By David Arenstam, Contributing Writer
For 68-year-old Dick Parker, Mary’s Walk and the Kerrymen Pub 5K Road Race have taken on a new meaning this year.
“Mr. Parker,” as he is known by so many around Saco, was a teacher and coach at Thornton Academy for 36 years, and in September 2011, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This year, Parker will be the honorary spokesperson for Mary’s Walk and lead the event, an event he knows all too well.
Next month, approximately 2,500 people from the Saco-Biddeford area and beyond will line the streets next to Thornton Academy and take part in the annual Mary’s Walk and Kerrymen Pub 5K Road Race.
The walk, scheduled for March 12, is a community-wide affair to raise money that will be used to help fight the battle against cancer and raise awareness about a disease that affects so many individual and families.
In 1997, 44-year-old Mary Kerry Libby, a mother of four, resident of Saco, and graduate of Thornton Academy, died as a result of cancer. Two years later, on St. Patrick’s Day, the first walk and run was held in her name to raise money and awareness about the disease the took her life.
“In many ways it honors her spirit and her courage,” said Gene Libby, her husband and event founder.
The route for the day is on many of the streets and roads that Mary herself walked on as she battled her sickness, and to date the walk and run have raised over $1.4 million for the Maine Cancer Foundation.
Libby explained it was important to him and the other organizers that all of the funds are used by research groups and scientists within the state.
“I didn’t really know a lot about the treatments or my options,” Parker said when he thought about his diagnosis. “Of course, I started to research.”
Parker, like many cancer patients, learned that treatments were often as varied as the disease itself.
“I could have gone to California for the one type of surgery or pretty much anywhere,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that whatever I did, I left myself with options for the future.”
Parker calmly described his choices and the way he decided to have cryosurgery, a form of treatment where extreme cold is used to destroy diseased or cancerous tissue.
“I knew that this treatment was effective for my type of cancer,” he said. “And if need be, it didn’t eliminate other treatments down the road.”
Sounding like the teacher he was for so long, he said some treatments force a patient down one procedural path.
“I wanted to make sure I had options,” he said. “Besides, they could do the surgery here,” he said, referring to Southern Maine Medical Center in Biddeford.
Parker said the decision was important to him and his family. He has been married for 48 years to his high school sweetheart, Janine, and together they raised two children, Doug and Kristan, both of whom still live in the area.
After retiring from teaching in 2000, Parker kept active and has often been a volunteer for Mary’s Walk and other organizations.
During previous events, he has worked with former students and some “who have no idea who I am,” he said, smiling.
“It’s still fun to talk to the kids,” he said.
In prior years he has helped direct walkers and runners during the event, helped pass out T-shirts and registration packages, and even helped with satellite parking. This year, it will be different.
Parker will speak to both participants and volunteers before the event and try to explain what Mary’s Walk means to him and why it is important.
“I grew up near the Kerrys,” he said. “I mostly knew her brothers, David and Paul, but we all knew Mary. She was the baby in that family.”
He even had Gene Libby, Mary’s husband, in school as a chemistry student. He laughed when he recalled the way Libby often gave him a hard time from the back of the classroom.
“I can see him sitting there,” he said, pointing to a small desk at one end of his former classroom.
He chuckled to himself and pulled at his short grey beard as he thought about his time at the school and what he would say before the event.
“This year I will have worked at, or been part of, Thornton Academy for 52 years,” he said. “That’s a long time.”
It may be, but “Mr. Parker” said he still has a few lessons to teach.