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Survivors, caregiver share stories during Relay for Life

relay for life, owatonna, waseca, steele, tim penny
Tim Penny, center, thanks the crowd as he leads the caregiver lap of the Steele/Waseca Relay for Life. Walking beside him is Lloyd Witt, of Owatonna, who cared for his wife Lori as she went through breast cancer. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

Less than 30 minutes into the Steele/Waseca Relay for Life, the group had already raised nearly 85% of its $65,000 goal.

More money would roll in throughout the evening, thanks to a silent auction, wine pull, food sales, and craft sign painting.

The honorary chairs of the event were Dave and Nancy Olson, of Owatonna. Both shared their stories of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, from prostate and breast cancer, respectively.

They reminded attendees that annual physicals and preventive exams are crucial in catching cancer early; the Olsons are now cancer-free.

“When they asked if I would speak, I really didn’t think I should, because I thought I was one of those that was so lucky,” Nancy Olson said. “But they told me, your story is good, because there’s a lot of people that don’t think they have to go to the doctor or do their annual checkups.”

One of the most important aspects of their treatment, Dave Olson said, was prayer – and teamwork.

“It really helps a lot, not only physically, but mentally,” he said.

Honorary caregiver was Tim Penny, a former Minnesota senator and U.S. Congressman from Waseca, whose wife, Barb, died of pancreatic cancer in 2006. She was 51.

“If you knew her, you couldn’t help but love her,” Penny said.

After meeting at church as teenagers, they married in 1975.

“When I ran for Congress in 1982, our three oldest kids were 3, 2 and 1,” Penny said.

After coming home from Washington, she got heavily involved in community work in Waseca – and recruited her husband in many of the activities.

“We used to joke that if you get one, you get two in the Penny family,” he said.

Barb’s volunteer work included acting as chairwoman of Waseca Health Community/Health Kids Initiative, which Penny called “her most significant work.”

Her time spent within the community resulted in three distinguished volunteer awards.

A phone call in late 2004, though, brought “devastating news,” Penny said. “Three days later, the news got even worse. Pancreatic cancer had spread to her liver.”

She was given about three months to live, he said, “and as we drove home to Waseca, Barb turned to me and said, ‘Tim, I hope you know, I’m not afraid to die – I’m just not ready to die.’”

The first thing they did was speak to their pastor and told her they needed a miracle.

So they prayed for a miracle, he said, “and Barb lived with hope.”

She stayed active in the community, “even during that time,” Penny said. “In fact, most people in town had no idea, because she was out and about. As we look back on it now, and as we looked at it at that time, we came to understand that the miracle was 15 months instead of three.”

After her death, the family created the Barb Penny Legacy Fund, focused on youth activities. Organizations in Waseca, including the school district, 4-H, Big Brothers Big Sisters, receive grants to invest in young people, “so it carries on her legacy.”

Penny now has four children and eight grandchildren; only one was born before Barb died. Every January, they make a point to get together as a family.

“It’s a day of remembrance,” he said, “and to help these grandkids who never knew her to learn something about her. And I can see in each of them, Barb. She lives on, literally, in those grandkids.

“All of us here have been touched by cancer in one way or another, but like Barb, we live with hope – hope that one day there will be a cure.”

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