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April 25, 2013

MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives

TERRE HAUTE — Joan Brown.

Remember that name.

Dave Brown does, on every step of a walk that began 60 days ago in Atlantic City, N.J., brought him to a roadside diner near Seelyville on Wednesday morning, and will finish at San Francisco in October. He figures everyone should know her story, their story. It might save lives.

They used to walk together as members of a local chapter of a hiking and fitness group, the American Volkssport Association, near their suburban Philadelphia home. They’d endured some painful walks, too. More than a decade ago, Joan walked beside Dave as he wheeled an IV cart through the hallways of a hospital as he received successful treatment for prostate cancer.

In the summer of 2011, they were walking that same hallway again, this time as Joan got chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. “It was surreal,” Dave recalled during a brief stop at Jonesy’s Eastside Diner along U.S. 40.

On Aug. 1, 2011, just four months after her diagnosis, Joan died.

His wife was just 58 years old.

That’s why Dave is walking again, alone now, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, along historic U.S. 40 and U.S. 50. That’s why the 61-year-old retired last June from a job he loved, as an information technology specialist for the investment management firm, Vanguard. That’s why he trained for seven months with a dailyroutine of either a 10-mile walk, a three-hour bike ride or a two-hour workout in the gym. That’s why he set out Feb. 28, unsure of the public interest in his mission, but certain of his need to fulfill it.

His determination and energy levels remained in high gear Wednesday morning, as he sipped a quick cup of coffee and rain fell outside the diner.

“It’s strange, but it feels like the right thing to be doing,” Brown said.

He aims to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and funds for research, and keep alive Joan’s memory in the process.

“She was amazing,” Brown said. “I am a better person because of her. I hope when I pass away, I handle it with as much strength and grace.”

They’d been together since meeting at a Halloween dance on the Chestnut Hill College campus in Philly, after the 1970 Navy-Notre Dame football game. Dave studied at the U.S. Naval Academy, on his way to becoming a pilot. Joan took classes at a nearby college. Mutual friends invited both to the dance. Something clicked. They were married in 1975 and made a home in Collegeville, a half-hour from Philadelphia.

Both worked in information technology. Dave spent 20 years with Lukens Steel and then joined Vanguard. Joan had been unemployed, taking college courses and caring for her ailing parents when her diagnosis came. Ovarian cancer is called the “silent disease” because of its subtle, common symptoms in its early stages. Dave urges women to get those subtleties — such as persistent fatigue, indigestion and appetite loss — checked out, because early detection substantially increases the chances of survival.

As Joan did during Dave’s bout with cancer, he would pre-emptively hustle to the mailbox to field any reports from the doctors, so he could break any news to her gently. When the diagnosis came, it was rough. A “rare, super aggressive” form of ovarian cancer was found in Joan. Doctors performed surgery, but the cancer returned. It could not be stopped.

In her final days, Joan urged her husband not to sulk, and to get on with life and enjoy it. “She would be pissed if I was sitting around mourning,” he said, with emphasis.

And so he isn’t.

The nudge for Brown to pursue his current walk came as he watched a movie, at the urging of a friend of Joan’s. That independent film, “My Run,” told the story of Terry Hitchcock, who became the single parent of three kids when he lost his wife to breast cancer. Hitchcock decided to honor her memory by running a daily marathon — yes, a daily marathon — for 75 days, from Minnesota to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Brown related to Hitchcock’s situation, narrated by actor Billy Bob Thornton.

“The conversation [Hitchcock] had with his wife, and the experiences, are exactly what I’d gone through with Joan. It was surreal. And somewhere during that movie, it just came,” Brown said, snapping his fingers.

He remembered a book Joan had given him about the National Road, a highway initiated by President Thomas Jefferson. In his years with Luken Steel, Brown jogged 8,900 miles on his lunch breaks. Captivated by U.S. 40’s history, he envisioned running that famed road as he ran. “In my mind, I had jogged from Atlantic City to San Francisco,” Brown said. “You talk about Larry Bird shooting jumpshots in his mind, I’d been doing this walk for years.”

At a meeting with his boss at Vanguard, months after Joan’s death, they began planning for “next year.” At that moment, Brown decided that, instead of waiting years to take on his cross-country walk, he would retire in 2012, start training, and then do it.

So far, he’s sparked interest in his cause in people who’ve seen him walking, heard of him through newspaper and TV reports, and followed his blog online. Donations to Dave Brown’s Walk Across America through the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund have been steady. He’s had nine people walk beside him for an entire day. “Lodging providers” have put him up for the night, including those touched by cancer, avid walkers and National Road buffs.

“I’m an optimistic person, a glass-half-full person, and you could go into this as a leap of faith and hope it works out,” Brown said of the support, “but it’s been just off the charts.”

An Ohio native, he’s been through Indiana and the Midwest a couple of times, but the spacious stretch from St. Louis to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, will be a brand new experience. “I’m looking forward to seeing the Rockies, and I’m really looking forward to everything — the whole country,” Brown said. “I love to see new things.”

He’ll mark his 62nd birthday while crossing Kansas. With no regrets.

“There’s millions of people in the world, and I just happened to have her for 40 years, and I was blessed,” he said, shortly before leaving the diner and heading west. “You just can’t look back.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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