Musicians rally to help local drummer deal with ravages of cancer
There's something about Kenny Sawyer's personality that allows him to instantly connect with people.
It could be his calm demeanor, or a smile that seems so genuine. It could be his ability to listen, digest a conversation and come back with a thoughtful response. It could also be that he has an incredible amount of empathy and compassion.
Whatever it is, there's something about the man that's magnetic for people in both his professional and personal life — something that keeps them coming back to help Sawyer in times of need.
On July 22, they'll be there for him again.
That's when friends and musical colleagues will host a benefit concert for Sawyer — called Kenny's Benny — from 4-8 p.m. at McMenamins' Mission Theater in Portland (1624 N.W. Glisan St.) to help him cover medical bills related to three rounds of treatment for two different types of cancer.
Marv & Rindy Ross's Quarterflash, the Cal Scott Band and John Koonce are all scheduled to perform.
"We've known Kenny for many years," says Molly Scholz, Sawyer's friend and longtime bandmate. "A long time ago, after both his parents were gone, we told him that he was our brother. We told him that we would support him and never to worry, because we'd always be there for him. We wanted him to know that all his friends love him so much."
As a professional, Sawyer spends part of his days driving a bus for the folks at The Springs at Carman Oaks, one of Lake Oswego's largest retirement communities. In his personal life, he's built lifelong friendships and relationships with some of Oregon's most storied musicians as a drummer for bands like Wheatfield, Neon and Red Pepper.
Those relationships have had a huge impact on Sawyer, who until recently was happily recovering from his bouts with cancer of the throat and jaw in the early 2000s.
When tragedy first struck, his friends and fellow musicians rallied to host a benefit concert at McMenamins' Kennedy School to raise money for Sawyer's hospital bills. The show included performances by several heavy hitters in the local music scene, like Quarterflash, Neon and Wheatfield, as well as several musicians who would go on to join the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
The 2002 event was a success, money was raised and Sawyer battled and beat cancer, twice. But 16 years later, the effects of the radiation treatment that saved his life are coming back to haunt him.
"One of my nurses said radiation therapy is the gift that keeps on giving," Sawyer says. "What that does over time is it destroys the teeth, it compromises blood flow to the jaw bone area. So if the teeth deteriorate over time, they start crumbling. In the last year is when they started crumbling and falling apart."
Adding to the discomfort, Sawyer also suffers from post-radiation neck fibrosis, which means the tendons and muscles in his neck and throat have stiffened and don't work the way they're supposed to. It prevents his throat from being able to seperate food into his stomach properly when he eats, leaving him with bits of food in his lungs. The ailment led to him being hospitalized with aspiration pneumonia.
These days, he takes his meals through a feeding tube. But being the upbeat person he is, he's found a bit of a silver lining.
"I'm actually eating better than I ever have," Sawyer says. "Broccoli, kale, cauliflower — I never ate much of that before. But now I can just put it in a blender and liquefy it. My (nutrition) is better than it's ever been."
When friends and fellow musicians heard once again that Sawyer's situation was grim, they knew they couldn't sit idly by while he struggled with the mounting psychological and financial burden of keeping himself alive. His ability to let things roll off his shoulders and remain positive in the grimmest of situations, they say, made helping him even more important,
"When he had cancer the first time, the doctor said he had an incredible case of 'happy mind.' He was able to rise above the difficulties he was going through and believe that he would survive," Sholz says. "He and his wife Pat are such incredible people, so you just automatically want to help people like that."
Sawyer's colleagues at The Springs agree. As a bus driver, he often takes residents to their medical appointments, to the grocery store or on scenic drives through the countryside. It's a job that seems to fit him parfticularly well.
"Kenny is always smiling, no matter how he must be feeling, and I look up to him and the way he handles any problem that comes his way," says Diana Kimberling, concierge at The Springs. "Kenny was so missed when he took time off for medical (reasons), and I heard several times a day from the residents how much they missed him and hoped that he would be back. He's a valued member of our team and family."
Sawyer's supervisor, Kayla Sutter, says she's observed his ability to connect with residents firsthand.
"Whether driving one-on-one with a resident to a doctor's appointment or with a group of residents on a scenic drive, Kenny's calm and heartfelt demeanor creates an indescribable bond with each passenger," Sutter says. "He is simply irreplaceable and beloved by our residents and staff."
Sawyer believes being in the same general age bracket as residents of The Springs helps, as well as being able to personally understand what it's like to deal with health issues.
"The best part of my job is that I'm not in an office or cubicle all day long. I'm independent, so I drive people to their doctors appointments, and that allows some quality one-on-one time to hear their stories," he says. "After getting all this medical stuff taken care of, on my first day back — and of course I still don't have any teeth — they were all going, 'Oh honey, we don't care. We've all been there.'"
The upcoming benefit for Sawyer will hopefully alleviate a bit of the financial burden he and wife Pat have had to endure over the past couple years as his health has continued to deteriorate. But even more important, he says, is the emotional and mental support he gains from seeing all his friends and colleagues rally around him.
"I've been through so many treatments that I've realized that if you choose to become negative about it and give up, life isn't really worth trying to go through all the treatments anyway," he says. "(The support) does more for me psychologically than financially. The extra financial help is huge, and that's the reason for doing it, but the friendship and support, how consistent that has been, has meant so much."
Sawyer won't be playing in the July 22 concert, but he has reserved the right to sing one song with Marv & Rindy Ross — "Don't Back Down," by Tom Petty.
"Throughout the cancer and all these health problems, it's sort of become my own personal anthem," Sawyer says.
Tickets to the show are $20, and all proceeds will go toward helping Sawyer pay medical expenses. Tickets can be purchased online through www.mcmenamins.com or at the door on the day of the show. For those who can't make the show, a GoFundMe account has been setup to help raise funds at bit.ly/KennyGoFundMe.
For more information about the show, visit bit.ly/KennyBenny.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Kenny's Benny, a show to benefit drummer Kenny Sawyer
WHERE: McMenamins' Mission Theater, 1624 N.W, Glisan St., Portland
WHEN: Sunday, July 22; doors at 3 p.m., show starts at 4 p.m.