“We’re here to support him and his mom,” said Devyn Weisner, standing with his friend Adrian Hoffman and pausing before one of a couple hundred homemade luminaria, this one a white paper sack bearing the words “In memory of Mary Jo Klaus Grizzle.”
“I’m here for my mom,” said Greg Timmons, at Friday evening’s 2019 Relay for Life at the Downtown Pavilion. “She would light up a room, her smile was contagious. At her funeral, there were so many people that people were standing.”
Grizzle was 46. She died in 2015 fighting breast, lung, liver and kidney cancers, Timmons said. He turned 20 just 12 days after she passed.
There are ways Timmons is like her, says Hoffman.
“A people person, don’t know a stranger, always willing to help,” he says.
Now, says Timmons, “I just try to live my life so she’ll be proud of me.”
A couple hundred or more attended the annual Relay for Life, held each year in Hays since 1995 to raise money for the American Cancer Society's cancer research.
With free tacos from Taco Shop and a live music twist this year, Rockin’ the Bricks, the Relay’s fundraising goal is $35,000, and also includes a silent auction and a golf tournament June 14.
Some of the money comes from sales of luminaria, the scores of decorated white paper sacks with a battery-operated candle inside that are purchased by family and friends for $10, each one bearing the name of a loved one who has died from cancer, or to honor a survivor.
Relay volunteer Christine Werth oversees the luminaria ceremony, and this year thanked 4-H volunteer Donna Maskus, who brings her 4-Hers each year to set up the white sacks and candles to form a luminaria-lined pathway around the edges of the street.
“None of those kids come out here and complain, no matter how hot it is, no matter how windy it is,” said Werth.
“With 20, it didn’t take us very long,” said Maskus. “They do it every year, and this year two even came back just to help.”
Emcee Becky Kiser says it’s the kind of evening that Mary Brady and longtime volunteer Lonny Claycamp would love.
“They were giant members of the Relay committee. She brought Relay for Life to Ellis County,” said Kiser. “Both Mary and Lonny left everything on the track … you know that they would love the atmosphere here this evening. The great music, and the family and friends.”
Kiser invited the many survivors in the crowd, noticeable in their purple T-shirts, to give their names at the microphone and walk the path: Brenda Smith, a two-year survivor; Neil Unrein, 12 years; Norbert Kuhn, seven years; Louise Robben, 10 years; Debbie Klaus, 14 years; Terry Chesney, 15 years — and many others.
“Every year Relay for Life coincides with our wedding anniversary,” says Pat Schumacher, of Hays, there with her husband, Tony. “This year we are celebrating 47 years. It’s 20 for me and 13 for him. I hope to keep walking this relay hand-in-hand with this man.”
In the crowd, Kay Wasinger, of Hays, came with her friends Shirley Werth, Barb Zimmerman and Arlene Brungardt.
“My husband died of cancer a long time ago,” Wasinger said. Ronald Wasinger was 55 when he died in 1996 of lung cancer.
“It’s good to be here with those who have survived. It’s a beautiful evening,” says Wasinger. “We have several friends in the survivor walk. Agnes Gross, Clay Meier, Mary Aubel, and I’m sure there are others.”
The luminaria wouldn’t be lit until 9:30 p.m., when Hays Arts Council executive director Brenda Meder read each name, as she does each year. Meanwhile, people in the standing-room-only crowd stayed gathered in the Pavilion to hear Hometown Elvis Tribute artist Frank Werth, with jet-black hair and long ’60s sideburns, moving Elvis-style in a blue sequin jacket and singing Jailhouse Rock.
“Is it hot?” he asks. “I’m trying to be strong and wear this jacket for you, but I’m telling ya.”
Werth asked the crowd if they remember soul singer Jackie Wilson, and the answer is claps and whistles and hollers.
“You can’t beat good ol' rock and roll,” Werth says, “ and you can’t beat good ol' gospel music,” he tells them, his Elvis voice breaking into “If That Isn’t Love.”
“There’s no feeling like this, if that isn’t love,” Werth sang. “Even in death He remembered the thief hanging by His side. Then He spoke of love and compassion and He took him to paradise.”
Morris Froelich, of Hays, is wearing a black T-shirt. “Cancer, you make me wish I had more middle fingers,” it reads. Froelich is there for his son, Clint Froelich, also of Hays.
“This is my first year,” says Clint, who at 38 has undergone surgery and chemo for a very rare appendiceal cancer. “It sucks, but I’m still here, as aggressive as that cancer is.” Others in the crowd are wearing the Froelich T-shirt, and are there to support him.
“My wife and four daughters, my mom, my dad, both sets of my grandparents, three sets of aunts and uncles, a cousin and her three children, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, and I know there are more,” he says.
“This whole cancer thing,” says Clint, “You got to wake up every day and enjoy the sun shining on your head.”
Rosie Redetzke and her sister Theresa Truan, both from Hays, stroll to the luminaria bearing the name "Stanley Stramel Jr., 8-10-71 to 12-20-17."
Their nephew died at 46 after Hodgkins and melanoma.
“He was a character,” says Redetzke. “Everybody loved him. He was friendly, kind, he was a good guy, he loved kids, he loved old cars.”
Earlier in the day she was with his mother, her sister Patty Stramel, of Pfeifer, looking at plants in her yard, and remembering Stanley.
“He had peppermint plants, and I replanted one, and now they’re growing all over my yard,” she says. “He was like a son to me, he was so ornery. I miss him.”
In the Pavilion, Frank Werth wraps up “Return to Sender” with a slide and a wiggle of his leg.
“You guys ever heard of Charlie Rich? The Silver Fox?” Everyone hollers and claps. “If my grandpa Ralph were here, he’d really like this. My grandpa Ralph passed away from cancer in 1991.”
And next it’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”
Irvin Haselhorst, Hays, is about one-and-a-half years out. He’s strolling the luminaria.
“When the doctor came in the room, he said ‘you got something one in 2 million come down with,’” Haselhorst recalls. “Waldenstrom cancer attacks the blood cells and kidneys. I got over it with chemo and a pill that keeps me in remission.”
Haselhorst went into the hospital weighing 248 pounds and came out at 131. Now he’s back to 200, he says.
“I kind of look at every day as a blessing from above. I make the best of every day and appreciate everything I’ve got,” he says. “My doctor tells me they didn’t save me, it was a much higher power did that.”
Frank Werth has worked through “Great Balls of Fire” and now he mentions that somebody else in the crowd is wearing a flashy jacket like his.
“Come up here Slade,” he invites 12-year-old Slade Salmans, Hays, handing him a microphone. “I’ve got faith in you brother. Someday I hope I’m watching you up here. Let’s do Jailhouse Rock again, cause I kind of fumbled it.”
While the number of the participants has been dwindling the past few years, the organizers this year were hoping the live music would bring people out. It could be heard up and down Main Street. Kiser at the microphone earlier said the response from sponsors was strong this year, thanks to the groundwork laid years prior by Claycamp, for one.
“Lonny was always on the radio talking about how important it is to support Relay for Life,” said Kiser. “Lonny had connections and he used them and we appreciated that … We figured out who his connections were and thankfully they’ve all stepped up. So know, Lonny Claycamp, that you are still making a big difference.”