'Hairy' testimony leads to bald truth

Danville priest shaves head, raises $10,000 to fight children's cancer
July 1, 2008

The Rev. Steven Strane offered a "hairy" witness to his St. Timothy's, Danville congregation, by boycotting the barbershop during his three months sabbatical.

But then the effort grew -- and grew -- until lopping off a year's worth and an estimated 10 inches of locks translated into bald testimony to having fun while doing good. The San Francisco Bay area congregation raised $10,000 to combat children's cancer by shaving Strane's head.

"I decided when I started my sabbatical last summer that I wouldn't cut my hair as a way of marking that time had passed," chuckled Strane, 58, rector of the Danville church for 20 years. "It really took on a life of its own."

St. Timothy's donated the money to St. Baldrick's Foundation, begun by three friends in 2000 on a dare, which boasts to raising more than $50 million with more than 71,000 men and women "shavees" altogether.

"[The] Rev. Strane is very typical of the hallmark of St. Baldrick's, which is a way to help a very serious cause while having fun," said Joe Kelly, director of media relations for St. Baldrick's.

Who was St. Baldrick?

There is no officially canonized saint known as St. Baldrick, although Kelly says he's asked that question a lot.

"The name goes back to the origin of the very first event, on St. Patrick's Day" in 2000, he said. "It's a combination of the word bald and St. Patrick and it's really caught on."

The foundation was born during a conversation among friends -- New York reinsurance industry executives Tim Kenny, John Bender and Enda McDonnell. While at an industry St. Patrick's Day party "they began thinking of how to find a way to give back to the community and they recognized how children tend to lose their hair to cancer treatment such as chemotherapy, Kelly said.

"One of them had a big mop of hair and another said, 'I bet people would give a lot of money to see you bald.' The other guy replied, 'I'll do it if you'll do it.'

"The reinsurance industry in New York tends to have a big fundraising event on March 17 and they turned it into the first St. Baldrick's event. They got their friends to support them. The original goal was to have 17 people shave their heads at $1,000 each. In the end, they actually had 20 people shave their heads and they raised $104,000 and it grew from there," Kelly said.

So far this year the foundation has scheduled 536 fundraising events like St. Timothy's, with 23,863 men and 2,280 women shaving their heads, raising $16 million for cancer research in 48 states in the United States and 18 countries abroad. "It might seem like an off-the-wall idea, but it's for an important cause and it's caught on."

Kelly said the agency works with 230 hospitals and helps fund pediatric oncology fellowships for doctors. It's hard to get people to commit to pediatric oncology because of time and financial constraints. It includes seven additional years of training beyond medical school, he said.

Worldwide 160,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer yearly, he said. It is the number one disease killer of children in the United States and Canada.

The agency strives to keep overhead costs low and typically St. Baldrick's events, like the one at St. Timothy's, don't "feel like a sacrifice. The shavees are giving their hair willingly to help children and there is a sense of fun and vibrancy and people being uplifted."

St. Timothy's: a hair-raising experience

Going bald was a departure for Strane who "every once in a while will try to do something that heightens consciousness to remind us we're in a different liturgical season. There have been some Lents where I haven't shaved."

But foregoing haircuts was a new experience -- and an eye-opening one for both Strane and his flock. At least one parishioner also elected to become a "shavee," just before Strane's wife, Jane, began the process of liberating him from his locks on April 26, a date rector's warden Wendy Peterson officially calendared.

"Quite frankly, if you've never been to a good head shaving, it's something you want to put on the calendar," she said.

First they cut, then they shaved, to the strains of the 1960s Billy Rose burlesque lyrics, "take it off, take it all off," Peterson recalled. One parishioner brought in a series of hats in case the sun was too strong for his scalp, she said.

"Steven was a phenomenally good sport," Peterson added. "It was interesting watching this all happen. There's the shaggy part and the 'oh-my-gosh-long' part and the 'it-doesn't-fit-into-the-ponytail-yet' part and then the ponytail. He went from a button-down conservative-looking gentleman to looking like a hippie, from Princeton hairdo to shaggy lower-than-collar length."

Strane's transformation evoked varying responses.

"The most amusing part was all this hoopla about his hair," Peterson added. "Some people seemed to take it almost personally; some were very critical, others very supportive, with some telling him he looked cute to everything in-between. After it was off, people started rubbing his head for luck and it became a whole other conversation."

Now, Strane has a quarter-inch of new growth and says the conversation continues.

"After our Monday afternoon program for kids, a five-year-old stopped and stared for a minute, and said, 'Fr. Steven you have hair on your hair'."

Another inquired about the impending color. "I said, 'yes I think it's going to be the same white color it was when it went away'."

But he added: "I feel really glad that we were able to turn this thing that just happened into a way of raising some significant money for good causes and to have a lot of fun in the process."

One of the best results, too, was seeing the reactions of others, particularly "when I was out and about without my clerical collar on. There were times I felt like people were judging me, like judging a book by its cover," recalled Strane.

"That was the best thing for me. I'm a pretty anal-retentive type A kind of guy and having the long hair was a good lesson for me in knowing I don't have to live inside that box all the time.

"We can all operate differently if we need to and that was liberating."