Tacoma remembers Relay For Life founder Gordon Klatt

Tacoma resident Gordon Klatt was living proof that one person can make a difference.

His journey to find a cure for cancer began in May 1985 with a lonely 24-hour run at the University of Puget Sound track.

He raised $27,000 and planted the seed for what is now known as Relay For Life, a program that has raised more than $5 billion and now counts participants in 23 countries.

Nearly half the stadium at Mount Tahoma High School was filled with family, friends, patients and survivors for his memorial service Sunday.

Klatt, a Minnesota native and former military surgeon who chose to practice in Tacoma, died at 71 on Aug. 3. from heart failure after battling stomach cancer.

There were many tear-soaked eyes and clapping hands in remembrance for Klatt, but mostly there was a fervent urgency to “finish the fight” against cancer.

A patient of Klatt’s, Marian Swanson, said Relay For Life hasn’t lost anything due to his passing, but has given people more reason to find a cure.

Because of Klatt and cancer research, Swanson lived to celebrate 14 more birthdays after her first breast cancer diagnosis. She was re-diagnosed last year at age 72 and had a double mastectomy.

“He was wonderfully caring and he made you feel safe as a patient,” the Tacoma native said.

Swanson said it’s unlikely another doctor could start something like he did.

She was among many who wiped tears from their eyes and donned purple shirts that read, “Finish the Fight. Relay For Life 2014.”

Tony Anderson, a longtime friend of Klatt, described him as compassionate, caring and dedicated to the cause.

“Cancer strikes all of us, and that’s why it was so important to him,” Anderson said. “Two out of three people are cured from cancer. Hopefully, within the next 30 years, we can get the other third.”

Anderson said Klatt saved him from what could have been a dire health condition, and Klatt is the reason why his 86-year-old mother is alive today.

“He’s one of my heroes,” he said.

Jeff Ross, an American Cancer Society volunteer, was among those who spoke at the memorial, and said cancer does not have to be a death sentence.

“As long as we continue this,” Ross said, “Dr. Gordy will never lose his fight to cancer.”

Ross told The News Tribune Sunday that Klatt knew Relay For Life would be big, but he never thought it would be this big.

Before he died, Ross said Klatt had one final message for him.

“Keep fighting the fight,” Ross said. “I told him that I would, but he said it again. ‘Keep fighting the fight.’ ”

Klatt was like a general and the track was his field of battle field, Ross said.

Among the musical selections played at Sunday’s memorial was Klatt’s favorite song, a polka played by accordionist Lamar Stone.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers performed a gun salute to honor Klatt’s time in the military and a lone bugler played taps. An honor guard then presented his wife, Lou, with a precisely folded American Flag.

After the ceremony ended, almost all participants walked an honorary lap around the track, holding hands as somber bagpipe music played.

Among those leading them was Lou Klatt.

She said she’d miss “everything,” about her husband, and that his memory will live on as people continue his fight.

John R. Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society, said the ACS wouldn’t have been the same without him.

“The American Cancer Society is blessed to have 3 million volunteers, but if you had to vote, he’d be at the top,” Seffrin said.

Klatt was a vibrant leader, he said. Relay For Life will live on and he hopes people will double-up so that Klatt’s dreams of a cancer cure can be realized.

It was Klatt’s dream to have a cure for cancer during his grandchildren’s lifetime, and Anderson said he thinks it can be completed in his lifetime.

One of the speakers, Tacoma anesthesiologist Joseph Jasper, said Klatt came to him 29 years ago and asked him to run with him on the UPS track during the very first Relay.

“I pledged $10,” he said at the memorial. “I didn’t have the same vision he had.”

But he echoed a similar sentiment as the other speakers. “We can survive some cancers today, and in the future, we will survive all cancers all the time.”

Seffrin said Klatt gave cancer survivors a living face, and his dream to finish the fight will surge on.

“I’m told we now have a Relay For Life track inside the pearly gates,” Seffrin said.