As a surgeon, it was Gordon Klatt’s job to wage war on cancer. But it was also his great passion.
On Sunday, cancer won the battle, taking Klatt’s life at age 71. But he was playing the long game, and he died fully expecting that someday the war would be won.
If it is, it will be in large part thanks to him – and to more than $5 billion in research and education money raised for the American Cancer Society since 1985 through the worldwide phenomenon that is the Relay For Life. And it’s not over yet; his legacy is the event that will continue to raise money against cancer for many years to come.
It all started in 1985 as a lonely, 24-hour run and walk on the University of Puget Sound track, a one-man fundraiser to honor a young cancer victim. That event took in $27,000. He realized that teams could raise a lot more money, and the next year 220 people on 19 teams were on the track with him.
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Today, the Relay For Life is the cancer society’s signature fundraising event, with more than 6,000 relays held in 23 countries. At the recent relay held June 13-14 at Mount Tahoma High School, more than 3,000 runners and walkers participated and raised more than half a million dollars.
The genius idea behind the Relay For Life – one that has been widely copied by other organizations – is that it combines raising money for a worthy cause with an activity people enjoy doing (or at least think they should do more): exercising. It also provides a way to honor and show support for those who are fighting cancer and memorializing those who didn’t win their own battles.
As night falls on the relay venue while team members put in their time on the track, rows of luminaria decorated with tributes to loved ones glow brighter and brighter. No doubt many luminarias will be lit next year in honor of the Tacoma doctor who started it all.
“My grandchildren will see a day when there is no cancer,” Klatt once predicted. No single person has done more to help make that dream come true.