He was a Marine captain, a Vietnam veteran whose never-quit energy and strength made fellow cancer patients request chemotherapy sessions at the same time as him. He also was a lighthearted man, a jokester who wore a pig snout to a medical appointment after surgery to remove a lung and hired a belly dancer to give his oncologist an in-office birthday performance.
When John Randolph died of lung cancer in 1995, at age 53, his family and friends were determined to continue his fight. So they organized an annual fundraising dinner in his memory for the American Cancer Society, a cause he had championed. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the event—scheduled for March—also honors Randolph’s oncologist, Mark Ellis, who lost his own battle with cancer in 2010.
“Without question, John helped me beat cancer,” says Charles Crone, a survivor of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and part of Randolph’s patient support group, dubbed the POSSE. “He got me through the miserable points. I would tell him I didn’t feel well enough to go to lunch, and he’d tell me to be ready at 11 a.m. sharp. He had a really tough kind of cancer, but he was the one picking us up.”
Randolph, a former athletic director at the College of William and Mary, was a lifelong nonsmoker, dedicated runner and devoted husband and father of two when cancer struck. During three years of treatments, his effervescent attitude spread throughout Ellis’ office, remembers Lynn Ellis, Dr. Ellis’ widow and office administrator.
“John was famous for dragging his IV pole around and visiting patients in other rooms, bringing with him his smile, his fun and his great outlook on life,” Lynn Ellis says. “We all became an extended family.”
After Randolph passed away, his friend and then-assistant athletic director, Bobby Dwyer—now senior associate athletics director for development at William and Mary—created the first ACS dinner in his name. Since then, the event, which features foods prepared by top local chefs, has raised more than $200,000.
For the past five years, the dinner also has recognized Mark Ellis, who helped countless local patients. “Mark could have gotten a job at one of the top cancer centers in the country,” says Crone, now 72. “Williamsburg really had no idea how lucky it was to have such a doctor. He cared so much about his patients—not just their physical health but their whole life and spirit.”
Both men would have loved to know the POSSE’s optimistic spirit has outlived them, says Randolph’s widow, Maynard. “Even in the last week of his life, John was concerned about helping fight cancer,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Have they learned as much as possible from my case? It’s time for this to be finished.’”