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Albany's greatest cheerleader

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY - Near the stairway of Chip Underdown's house, a picture of his late wife Sara stands with her smile almost as big as the frame.

The picture's setting is where Sara found the most peace - the beach, where the tranquility of surf and sand is behind her. Her smile is energetic, playful, as if she is always up to something.

"That captures her the best," Chip said.

That's also one of the first things friends say they miss most about Sara, and why they affectionately gave her a fitting nickname: Albany's Greatest Cheerleader.

Sara, who was vice president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, played a huge role in founding the Snickers Marathon Energy Bar Marathon, which is in its 4th year today. Dying at age 51 from treatment complications for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in July, Sara's smile is left as a memory.

But she also left a legacy. That's why the race is dedicated to Sara, who inspired others not only by her bubbliness, but also by her bold fight against cancer. Until the moment Sara died, she had everyone not just believing, but confident that she would beat it.

"She went through such a tough time and yet always was so positive about it," said Lisa Riddle, who now works in Underdown's capacity as the Convention and Visitors Bureau director. "You think to yourself, 'Gosh, if I was ever in that situation, would I ever be able to handle it like her?'"

Sara's unwillingness to feel sorry for herself or seek pity from others perhaps gave way to her philosophy for promoting Albany, according to Riddle -- "Keep the positive story out all the time as much as you can. Always be telling your story."

That upbeat persona played a huge role in Albany getting to host this marathon, which is one of eight this year being held in the state of Georgia, according to Marathonguide.com.

"This race would have never happened without Sara," said Paula Bacon, who is program director for Albany Run/Walk, which trains people for marathons using a run/walk method promoted by former Olympian Jeff Galloway.

While proceeds from the event, as they have the previous three years, benefit the Willson Hospice House ($65,000 raised so far), Sara is just as vital a force in spirit as she was on Earth.

"I will dedicate this race to her," said Dr. Jose Tongol, who was one of Sara's oncologists and also one who helped found the marathon. "I always run a marathon with someone in mind. I just think about that person as motivation so I can finish it."

Not only is this race dedicated to her, her name will be on participants' T-shirts and the pacers have been renamed "Sara's Pacers." That in itself will bring mixed emotions of those who knew her best -- those who believe she is in a better place but miss her larger-than-life personality.

"We are going to miss her dearly, but we are so glad for everything she started here and we are definitely going to celebrate her," said Riddle.

Besides, Sara's impact on this race, as well as the nationwide promotion of Albany in general, has created a significant amount of exposure.

"I had never heard of Albany, frankly, until I heard of the marathon. And now, it's getting fantastic recognition," said Jim Crist, who will fly in from Pittsburgh to be one of "Sara's Pacers."

SARA BEING SARA

Riddle remembers Sara often using a desktop M&M dispenser as a shaking device to relieve stress on trying days. Albany Area Chamber of Commerce Director of Communications Rachelle Bitterman remembers Sara, just after she was hired in spring 2004, joining them on an adventure concerning a unique story -- chasing chickens in downtown Albany to photograph them for the city's chamber magazine.

"We were on a chicken hunt," Bitterman laughed. "Sara joked it was something she would always remember, starting a job and looking for chickens. That's probably a first."

Growing up with a love for the stage at Hickory (N.C.) High School, she developed a love for both acting and newspapers. While at a state press association retreat, she became more acquainted with one person she previously knew only by name -- Chip, who was there as part of the yearbook staff and she on the newspaper staff.

"There was a dance or something one night and she couldn't go because she had sprained her ankle," Chip said. "So, I went up and kept her company and we got to know each other."

From there, they dated through high school. When he started attending Davidson College, he was her date at her senior prom. After that, they slowly drifted apart and went on with their lives.

"We didn't keep in touch that much," said Chip, who later attended the University of Arkansas and now is general manager of Americus' Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co.

FIRST SIGNS OF CANCER

As a news editor/senior reporter in Lenoir, N.C., Sara began sharing the stories of people and issues of the area; just in the same manner she would soon promote cities to potential visitors. In 1992, however, she began to feel painful lymph nodes under her arm and in her groin.

The diagnosis was Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma -- a cancer that originates in the disease-fighting lymphatic system.

"She at first thought it was from picking up her two daughters (Page, now 20, and Lauren, 23)," Sara's mother, Nina Shell, said. "After she was diagnosed, she went to Duke University for treatment. We were devastated, but she kept being upbeat, saying one day she was going to beat it."

In 1993, Sara's cancer went into remission and stayed that way for the next dozen years.

BACK TO LIVING LIFE

Sara's journey soon took her in 1996 to Myrtle Beach, S.C., looking for any kind of promotion work, even if it meant volunteering. Wearing a polka-dotted dress while first appearing at what now is known as the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Sara quickly made an impression on Elaine Michaud, the international sales/convention services manager.

"I said to myself, after seeing her in the polka-dot dress, 'Yeah, she would make a great volunteer,'" Michaud said. "She volunteered and then we had her in a full-time position like within a month and we became best friends. But she was best friends with everybody."

