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Michelle Ortner, left, was instrumental in bringing the relay to Hudson 10 years ago, and co-chaired the event with Karen Humphrey for several years. Humphrey, right, has been active with the relay since it began in Hudson and in New Richmond before that. Photo from Star Observer Photo Archive

Hudson Relay For Life: the community makes it happen

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The Hudson Relay For Life will mark its 10th anniversary this year at opening ceremonies June 26 at Newton Field. The event is consistently one of the top-grossing fund-raisers for the American Cancer Society. Those who helped stage the event in Hudson say they always knew Hudson would deliver.

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Michelle (Klatt) Ortner of North Hudson was the event's first local chairman and served as co-chairman with Karen Humphrey for several years. Both women have personal experience with cancer and a vested interest in seeing a cure come from research funded in part by the relay.

Ortner's son Cody, now 21, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia when he was 4. He received a bone marrow transplant from his older brother, Nik, and underwent difficult courses of chemotherapy and radiation that were almost as toxic as the cancer itself. He recently graduated from WITC with a degree in packaging. The family will not attend this year's relay because they will be in Marquette, Mich., at Nik's wedding, where Cody will be best man.

Ortner has always shied away from public attention but she is willing to talk about her role in Hudson's relay "because it isn't about me -- it's about what this community has accomplished."

Ortner, her family and other Hudson area people like Ken Zak and Humphrey got involved in the Relay For Life in New Richmond first but immediately began to work toward bringing the event home.

Ortner said she wanted to give something back to the community that had supported her and her family through the ordeal of Cody's treatment and recovery.

"The money raised is very important. When I look back at where cancer research and treatment were back then and where it is now, I can't believe it. And that's because of the money raised by Hudson and communities like it across the country. It does make a difference.

"But a relay is about so much more than that. Anyone who attends will tell you that. The personal connection and support and therapy you feel with your team or the committee or just the other people on the track with you is unlike anything else I've ever experienced. It is hard to explain but it happens every year and to everybody who comes," said Ortner, who admits she tears up just thinking about it.

For love of a brother

Humphrey got involved with Relay For Life back in 1997 when her brother John Kinney was battling testicular cancer. He died just a few months after that first relay, but the family's team, Skinny's Saints, which includes her parents, Dick and Leona, and sister Barb, has participated every year since.

They have been a part of the Hudson relay since it began and have been among the top fund-raisers every year since.

Humphrey is also a charter member of the Hudson Relay For Life Committee. She became the event's co-chairman with Ortner for several years and went on to work with the American Cancer Society as an ambassador and, more recently, as member and officer of the ACS Midwest board of directors.

Humphrey said people would be surprised at the amount of work it takes to stage the Relay For Life even after doing it for 10 years

"When I started working with Michelle it was a big surprise to me how much work it was to do. And that doesn't change. The amount of money we've raised may have gone down some in recent years but the work it takes to do it doesn't."

Humphrey's commitment to the event and the work of ACS is all about give and take. Like so many others she has met over her years of involvement, she believes she gets as much as she gives.

"Whether it is with the relay or on the board of directors, it is about healing from the loss of my brother and keeping his fight and his memory alive. That and the relationships and friends I've made while doing the work are what make it all so special. We share a common experience and the feelings run deep and long," said Humphrey.

Humphrey agrees with Ortner that the relay is unlike any other experience, and she hopes anyone who hasn't experienced it yet will be there on June 26 or 27.

"It is about those who are living with cancer, those we've lost, their families and friends and the people who care for them. It's about a bond that lasts forever no matter what your experience with cancer. Everyone there, whether it is at our relay here in Hudson or at the capital in Washington, D.C., is there for the same reason."

Public invited

The Hudson Relay For Life is June 26-26 at Newton Field, 340 13th St. S. Opening ceremonies and survivors' lap begin at 6 p.m. The luminary ceremony begins at 10 p.m. Friday. The event is open to the public.

For more information, to enter a team or to be a volunteer, contact Kellie Burrows of ACS at kellie.burrows@cancer.org or (877) 423-9122, ext. 216, or event chairman Lori Deboer at (715) 263-4201 or deboerlori@yahoo.com.

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Meg Heaton
Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
(715) 808-8604
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