Dr. Gordon “Gordy” Klatt, who founded Relay For Life, dies at 71


Pat Flynn of Tacoma is known as the mother of Relay For Life, which means most people know Dr. Gordon Klatt as the father of the event.

But Flynn says that doesn’t do him justice.

“He was way more than that …” she said. “There is only one founder in the world of Relay For Life, and that is Gordy Klatt.”

“Gordy Klatt,” she said, “changed the face of the fight against cancer forever.”

The Tacoma surgeon died at age 71 Sunday, his family said, following a recent struggle with a heart condition.

In 1985, Klatt single-handedly changed the way the American Cancer Society raises funds by combining his passion for running with his passion for fighting against cancer. Klatt ran more than 83 miles around the track at University of Puget Sound for 24 hours and raised $27,000 in tribute to a young man who died of the disease.

The next year, 220 people on 19 teams joined him, and a worldwide phenomenon was born. The Grays Harbor Relay for Life started that same year as well, and has grown into one of the most successful fundraisers of all the relays.

In 1994, it became the American Cancer Society’s signature event. Today, the Relay For Life is held in 23 countries and has raised nearly $5 billion.

“He’s not going to be forgotten because he’s the guy who started the Relay,” said Harvey Rosen, who knew Klatt for decades. “It’s not even a local legacy, it’s a worldwide legacy. Every time there’s a Relay, he’s going to be remembered.”

Flynn remembers her first glimpse of that legacy. And it was literally a glimpse.

The gates to the UPS track were locked when she went to try to watch Klatt that first year. She knew him because she was a patient at his medical practice, and she peeked through the bars twice during the 24 hours to make sure he was OK.

It was while he was running on that track that he envisioned the team event, she said.

A couple months later, he asked her to join the six-person committee to organize the first team event the next year.

“Neither of us ever dreamed that in 30 years it would raise $5 billion,” Flynn said. “He was always the vision, and I was the details person.”

Flying to put on a workshop for Relay in the early years, she said Klatt made some projection about how much they would raise in a certain number of years.

“I just looked at him and said: ‘In your dreams,’” she remembered.

Whatever it was, they far surpassed it.

A Tacoma monument honoring Klatt and commemorating the start of Relay For Life is in the works. A committee headed by Rosen has raised nearly $115,000 to buy a sculpture honoring Klatt and a marker to tell the story of how the Relay came to be.

The location has not yet been determined.

Klatt himself was diagnosed with stomach cancer in March 2012.

“The guy was a battler right ‘til the end,” Rosen said. “Whatever hospital he might have been in, the staff would ask him for his opinion because he knew more than some of these inexperienced doctors and nurses.”

Klatt was a surgeon in Tacoma for 40 years. He spent three years as an Army surgeon and then went back to school to become a colorectal specialist.

Klatt continued to run the relay until he had knee surgery in 1995, according to his wife of 23 years, Lou Klatt.

“He was a very kind, good-hearted, giving person,” she said. “He really cared about his patients. They were number one.”

He loved marathons, dancing, and playing the accordion and the piano. Klatt learned to play the accordion when he was 5 and continued to play until the end, although he had trouble lifting the 40-pound instrument.

He’s survived by his wife; three children from a previous marriage, Julie Sullivan, Lisa Steudel and David Klatt; five grandchildren; sister Kathy and brother Don.

“My grandchildren will see a day when there is no cancer,” Klatt once predicted.

Sullivan remembers him as a fun dad who drove the high school carpool, loved music and liked travel and photography.

David Klatt said he and his dad enjoyed Husky football and Seattle Supersonics games together as season ticket holders.

The family had their own relay team in the early years of the event, they said. The American Cancer Society did not wish to comment Monday, saying they would release a statement at a more appropriate time.

 

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