One of Underdown's favorite projects in Myrtle Beach was working with its marathon. In that event's second year, 1999, she joined the marathon committee as a liaison between the chamber and marathon officials.

"She was really instrumental in that role," said Shaun Walsh, who is the president of the marathon board and race director. "She really assisted us with a lot of marketing decisions."

That, however, was only one facet of Sara that left an impression on Walsh.

"She was such a great friend," he said. "She was one of the more positive people you would ever meet. If you needed something done, and if Sara did it, then it would be done."

"There was nothing that Sara didn't get into that she didn't totally involve herself," Michaud added. "The marathon was just right up her alley."

Because of budget cuts, however, in 2004 Sara's job at the chamber was eliminated. Around that time, though, she also gained something more meaningful -- a reconnection with Chip.

A SECOND BEGINNING

Chip and Sara found each other again in 2002 on Classmates.com while both were going through divorces. At the time, Chip was working mostly in Americus and Sara was working at the Myrtle Beach chamber.

"We probably e-mailed back and forth a long time, probably four or five months before I finally called her," Chip recalled. "Once we got back in touch, it was like that 25-, 26-year gap never happened. It was just like we saw each other just the other day. It was that natural, it was that good."

Their courtship was filled with road trips and plans for the future.

Finally, they agreed that Sara would move to Albany and look for work, and they would settle in Albany.

On the very day Sara went to the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce looking for work, a job position opened up -- one looking for a potential vice president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Before Chip knew it, Sara was with him in Albany -- complete with a full-time job and her two daughters to go along with his three children and two other stepchildren.

"Things were rocking along," Chip said. "We had a great time."

They married on July 31, 2004, on the sands of Myrtle Beach and had their wedding reception in Michaud's backyard.

"When Chip came back into her life, he was her high school sweetheart," Michaud said. "She was just like over the moon. They were like soul mates. I think he brought out the best in Sara."

"She gave me my spirit back," Chip added. "She always picked me up, she was the most positive person I had ever known in my whole life."

CANCER RETURNS

Sara began having complications in January, and in late May 2005 it was discovered that her cancer had returned. An initial plan was made to treat the cancer at Duke University's medical center. After being told that Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital could provide the same treatment, the couple chose to stay in Albany.

As chemotherapy treatments started to cause Sara's hair to fall out, she shaved the rest off. Joking that it was too hot in Southwest Georgia to wear a wig or hat at times, Sara also had fun with someone who asked her for a brush.

"She would joke, 'What are you talking about? A brush? I have no hair! Why are you asking me for a brush?'" Riddle recalled with a laugh.

Never ashamed to walk around bald, Sara would even dance at a beach party without worry.

"She was always like, 'This is who I am,'" Bitterman said. "She always looked at something positively, half-full. She saw the good in everything."

Dr. Phillip Roberts originally treated Sara after her 2005 diagnosis and then recommended Tongol to take over once it was learned that a stem-cell transplant might be necessary. Through it all, Sara kept smiling and remained positive.

"She fought all the way," Sara's father, Carl, said. "She wouldn't give up. She believed she would get well all the time and we believed with her."

BIRTH OF A MARATHON

Tongol had been an avid runner for quite some time. When he had his first appointment with Sara, he realized that his idea of having a marathon in Albany could come to fruition.

"At the time when I first saw her, she wore a Myrtle Beach marathon jacket and at the time I had been pondering starting a marathon in Albany, which everyone had thought was crazy for the past one or two years," Tongol said. "I didn't even know she was at the chamber of commerce.

"That's how it happened. It was just a coincidence."

From there, Sara began talking to her former colleagues from Myrtle Beach, seeking advice on how to make the first event run smoothly in 2007. Walsh had a humorous response.

"I was like, 'Sara, you know how crazy it is to run a marathon and how extra crazy it is to organize a marathon. Why are you doing this?' And she answered, 'I like the challenge,'" Walsh recalled.

One attractive quality of the race is that it's a flat course, giving many runners perhaps their best chance of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Another is the Southwest Georgia climate. The average weather conditions for March are a high of 72 degrees and a low of 45. Because of those factors, participation numbers have increased from 491 (combined registered marathon and half-marathon participants) in 2007 to 1,440 last year. This year, more than 1,500 are expected from 36 states, including Georgia, along with entrants from Guam, Canada and Army Europe.

Last year's winner was James Boitt of Fairfax, Va., who set the marathon record at 2 hours, 19 minutes and 1 second. The goal of the marathon -- which was started in 2007 to complement an annual bike race that had started the previous year as part of Albany's Mardi Gras weekend -- also another goal besides qualifying people for the Boston Marathon.

"Sara was all about putting heads in beds for tourism," Bitterman said. "She just knew that Albany would benefit with Mardi Gras already growing. She thought this would be perfect."

With Sara as one of the main race directors for Albany's marathon, the rest was history.

"With Sara's personality, anything was possible," Nina said. "She was so bubbly, she wanted to live life to the fullest. She pushed for what she believed in."

"It was her and a bunch of other people who got it off the ground," Chip added. "It was like birthing a baby."

CANCER GROWS WORSE

When the cancer returned, chemotherapy shrank it and there were no bad side effects for the first two years.

