In it for a lifetime

Published 7:57 pm Saturday, May 8, 2010

The world was different when Harriet Wills-Hunter’s late husband, Curtis Wills, was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 1980.

There was no talk of cancer. There was little support for those who had it. And there was no Relay for Life.

“People didn’t talk about cancer,” Hunter said. “It was almost unheard of. Doctors didn’t talk about it. They told you not talk about it. The most you might know is that someone had it, but that was it. And there was no community support.”

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In fact, it wasn’t until the following year that there was even a whisper of Suffolk’s now-popular Rockin’ Relay for Life — a community event supporting cancer research and those affected by cancer.

In 1981, it began as the Suffolk Rock-a-thon at Brandon House Furniture Store by David Carter and Carolyn Wright. That first year, 27 people raised $4,300 for cancer research, but it was only the tip of the iceberg.

Even though Hunter’s husband had cancer, she didn’t hear about the Rock-a-thon until 1983. By then, there were 56 participants who raised $11,000.

“That was good money back then,” Hunter said.

After their first event, Hunter and her husband rocked every single year, with the exception of one during which Hunter had surgery.

Hunter recruited her family, students from the school where she taught for 35 years and never hesitated to ask anyone for a donation. For many years, the couple raised the most money for the event.

“We just continued to do it every year,” Hunter said. “It got so big. One year we had 75 people lined up — side by side, row by row — inside the store.”

In 1997, the Rock-a-thon merged with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and became the Suffolk Rockin’ Relay for Life — the only Rockin’ Relay in the nation.

Hunter’s husband passed away just months after being diagnosed with cancer for the second time in 2001.

“He survived with cancer for 21 years,” Hunter said. “The highlight of his life was to take the survivor’s walk every year. When they gave him a survivor medal, he wore it to the airport on our way to Kentucky. He wore it all the way through the airport. He wore it everywhere.”

Since her husband’s passing, Hunter has remarried and continues to rock for life with rockers such as Bennie Plewes and Constance Jones, both original Rock-a-thoners.

“God put us here on this earth for a reason,” Hunter said. “It’s to do something for someone else. You can’t live life inside yourself and dedicated to yourself.”

This year, Hunter organized four teams to rock in the Relay.

“The rocking serves a great purpose,” Hunter said. “I’m surprised more Relays haven’t picked it up. Not everybody can walk in a Relay. Rocking gives them a chance to participate even if they can’t walk.”

Looking back on her nearly 27 years as a rocker, Hunter said she has seen the event change as society’s acceptance and acknowledgement of cancer changed to resolve to find a cure.

“The whole community is involved in the Relay now,” Hunter said. “Everybody is there. We might not go for 24 hours anymore, but the dedication is there. When you’re at the Relay you experience every emotion you can have. Everything you can feel is put together. You grieve, you’re happy, you’re sad, you reminisce. You know you’ve done something to help. Just this year I found a quote that says it all, ‘Help create a world with less cancer and more birthdays.’ That’s what keeps me motivated. That is why I rock.”