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Ken Lettre

On July 14, a good friend of mine died as the result of cancer’s relentless march that started in his bladder and spread to his brain. His name was Jeff Shendell.

I first met Jeff some 12 years ago while working for another company in Knoxville, TN. Jeff worked for a clothing supplier that my company purchased from, and we in turn would resell to our consumers. My position at the time required that I assess violation charges to suppliers that did not follow our specific shipping requirements. Since his organization was very large, they had more than their fair share of violations, and the majority of our business contacts were spent reviewing and sometimes negotiating the charges that were assessed. I must admit that some of our conversations could have been best described as ‘lively.’ Throughout it all, we both had a very healthy respect for our organizations and each other — a respect that slowly built into a friendship that truly lasted until the day he died.

Jeff was never a runner. In fact, the most exercise he ever admitted to was the almost daily “Airport 100 Yard Dash,” as it seemed he never arrived at the airport with enough time to ever leisurely catch a flight. Jeff was never a master of technology. Many a conversation started with Jeff pointing to his cell phone, asking if I could tell him how to use it. I must come clean to the fact that I often got a chuckle at Jeff’s expense when he would ask to borrow my office phone for the purpose of calling one of his many assistants in order to have that individual actually read his e-mails to him. But, through all that, I respected how he could immediately analyze and dissect a problem to its core — listening to him bark out solutions over my speakerphone and quickly going on to the next problem or issue.

Jeff was diagnosed with his bladder cancer in August of 2010, just after he retired. I remember calling him later that week and asking what his plans were. His response, as always, was simple and to the point, “I’m going to beat this thing.” Jeff always had plans, and he was looking forward to retirement and traveling with his wife literally around the world. Those plans he knew would have to be placed on hold while he tackled a new nemesis that was growing inside him. I found myself wanting to do something to help. I called Jeff’s wife, Marsha, inquiring to their needs. I actually met Marsha on several occasions while attending shared supplier/merchant conferences. She was a very attractive woman who tried to keep Jeff “in line,” although we both knew that was an impossible task. She responded to my question politely by saying that any prayers would be welcomed, and she added, “the best thing you could do for us would be to give your wife and kids an extra special hug tonight.”

I did. But I still felt I had to do more.

I knew that Jeff was going through the literal fight for his life. I had to do something that, at the very least, could make him smile and perhaps take his mind off his illness for at least a little while. It was then I had an idea. I went to a local store and purchased a large padded envelope. Returning home, I found my 2007 Disney World Goofy Race and a Half Marathon T-Shirts. I placed them into the envelope with a note that said simply, “I ran the race of my life at Disney, but you are running a much tougher race. These shirts really belong to you now.” I addressed the envelope to his home in Connecticut, applied postage and brought it to the post office. One week later he called me, thanking me for my wonderful surprise. He told me how he had all the nurses convinced that it was indeed he who ran the Disney Goofy Challenge. I smiled, knowing that what he spoke of could be best described as ‘pure Jeff.’

I reveled in my success! I made Jeff smile in the face of an uncertain future. My path to help Jeff was clear: send him race and finishers t-shirts to the key events I ran. From 5Ks to marathons, it did not matter. I had to continue to make Jeff smile and look forward to his next package from Texas. Sometimes I would send him two packages a week, other times less frequent. But I knew that he had to be the only patient at Sloan-Kettering in New York, wearing a 2007 Dallas White Rock Marathon shirt.

In early April of this year, Jeff called to tell me that they found a mass in his head while doing a routine CT Scan. They did not know what it was, but they were going to run further tests, and he would let me know. Discussing these findings with my wife, a nurse for the better part of 25 years, she gave me her grim prognosis. We both said another prayer for Jeff and his family.

In late April, 2012, I ran the Oklahoma City Marathon for a PR of 3:52. I received my finisher’s shirt immediately after I received my finisher’s medal. Before I returned home, I stopped and purchased another padded envelope and mailed Jeff my finisher’s shirt with a note stating that I was so proud that I finished a marathon for the first time under four hours, and that it would make me proud if he would wear my finisher’s shirt for me. Although I sent Jeff several other t-shirts since that marathon, talking to Jeff, and confirmed by his wife, he wore the Oklahoma City Marathon shirt almost exclusively. However, this time his ‘story’ was different. He never admitted to running the Oklahoma City Marathon as he did for virtually all of the other race shirts I sent him. Rather, he let everyone know that his good friend Ken from Texas ran it in his best time ever — and that he was proud of me.

Two days after Jeff died, his widow, Marsha, called me. She thanked me for making Jeff smile. She said that Jeff was never one to really let his feelings be known, but she could easily see how his face would light up when she brought a newly received padded envelope to his hospital bedside. That was my intention; it was all I could do, as his friend. I smiled, laughed, and cried a little knowing I made my friend smile when he needed it the most.

Fellow runners, our runs may end, but our giving never does. Never lose sight of one basic fact: your simplest of actions could — and most often do — have the most profound effect. Just try. And always remember, no one can ever prevent you from making a positive difference.

Run long and strong, and make a positive difference.

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