"We were like, 'We'll get through this,'" Chip said.

Sara did get through it -- the best and most positively she could.

"She kept smiling," Chip added.

But Sara never completely went into remission.

"Then, it got to the point pretty seriously where we started talking transplants," Sara's husband said. "In October 2007, it got really serious and we went to Houston for her to have a stem-cell transplant."

It did not work as well as hoped. Thirteen months later, Sara returned to Houston for a second one, this time using a different protocol.

"It's a little different treatment than from the first, but I don't know if you could call it experimental," Chip recalled. "It was a way Johns Hopkins Hospital did it. The goal was to get her immune system back up quicker to help fight the cells quicker."

Tongol remembers talking with Sara before the final transplant.

"She held my hand, saying, 'I don't know what's going to happen,' and I said, 'Sara, this is your last chance to get better.'"

Even then, there was no fear in Sara.

"She felt she could beat it, still," Bitterman said.

SARA SLIPS AWAY

Sara had her second transplant in November 2008 and needed to stay in Texas several months longer than anticipated. She returned to Albany in May.

After that, her regimen involved going to Phoebe several days a week to have her condition monitored. In mid-June, she was admitted to Phoebe for complications and then developed respiratory problems.

Things seemed so dire that her family was called in.

Sara got better but never left the hospital. In July, she had more

complications and took a turn for the worse.

"That second time, we thought, 'Well, she'll get through this," Chip said. "She's a fighter.' But it didn't happen. She never woke up."

As soon as Michaud heard things had taken a turn for the worse, she drove to Albany from Myrtle Beach.

"I came down there as fast as I could," Michaud said. "I wanted to come down the week before and she told me not to. She told me to wait and she'd be better the next weekend. Well, the next weekend, she was on life support. I saw her struggling even that night before she died. She wasn't going to give up for anything. No way. That was not even in her vocabulary."

Then, as Michaud was driving back to Myrtle Beach, Sara's daughters called her at 6:15 p.m. and told their mother had died at Phoebe.

"I couldn't believe it," Michaud said. "Her spirit was there, but her body was gone. I just knew Sara would pull through. It was just disbelief. It's ridiculous, but still, I don't believe it."

Sara's cause of death, however, was not from the cancer.

"She died from complications from the transplant," Tongol said.

"She had no cancer when she died," Chip added.

LEFT TO COPE

After Chip was asked last weekend when he and Sara married, he took off the wedding ring he still wears to check the date -- July 31, 2004.

"She's still the light of my life, she's still my wife," he said. "I can't take it off. She's just my soul, my heart and soul. It's still like someone took a knife and cut a huge part of me away."

The picture of Sara that's next to his doorway was the centerpiece of memorial services in both Albany and her hometown of Hickory. During the Albany memorial, Riddle was scheduled to be out of town attending a marketing/tourism seminar.

"That was one of the hardest things to deal with because (the seminar) is something Sara always pushed for me to go to. And they didn't have the memorial here right after she passed away. They waited a few weekends and it happened to be at the same time I was gone. That was mandatory. Plus, Sara would rather us be at (the seminar). It was a very hard day when I couldn't attend her service."

Tongol's running regimen had even lessened.

"I was quite depressed," he said. "But then I realized that Sara wouldn't want me to do this, she would want me to go on with my life."

A LASTING LEGACY

Although Nina knows her daughter Sara's memory will be forever tied with this marathon, she also knows there are other things that endeared her daughter to places such as Hickory, Myrtle Beach and Albany.

"She had a faith in God," she said. "I think that's just as important."

And of course, there was Sara's smile.

"I wish I had half the personality she had," Sara's father, Carl, said.

Sara appears to be just as present in spirit as she was posthumously honored with a congressional recognition by U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Albany.

Then, last fall, the marathon committee honored Sara with a plaque.

Among the words on that plaque: "Albany's Greatest Cheerleader."

"It's unbelievably special," Chip said. "When they had the press conference and they told me what they were doing, honoring her with this year's marathon, it brought tears to my eyes that they care so much about her and want to honor her like this. It really helps the family get through."

Sara's family members were not the only ones she helped.

"Some of the life lessons she re-emphasized to me that I knew from years ago," Albany Mayor Willie Adams said. "She was a very proud person who made the most of the days she had left. She never moped or felt sorry for herself."

Then, there is the impact Sara had on Albany.

"She was dynamic," Bitterman said. "She probably did, in my opinion, more for tourism and putting Albany out in the public than anybody in years had ever done."

Another way Sara's legacy will live on is through her two daughters, Page and Lauren.

Page, who works as a hostess in Myrtle Beach, is studying culinary arts and working toward a hospitality and management degree.

"To me, this marathon being dedicated to her memory is very special because it shows how much she's appreciated," Page said. "If there was the biggest lesson I learned from her it was, 'Always try your best.'"

Lauren worked at a chamber of commerce in South Carolina for three years and is trying to follow in Sara's footsteps. Relying on what made Sara both successful and popular, Lauren said she will always carry a piece of advice from her mother:

"Always keep a smile on your face, a smile is the best cure for anything," Lauren said.