Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: After cancer, Pam Kohl helped revive the Komen Race for the Cure

CorrespondentJune 7, 2014 

  • Pam Kohl

    Born: January 1952, Greensboro

    Residence: Raleigh

    Career: Director, Susan G. Komen North Carolina, Triangle to the Coast

    Awards: Order of the Long Leaf Pine, 2012

    Education: B.A. sociology, Guilford College

    Family: Husband, Tom Gongaware; children, Max and Sofie

    Fun Fact: Kohl likes to joke that she woke up with her husband every morning for three years before they were married. That’s because he was on the air at a local radio station she listened to faithfully. “He’s the person who told me John Lennon had been murdered,” she says.

Correction: This story incorrectly left the impression that the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure funded mammograms that were provided at Planned Parenthood offices. Planned Parenthood makes referrals for mammograms at other health-care providers.

Pam Kohl watched in horror as the 2012 controversy unfolded, set into motion when the national office of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure stopped funding mammograms that Planned Parenthood referred to health-care providers.

But the veteran nonprofit director and cancer survivor didn’t avert her eyes from the public relations train wreck that continued long after the group reversed its decision, causing a steep drop in donations and sign-ups for the races nationwide.

Instead, Kohl, who had participated in the race, decided to dive in and help a cause that she believes in. She took over as director of the local Komen office, which covers 29 counties from the Triangle to the coast, shortly after the debacle.

Kohl, 62, is helping steer a new course for a group whose signature event, Saturday’s Race for the Cure, remains diminished. This year’s race at Meredith College will have about 13,000 participants, down from up to 22,000 at its peak; it’s expected to raise about $1 million, down from nearly $2 million in 2008.

Kohl says this is a “new normal” that she suspects is partly due to a growing number of competing events. She’s working to move beyond the partisan difficulties and return the focus to the organization’s goals.

“When I was diagnosed and I met with my surgeon, I couldn’t have cared less if he was a Democrat or a Republican,” she says. “I didn’t care about politics. I just cared about the cure.”

She’s also working on expanding the group’s year-round fundraising efforts. Yet she says the race itself is unrivaled both in its ability to inspire and its role in promoting cancer research.

Mike Winters, a top fundraiser for Komen who lost his daughter to breast cancer, says Kohl’s steady presence and belief in the cause have helped the local race recover from a controversy that had little to do with North Carolina.

“She perceived that with a level hand and an even keel she could right that ship,” says Winters, a Raleigh lawyer. “She’s done a great job of looking for ways to bring more excitement back into it.”

Making a difference

Kohl grew up in Greensboro in a tight-knit Jewish community where most of the fathers, including her own, spent weekdays on the road as traveling salesmen.

It was a comfortable upbringing, with her family’s close friends stepping in to help one another whenever needed.

But Kohl says growing up Jewish in the South also fed her sympathy for the civil rights movement, which was active in Greensboro when she was a teenager.

She caught the activist bug early. She was involved in the anti-war movement even before she got her diploma in 1970, and she chose Guilford College specifically for its history of political activism.

Once there, she got involved through a professor with an effort by the mayor to study the status of women in Greensboro. She was appointed to study employment and saw changes in policies stem from the initiative.

“Very early I was able to see that I could make a difference,” she says. “I didn’t have that cynicism or sense of doom and gloom.”

She went on to work at the local YWCA, helping to start the organization’s first rape crisis center and a shelter for battered women.

Kohl came to Raleigh in the late 1970s to work in state government as head of the Youth Advocacy and Involvement Office under Gov. Jim Hunt.

From there, she went on to work at the United Way and as a regional director of Planned Parenthood, where she helped open a new clinic in Wilmington.

As director of the Alice Aycock Poe Center for Health Education, she expanded the group’s health-themed play areas near WakeMed.

She had always considered getting involved in politics and next took a job with former U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, helping him serve a district that was an unusual mix of urban and rural constituents.

But she was ready to return to the nonprofit world by 2012, when Miller announced he would not run for re-election.

She likes the ability to make change directly, without the messiness of the political process.

“To be able to have an impact on the research, and to know that what we do is going to pay for someone to get a mammogram in a place with some of the highest breast cancer mortality rates in the country,” she says. “That’s real stuff.”

‘Be inspired’

Her own health issues started suddenly in 2005, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, or MS. She still goes to monthly infusions to treat her MS that she calls her “spa treatment.”

Her cancer was detected early and required surgery and radiation, but not chemotherapy. Both of those factors were made possible by research funded in part by Komen, which has provided billions of dollars in research money over the past three decades.

“Almost every breakthrough has Komen’s finger on it,” she says.

Kohl first walked in the race on the team of a friend who was a two-time breast cancer survivor. When she was diagnosed in 2010, her daughter arranged a team in her honor.

Kohl had focused on health and women’s issues throughout her long career, and friends started urging her to apply for the director job soon after the previous director left. A problem solver by nature, Kohl was not deterred by the bad publicity the organization had endured.

“It feels to me like a culmination of everything I’ve done,” she says.

Near-daily calls remind her of what the race means to survivors, such as one caller who will walk the race this year after doing it in a wheelchair last year as she was still undergoing treatment.

“There are so many stories,” she says.

Kohl has worked to restore the race’s image, but she’s also focused on moving beyond the single race. Her organization started a sustainer program for year-round giving, and initiated a second race in Wilmington.

She hopes to build stronger ties with survivors and families who perhaps don’t relish the public spectacle of the race, or long-term survivors who want to play a smaller role.

“All we’d ever asked people to do is the race,” she says. “We want to have a deeper conversation and give them some other choices.”

The weeks leading up to the race are a flurry of activity – from gathering the supplies needed to host thousands of participants to passing out T-shirts and tracking donations. Hundreds of volunteers pour in to help.

“I tell them, ‘Get ready to be sweaty and cranky,’ ” she says. “ ‘Be ready to laugh or cry. But the most important thing is be ready to be inspired.’ 

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