‘I’m Amazed It’s Gone On All These Years’

Sunday, July 14, 2013
Hanover — When Heather Klassen participated in the first Prouty fundraising ride for cancer research in 1982, the “event” involved four people biking 100 miles in the White Mountains to honor a friend who had recently died of the disease.

Saturday’s Prouty scene couldn’t have been more different. All around Klassen during the late morning and outside the Richmond Middle School, hundreds of people moved on foot and on bikes. There were large tents covering areas for food, first aid, merchandise and volunteer opportunities in medical research. Packs of people in brightly colored T-shirts strode past, their ages ranging from preschoolers to the elderly. A floating balloon arch bobbed in the breeze above the finish line, where cheers rang out each time a participant arrived.

“I’m amazed it’s gone on all these years and people have supported it and made it continue,” said Klassen, who was about to embark on a 10-kilometer walk through the woods around Storrs Pond, one of several Prouty participation options. “In 1982, we just did it on the spur of the moment.”

Back then, Klassen, Cindy Spicer, Patty Carney and Cathy Hallesy were young oncology nurses at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital deeply touched by the death of their 54-year-old patient, Audrey Prouty. The manner in which the ovarian cancer patient and Warner, N.H., resident displayed grace, dignity and an upbeat attitude during nine years of sickness left a lasting impression on those around her.

“What she had gone through was so hard and we wanted to do something hard to honor her,” said Carney, now a professor at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore. “Our goal was $2,000, and we ended up doubling that. But our media person arranged for a television station to record us on the ride and we were petrified, because we had no idea what we were doing.”

Said Spicer: “I was the last one and I had a TV camera aimed at my rear end during a 12-mile climb on the Kancamagus Highway. I just kept thinking of all the pain Audrey had been in, and that I just couldn’t get off that bike.”

Carney recalls that Prouty refused to let cancer dampen her independent spirit, at one point walking to Main Street from Mary Hitchcock’s old location near Occom Pond despite having to take a rolling IV stand and attached bags of medicine with her. When chemotherapy caused her hair to fall out, Prouty spread it on top of the bushes near her house and birds used it in their nest construction.

Prouty died on July 7, 1982, and the four nurses undertook the first memorial ride the next month, having told Prouty about it before she passed away.

About 35 riders showed up the second year and more than 100 the third year, when the event was held in Hanover for the first time. The 2012 Prouty raised more than $2.5 million for Dartmouth College’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center and included more than 5,000 participants, 1,250 volunteers and 122 businesses. The goal for this year’s two-day event was set at $2.75 million.

One of Saturday’s riders was Lucinda Tokarski, of Barnard, a former Woodstock Union High and University of Vermont student who works at a Reading, Vt., nonprofit organization that exposes urban children to learning through farm activities. Tokarski, participating in her sixth Prouty, finished her 50-mile bicycle route in tears, overcome by the memory of her aunt, Mary Domkos, of New Jersey, who died last month of lung cancer. Tokarski rode with snapshots of Domkos attached to her bike’s seat and handlebars.

“Sorry, it’s really hard,” Tokarski said, wiping her eyes after calling her mother, Joan Tokarski, to tell her she had completed her ride. “Aunt Mary was one of the most accepting and vibrant people I know. Life was life to her, and that was good enough.”

Spicer, who works alongside her husband, a Littleton, N.H., doctor, said she had no idea The Prouty had continued after she left the Upper Valley in the mid-1980s. But six years ago, a friend filled her in and she’s been involved several times since. She was planning to ride on Saturday’s 50-mile route and said she tries to work the race’s background into conversations struck up along the way.

“I’ll say I was one of the nurses who started it and ask if the other person knows who Audrey was,” Spicer said. “It’s more personal that way and when you do something like this for a personal reason, it’s more exciting.”

Klassen moved to the Middle East in 1984 and has worked there since for a nonprofit organization. She declined to give its name, location or mission because of what she described as safety concerns, but said she and her husband are returning to the region this week after spending the last year in Weathersfield so their children could attend Quechee’s Mid Vermont Christian School.

“I thank God that people continue to do this and care enough about other people to want to get out there and help,” said Klassen, who walked Saturday alongside her sister, cancer survivor Susan Boyer. “When I see that millions are being raised, I’m very impressed.”

Carney said Audrey Prouty would be ecstatic to see the legacy she inspired. Participants come from all over the U.S. and from foreign countries. Carney said she met one by chance at an Oregon party last month.

“This woman had taught in Hanover one summer and did the Prouty bike ride and was flying back to do it again this year,” said Carney, who did the same thing in 2006, a year after she moved from the Upper Valley. “Its success comes because everybody knows an Audrey Prouty. She’s the face of our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.

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