speaking haltingly, Grant said his cancer battle started in September 1996 in the most unlikely of ways. Grant, an Austin businessman, awoke with a sore throat. The minor irritation became a major problem, but only after a series of diagnoses. First, it was labeled a sinus infection, then a viral infection and finally what it really was: throat cancer.

Surgery came December 18, 1996 to remove a golf-ball size tumor at the base of his tongue and some of his lymph gland.

But, he would also require a tracheotomy and when he was released from the hospital, more treatment.

For two and a half years, he required a feeding tube to the stomach and constantly drank water or cans of liquid nourishment.

For the last three years, he has been declared cancer-free.

"They say, ‘When God closes a door, he opens a window,’" said Grant Friday night to a crowd listening in respectful silence at the testimony. "Now, I know that’s true."

Grant praised Larry Gullickson, who also suffered from the same throat cancer as he, with inspiring him to carry on and move forward with his life.

He said he and his wife, Kathy, grew closer together, while she was at his bedside and that he grew to appreciate his son, Rob, and daughter, Angie, even more.

He praised his business partner and brother-in-law, Dan Bissen and his wife, Margo, for their support and understanding.

And finally he thanked the Relay for Life volunteers for their efforts on behalf of all victims and their survivors. "It’s all of these efforts that give us hope," Grant said.

The ovation that followed was long and loud and made by an audience standing on its feet.

Moving ceremony

Then, a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" as the individuals, couples and families walked to luminaries with loved ones’ names printed on the outside. Candles were lit, moments of silent prayer observed and the walk around the Mill Pond Pathway made in more solemnity than anything else.

Loudspeakers carried the voice of Dave Cahill, who read the names of cancer victims. Louis Anthonisen was the first to be heard and Arlene and Gene Zwiener, the last. Cahill’s reading of the names went on for over an hour, so many were there.

Schile, a four-year veteran organizer of the fund-raiser said, "So many people come back each year, it really becomes kind of an extended family sharing this event. And, every day it seems a cancer affects somebody in some way until it touches all of us in one way or another."

Jim and Shirley Schroeder, Adams, presented monies collected by a team sponsored by Little Cedar Lutheran Church, Adams.

Four of the Schroeders’ five children were encamped with the couple throughout the Friday night vigil.

Jim Schroeder is a victim of two cancers and also now cancer-free.

"I’ve had the Good Lord looking after me," he said. "I really believe that."

Then, he and his wife walked through the ribbons of flickering candles dotting both sides of the walkway to rejoin their children and grandchildren.

Something in the air

Grant accepted handshakes and hugs of congratulations with his wife, Kathy. Then, he and Kathy and their children walked along the path with the others.

Sharon Kaput’s name was on over 70 luminaries. Other names were on only one.

There were luminaries labeled "Grandpa" and "Auntie" and otherwise personalized by surviving families and friends.

Children’s names, too. Karl and Jason and Amy and others.

A bouquet of flowers here, just one or two there.

Enough names, enough luminaries, surely, to reinforce what Grant said.

"It’s all of these efforts that give us hope," he said earlier in the evening.

Friday night, you could almost taste it in the air.