At 6 a.m. Saturday, July 27, biodegradable purple balloons will lift into the sky carrying messages to heaven as part of White Bear Lake's Relay for Life closing ceremony. Two of the balloons will carry names of the people largely responsible for starting the fundraising campaign 25 years ago.
Those names are Keith Warner and his daughter Lori, both victims of cancer; Keith in 2013, and Lori in 1998.
Patty Warner will be there to watch the balloon release at South Campus. It's one of her favorite moments at Relay, an American Cancer Society fundraiser she and Keith co-founded in 1994 after he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“It's a beautiful ending to Relay,” she said. “The balloons rise into the sky together. No one makes a sound.”
Warner is a special guest at this year's silver anniversary commemoration. She agreed to speak to the hundreds gathered who have been impacted by cancer. Her spot on the program is right before the Survivor's Lap, another favorite feature of Relay.
“The Survivor's Lap is a happy time,” Warner said. “Their name is read out loud and how many years they've been cancer-free. People hear these big numbers, 20 years, 40 years, and it's meaningful if you've just been diagnosed.”
Cancer has touched Warner many times. She has never personally battled the illness, but she has lived the diagnosis through her husband and children. Three of their four surviving children have been diagnosed with colon and breast cancer. They are genetically predisposed through a heritable condition called Lynch Syndrome. Patty believes Keith's mother, who also suffered three types of cancer, carried the gene.
Keith began his cancer journey at age 34 when doctors told him he had colon cancer. He wasn't expected to survive past 40. Twenty-five years later, it was back. Both times he was fortunate it didn't go through the wall of his colon, Patty said.
Always one to count his blessings, Keith decided to volunteer for the American Cancer Society. That's where he saw a 1985 video of the first Relay in Washington state.
“He asked me, ‘Could we do this?' I said, 'Well, if we have the right volunteers, we could,'” Patty recalled.
The Warners recruited volunteers through their church, St. Mary of the Lake. About 15 people showed up for the inaugural meeting. Lew and Mary Trumper were among them (see accompanying story). “We started out slow and had eight teams. Everyone brought lawn chairs and people took turns walking. The mosquitoes were horrendous,” remembers Patty. “We raised $7,000.”
Thinking that the work was hard for that amount of money, the Warners started to look for other ways to support cancer research. Then their daughter Lori was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, which made them rethink their decision.
“We knew we had to keep fighting for her and we made up our minds to continue doing Relay,” shared Patty. Lori lived another three years. Losing her was a terrible blow, she added. “But it gave us incentive; something to focus on.”
Ironically, Relay started to grow.
“People stepped up to volunteer,” Patty recalled. “There were 40 teams the second year and 96 the next. “The bigger it got, the more the community embraced Relay. The man in charge of the tent sites almost had a nervous breakdown.” Participants camped in the earlier days on the football field. “The coach had a fit, but we took good care of the grass,” she added.
The Warners chaired Relay for Life for 10 years, visiting other cities on Friday nights during the summer to gather ideas. A tiny town is where they saw the memorial garden, taking the idea back to White Bear Lake. People sit quietly in the garden to grieve. It's one of Patty's favorite spots.
She stopped participating after Keith died. “It was too painful,” Patty said. But she's doing “pretty good” now. “I lost a piece of myself when he died. I think you heal to a certain point and you don't go any farther.” She does have her family close, though, and counts her blessings, just like Keith always did.
Relay also widened its network of wonderful friends; many of whom have had cancer. “Keith always called Relay for Life a safe haven for people to support each other. That is what we wanted it to turn out to be, and it did,” Patty said. “It's like a big family reunion.”
Another St. Mary of the Lake member, Marlene Lenz, stepped up to co-chair Relay seven years ago. She was joined by Donald Pawlik three years ago. The annual July event, she said, has raised more than $4 million in its quarter century.
A Relay volunteer who eulogized Keith at his funeral said the cancer warrior inspired him to become active in the fight. “His dedication in the movement to end cancer has touched more people than we'll ever know, said Jeff Noren. “If we learned one thing from Keith, it's that one person can make a difference.”