There was a strange quiet on the streets of Otis Orchards the Saturday morning before Mother’s Day. One could hear lawnmowers being force-fed tall grass from blocks away and the fan belt squealing on a rusty Dodge pickup as it pulled a horse trailer through the intersection of Harvard Road and Wellesley Avenue.
What was missing at 9 a.m. on Saturday was the muted beat of hundreds of sneakers pounding south on the crusted asphalt of Arden Road, over to Euclid Avenue and north onto Garry for a return trip to the starting line of the Weiler Memorial Fun Run.
The run honored Steve Weiler and two of his sons, Brian and Dale. Cancer killed all three men between 1997 and 2001. Since the men’s deaths, the women in the Weiler family, with considerable help from Otis Orchards Elementary School, have held a 3.3-mile run to raise money for Cancer Patient Care, a nonprofit group that helps families cover the costs of treatment.
This year, the date of the run crept up on the family as they worked through personal matters, and they just weren’t ready.
“My boys were real upset,” said Patty Weiler, whose husband, Brian, was 38 when he died of colon cancer in 2000. “But I told them this year we just have to take care of the living.”
Next year, the Weilers will try to get the run going again, betting that in the absence of an event this year, people will not forget the family’s fallen.
People who know Otis Orchards know the Weilers. All seven of the family’s children attended the local schools. Steve, the family patriarch, was known to a generation of Otis children as the elementary school janitor, a quiet guy with a wry sense of humor and a molecular knowledge of the rural school.
When you walked into school on opening day and found a gym floor so polished you could see yourself in it and the blackboards so clean they looked like they had never seen a stick of chalk, that was Steve Weiler.
He was the man on Stevenson Road with the fabulous garden. Steve and his wife, Geraldine, made rural life admirable. They had moved to the Spokane area from Elgin, N.D., a place that measured just 11 blocks long by seven blocks wide.
Like a lot of rural residents from the landlocked West, the Weilers came to Spokane looking for work. Steve was a plumber. Plumbing was the family trade. His first business in Spokane was Weiler Plumbing and Heating, which he operated for 30 years; he didn’t take up janitoring until 1983.
If you didn’t know Steve, you probably knew Brian. Steve’s youngest son was a custodian for East Valley School District for 15 years, mostly working the night shift. This was where he went to school from kindergarten to graduation. It’s where he met his wife, Patty. They were East Valley High School sweethearts, and not long after graduation, they were both East Valley employees.
Patty worked days at Trent Elementary as a teacher’s aide and in the health clinic. Back then, if a person standing in the hallway of Trent Elementary knew what she was looking for, she could see Brian cradling his youngest son, Shawn, in his arms as the janitor walked into school for the late shift, which started at 3 p.m.
“Brian would bring Shawn to work, and we’d trade off in the building,” Patty said. “We saw each other in passing.”
Brian and Steve worked in the same school for a few years, the son working nights, the father working days at Otis Elementary. Steve’s lung cancer diagnosis was a crushing blow but somewhat explainable; he smoked for years, and asbestos was an occupational hazard.
Steve died in 1997. He was 70. Brian’s colon cancer diagnosis came just a year after his father died.
Cancer is the race people never prepare for, the one that catches them out of shape, cramping and nauseated, hoping to God they can make it one more block and that somewhere nearby is the finish line. But it was too far away for Brian.
Doctors treated the young father with radiation and chemotherapy, then held their breath to see if the cancer would return. Two months out, Brian was doing OK. At four months he was still good, but at month eight the cancer was back and metastasizing. He continued with chemotherapy until it was clear the drugs only promised that his last days would be spent in a chemical sickness.
Brian died in September 2000. A month later, Dale Weiler was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died the following February at age 49. Steve and Geraldine Weiler’s oldest son was no stranger to physical tragedy. In 1986, while logging with a friend, Dale was paralyzed when the upper portion of a tree fell on him. Before the accident, he’d worked for the Post Falls Police Department for six years and been a full-time logger. He’d spent 15 years in the Air National Guard and was a crack rifleman.
Kids who went to school with Dale knew him as a bit of a cutup, a guy who appreciated school for reasons other than the three R’s.
“We was just kind of fun-loving,” said Dan Miller, an old school pal of Dale’s. “I’m not sure he liked school that much, but he sure liked the social aspect of school. He was kind of everybody’s friend.”
Miller keeps track of the number of Weiler runs he’s been on by counting shirts, one for each race since 2003. The race has become his own private Bloomsday, a reason to bring children and grandchildren back to Otis Orchards to be part of something bigger than them.
It’s become a homecoming of sorts for Miller, who lives in Spokane Valley and doesn’t head out to Otis Orchards much. He usually sees someone he hasn’t seen in years and maybe doesn’t even recognize.
But you can’t look in the eyes of someone who stands at the starting line of a homespun race, a race that honors old friends and raises money to help the living fight the good fight, without seeing yourself. And that’s why the runners are sure to be back next year.
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