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Cancer fight's 300 survivors bask in cheers

Some walked, some watched, some wept. At midnight, 59 relay teams turn in $108,000 en route to their goals of $150,000 and a cure.

By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
As bagpipes played Amazing Grace, Tammy Quinn hugs her daughter MacKenzie Quinn, 5, while they remember Gerald Bowen, the uncle of Quinn's husband. Bowen died of cancer in October.
The women danced and the music played as the tall man sat alone in a chair, watching.

The preacher was used to speaking before a crowd. But Friday night, as the sun fell behind the bleachers at Springstead High School, Earl Parker was quiet.

His wife was several feet away, dancing with a group of women who laughed as their feet twisted on the grass, moving to beach music.

Parker's eyes glistened. He had not planned on staying so long but was not quite ready to go.

He could hardly believe how many people had arrived at the high school track, unraveling sleeping bags and stopping beneath large white tents to buy apple pie, a slice of pizza, a cherry Sno-Kone.

From his chair Parker could see them go by, a mother power walking, a father pushing a stroller, a cheerleader clapping her hands.

The father of two could see several of the people who wore yellow T-shirts, a shared cotton symbol on Friday to show that they had fought cancer and survived.

More than 300 survivors attended the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, a marathon walk in which 59 different teams were hoping to raise more than $150,000 for cancer research and resources in Hernando County. A member of each team had to be walking at all times from Friday night until noon Saturday.

Parker's youth group at Mariner United Methodist Church in Spring Hill had participated in the event before, but the 59-year-old had not.

He had never seen Sue Stoops, principal at Brooksville Elementary School, wearing a headband of glittery stars as she yelled to a passing crowd, "Egg rolls and apple crisps," trying to help cure the disease that had taken her two best friends and mother-in-law.

Nor had Parker seen Warden Kevin Watson of the Hernando County Jail sitting in the shade, sipping a soda as he talked conspiratorially about how much money his staff planned to raise this year.

"We're going for $10,000, but don't say that too loud," he said. "We're going to beat everyone this year."

Surrounding them all were white paper bags, each holding a candle and a name of someone who had not survived: Jack Budd, Ruth Curry, Mary Davis, Wanda Ferguson.

Parker did not know how long he would stay, whether he would be there for the 1 a.m. egg toss, the 2:30 a.m karaoke contest, the 5:30 a.m. water balloon relay.

But he had arrived in time for the first event.

Shortly after 6 p.m., he walked toward the track and joined the others. He began his first lap.

The crowd came quickly and circled. They clapped, pumped their fists and cheered. ROTC members stood and saluted.

And Parker, wearing his yellow T-shirt, walked on.

He was not prepared for the feeling.

"It was so much more than I expected," said Parker, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999. "All those people yelling and cheering. It felt so good, knowing they care."

So far, Parker's doctors have said he is fine.

He and the organizers of the relay hope to help furnish similar diagnoses to others by raising money for a cure.

By midnight, the 59 teams had turned in $108,000, and organizers were hoping that figure would continue climbing toward their goal.

-- Jamie Jones can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to jjones@sptimes.com.

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