Relay for Life has humble beginnings

Published 10:18 am Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Today, the Relay For Life program is a fundraising titan in the fight against cancer. Yet its roots are humble. Participants in June’s 30th annual Relay For Life event in Tacoma, Washington, helped fight the fight the same way — and in the same place — as one doctor with a hobby and a vision did three decades ago.

Dr. Gordon “Gordy” Klatt, a colorectal surgeon, decided in 1985 to find out if his passion for running marathons could become a path to raise money for his local American Cancer Society office. He hoped people might pledge $25 to run or walk with him at University of Puget Sound. To inspire participation, Klatt himself would circle the school’s track for 24 hours. His idea worked, and he was able to raise $27,000.

At the time, Pat Flynn was a non-cancer patient of Klatt’s who had a knack for organization. Klatt asked Flynn to help set up the first team event in 1986. She served on the committee that in 1993 named the event “Relay For Life” and made it the Society’s signature fundraiser. Now she serves on the national Relay advisory team and is known as the “Mother of Relay.”

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Over the years, Dr. Klatt and Flynn have inspired more than 250,000 people to volunteer at Relay For Life events. Flynn attributes the program’s explosive growth to ordinary people uniting for a common cause.

“[At first], we’d go talk to a community group, and we’d end up that day with a team ready to participate,” she says. “As soon as Gordy went to the first other state, Minnesota, it began popping up all over. I know he was deeply moved by how it’s grown. I hear the stories from Zambia and Ireland and Japan. It’s incredible.”

Flynn walked with the Flynn Family Team for this year’s anniversary event in Tacoma. “I went home with such a warm heart and a huge feeling that it was a job well done,” says Flynn. “Our little team of 11 raised $30,000.”

Changes are in store to make the Relay For Life program an even better fundraising platform. “Our goal is to raise more funds and increase participation while providing an exceptional event experience,” says Lisa Roth, senior vice president of product and program management.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Gordon Klatt took to the track for 24 hours in Tacoma, Washington, and raised $27,000 for the fight against cancer. His innovative idea, now known as Relay For Life, has since grown into a global program with more than 5,000 events in communities as far as Soweto, South Africa, and Fukushima, Japan.

The Relay For Life program is more than just a fundraiser. It’s about communities coming together to support each other and the work the American Cancer Society is doing to fight cancer. Thanks to Dr. Klatt’s vision, Relay for Life has become the world’s largest program of its kind.

Dr. Klatt passed away in August. His legacy will live on through the more than 4 million people who participate in Relay For Life events around the world every year.

Want to know more? Volunteer, or talk with your committee about upcoming changes that can improve your local event by reaching out to LaChona Ferguson at 740-708-5186 or


LaChona Ferguson is a specialist with Relay For Life’s East Central Division. She can be reached at 740-708-5186 or