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The Heroes Project 2018: Duane

A cancer diagnosis can stop someone in their tracks. But Relay For Life uber volunteer Duane Downs––Mr. Relay to most––just keeps making more tracks. He’s been marching forward in them for 78 years and making memories along the way. Prostate cancer?

“It didn’t bother me at all. The doctor said, ‘When you die, you’re going to have cancer in your prostate, but it’s not going to kill you.’”

Okay, good to know. It’s already been a year since that diagnosis. Guess it’s time to put it on the back burner and get back to making a difference. Where Duane’s made the most impact this last third of his life has been in what has become Gwinnett Relay For Life, the largest relay event in the world, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“In 1999, we were the first (nationally) to net a million dollars and we never looked back, and we’ve been number one net every year since then except the one year–– that was 2012––that Bakersfield, California, I think, beat us by $20,000. Then we kicked their tail the next year.” Competitive much?

Duane remembers stats like that. He keeps records. Why not? He’s been volunteering for Relay For Life since Day One. If you go into the basement of his Bethlehem, Georgia home, you’ll see that he doesn’t just remember stuff and make memories, he hangs on to them. The Smithsonian has nothing on Duane Downs. He’s got a subterranean treasure trove from Relays past: T-shirts, news clippings, pictures, programs, all being prepped for their display in what Duane calls the 25th Anniversary Experience. He’ll spend most of his time in that booth at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds the night of the Relay and will regale participants with stories of Relays gone by. And he’s got a million of ‘em.

Like the story of his Mixed Nuts bowling team that has been a regular participant since that first Relay at South Gwinnett High School in 1994.

“I said I’m going to go to our Wednesday night bowling league,” he recalls, “And we got fifteen people from our league, some of whom had family members who had died from cancer or had been touched by cancer.” Not only did the Mixed Nuts Bowlers show up at that first Relay, but they were the only team to do on-site fundraising, something that is now the norm. They erected a portable bowling alley and charged a buck a game.

The Mixed Nuts Bowlers, still involved, don’t limit their fundraising to Relay nights. During the rest of the year, on their weekly bowling night, they pass the jug, an orange pun-laden, re-purposed detergent jug created by the league secretary, Betty Prewett. Duane’s secret to person-to-person fundraising success: “Being friendly. Tell them thanks.” And he can read a crowd. “There are teams at the bowling center that I know I don’t stop at their table. It’s fine. Not everybody is supportive. But there are some that are supportive fantastically well.”

Obviously. With Betty’s jug to help “strike” out cancer with “spare” change combined with the rest of their fundraising efforts, the Mixed Nuts Bowlers have raised almost $300,000 through the years.

“One of my desires was to involve bowlers in a great cause and have them be seen in a positive light.” Mission accomplished.

He recalls the story of two high-profile, national companies based in Gwinnett waging a late-night battle at the Relay in 2006 to see who could raise more money. They finally called it a draw when they both ponied up $113,000. But lurking right behind was Norcross High School, whose students and teachers had raised $110,000. And that speaks to the involvement of Gwinnett County Public Schools, who Duane credits for the primary success of Gwinnett Relay For Life.

“Since the beginning, we’ve had school teachers, some principals, and we’ve had the blessing of (Superintendent J. Alvin) Wilbanks, that schools could raise money for more than two or three weeks like every other fundraising activity the school has. And schools got to be competitive with each other. They wanted to be the top school, they wanted to have the best campsite decoration. And there were some teachers who got very zealous about their involvement and they took great pride in it.”

So do the student leaders who, in doing their part in Relay For Life, learned valuable lessons about being involved in their community. Many of these students go on to lead Relays at their respective colleges and one of them, Holly Smith, is the co-event lead for this year’s Gwinnett Relay.

Duane Downs is generous with his time and has an altruistic bent. He’s shown that since his days at NCR, where he worked for forty-one years in Washington State, Ohio, and Georgia. Blood drives, walk-a-thons, even selling bagels and juice for a dollar to company employees on Friday mornings so they could contribute $200 to this cause or that.

“I feel good doing things like that,” Duane says.

It was inevitable that when NCR asked Duane to attend an American Cancer Society meeting about some new fundraiser in 1993, he would get on board.

This charitable mindset is somewhat a family affair. Duane and his wife, Laurel, a cancer survivor herself, have raised a daughter with charity in her DNA. Nona Ingham, who coordinates Relay teams across the country for Ricoh, also works side by side with her dad on the local Event Leadership Team.

Duane is a fortunate and busy man. Out of the workforce for fifteen years, he doesn’t lack for anything to do…or the passion to do it. And Gwinnett’s Relay has reaped the benefits.

“Not everyone has the same situation that I’ve had since 2003. I’m retired, I still have a good fire in my gut to be involved with something and I chose Relay over the other things I was involved with at NCR.” Talk about a win-win.

He’s done it all, from running the Relay store to serving as chairman. He comes by the Mr. Relay moniker honestly. His formula for longevity of service is simple:

“I’ve stayed. While others may have aspired to big things and then rose through the ranks and said, ‘Okay, I did that, I’m done,’ I didn’t mind going back into the trenches and working. And so I’m here. How can I help?”

He’s done more than his share and it’s been a huge commitment.

One of these days, Relay For Life will kick off and Duane won’t be there. But as long as it continues to raise money and birth new memories and support those touched by cancer, Duane will be okay with that.

“I’ve been to the mountaintop,” says Duane, citing his interactions with the biggest names in Relay For Life nationally. “Now I’m staying in the valley of Gwinnett. I’ve enjoyed every bit of this journey, but I’ll probably slow down a bit. Laurel and I need to do some things, go travel, see some parts of the country we’ve never seen.”

But don’t worry; he’s not gone yet. In fact, if you pass the Gwinnett Fairgrounds a week before the Relay and see a group of guys painting lines and marking out campsites, look for the tall, white-haired fella. He’ll probably be wearing one of his Relay For Life shirts and throwing himself into his tasks on behalf of cancer survivors and would-be survivors with gusto, because that’s who Duane Downs is: a man of charity, casting his bread upon the waters and making memories.