Although I sat only a few seats away from Monica Pence Barlow, the late Orioles public relations director, at a countless number of Orioles games during the last 13 years, I knew little about her.
Barlow's story has been told often in this area since she passed away Feb. 28 after a courageous 4.5-year battle with Stage 4 lung cancer. The cancer ultimately spread to her liver and sapped her of the remarkable inner strength that was the trademark of her relentless determination to win her battle.
It was easy to see she was vibrant, professional and personable. But perhaps only those in the small circle who knew what it was like to deal with Orioles baseball 24/7, under mostly trying circumstances, got to appreciate the total package Barlow brought to the table.
Many, myself included, learned a lot more about Barlow June 7, when her husband, Ben, and the Orioles hosted a warm, emotional and humorous memorial service that served as a wonderful testimonial to what she had accomplished during her too-short life span. The service also highlighted how she had impacted people, not only those in that inner circle, but also countless others who happened to cross her path.
She cringed at the attention that her fight against cancer had brought to her personally. But she grew to accept the impact it had on others and how her plight could help attract attention to research through LUNGevity, the largest nonprofit organization focused on lung cancer. She dedicated so much of her seemingly endless energy, which astounded those around her, to that charity.
In the process, Barlow, who was only 36, probably touched the lives of more people than some twice her age.
One of those affected by Barlow's attitude and determination was Keith Humphries, a close friend of my brother Bill, and, by extension, our entire family.
I had been aware of Humphries' diagnosis, his early bumps in the road, his remarkable improvement and his involvement in fundraising for research. I was not aware that he had planned to participate in a walk at Camden Yards that Barlow had organized. Barlow had become a reluctant, but passionate, spokeswoman of sorts, someone determined to use whatever time and strength she could muster to help continue the progress she credited with keeping her alive.
As Barlow told her story, Humphries became mesmerized by the similarities in their cases. By nature, he has the competitiveness so necessary for those fighting cancer, and he said he had noticed that trait in Barlow.
"As she shared her story about how and when she was diagnosed and the medications she was using, I was feeling as if it was very close to mine," Humphries said. "I was so inspired that after we finished the walk, my thoughts were, 'I must meet this person.' "
At this point, Humphries had no idea who Barlow was, or that there was a mutual acquaintance. He knew only that they were fighting the same battle.
"I introduced myself and told her I was fighting the exact same type cancer, and that listening to her helped to set my mind at ease," Humphries said. "I felt like we had a connection, and we really didn't know each other. She offered me her business card, so I could stay in touch."
By then, Barlow had become a confidant to many, and when I mentioned to her some time later that I knew of her meeting with Humphries, I expected his name and face might be lost among the hundreds she had interacted with that day. I should have known better.
"Oh yeah, I remember talking with him," she said, her voice showing the enthusiasm she undoubtedly brought to so many like Keith, "and we've been in touch."
That part didn't surprise me.
"I included Monica in my updates (sent regularly to a large, but close-knit, group of friends), and she often responded with kind words," Humphries said. "She kept me informed as to how she was doing, and when changes in her meds were taking place. It turned out to be two people going through the same fight, sharing and caring about each other. She led the trail for me, and I was extremely inspired by her toughness.
"Her dedication to help others, her strength and her courage has inspired many people along the way. She was a winner, and I can say that I was proud to have met her. It was the disease that brought us together, but more significant than that was the way we approached our challenge. I was very comfortable sharing my story with her, and she was kind enough to reciprocate.
"Now that she's gone, I have had the time to reflect and better understand what brought us so close in such a short time -- we both wanted to reach out and ultimately help others, as they deal with this disease. On the eve of my third-annual fundraising walk, I plan to start with a tribute to Monica and a moment of silence in her honor.
"We knew each other for only a short period of time, but the way Monica handled her battle with class and dignity has inspired me to stay strong and not give in to this opponent."
Barlow would probably be embarrassed by Humphries' words, but proud of his commitment to help others. The Orioles announced June 10 that they would be hosting the LUNGevity Foundation's annual Breathe Deep Baltimore 5K Walk Sept. 20 at Camden Yards. The 2014 walk will be held in Barlow's memory.
The first 500 registrants ($25, $20 for survivors, $15 for students) will receive a ticket to the Orioles' game against the Red Sox Sept. 20. My guess is this will be one of LUNGevity's biggest fundraisers ever, and I'm certain this will not be end of the Orioles' efforts to keep alive the legacy of Barlow.
I also have a hunch that Humphries, and hundreds more like him, will be there to honor a special person.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.