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The toilet caper: Having fun with a serious subject

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Posted: Saturday, June 1, 2013 12:29 am

When our newsroom heard that a stolen purple toilet had been taken by a person who had converted the gaudy item into a purple petunia planter, a few of us couldn’t hold back the laughter.

It was an appropriate and humorous end to the purple toilet saga that had grabbed the imagination of many in the Olean community over the past week — and created extra publicity for a very good cause, the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life on June 15.

For those who haven’t kept up on the toilet caper, here is the short version. A commode had been obtained by the Flushing Squad Relay for Life team and placed in the yards of area homes. It was painted purple for the color commonly used in the Relay logo.

The team, comprised of people from the Olean Medical Group and Creekside (Chapel) Crusaders, received donations from those who wanted it placed in a yard, or removed from their property. The toilet was initially placed in the yard of Olean Mayor Linda Witte, who played along with the fundraiser as she and her husband, Dr. Gilbert Witte, had family members who had died from cancer. They gave a donation and the toilet was moved on to the next lawn, and so on.

All had been going well and the Flushing Squad was raising money until someone spotted the purple wonder on the lawn of a Prospect Avenue home and took it, thinking it was construction debris. Being a gardener, I can see how the sight of a hard-to-find, violet-colored toilet would make one flush away caution and take it, right or wrong, for the creation of a purple potty petunia planter. (Try saying that one five times fast.)

When the Flushing Squad found out the fundraising item was missing, they sent out word to the media that it had been stolen. They were understandably upset, likely thinking the heist was a prank by some unruly kids or wayward adults.

The unusual “theft” got publicity from the Times Herald because of the nature of its intent, which is to help raise money for the American Cancer Society’s fight against one of the most dreaded and widespread diseases in the nation.

Most of us have experienced some kind of loss, or heartache, from cancer. It will be two years ago on June 13 that my family lost our beloved 9-year-old niece, Sammie, to cancer. But while similar stories of tragic losses resonate around the country, there have been improvements in treatments and therapies over the past several decades.

As Dr. Witte noted, progress against cancer has been incremental over the years, and people are doing better with treatment and survival than 20 years ago. Funds provided by the American Cancer Society for research certainly has helped along those lines. Consequently, providing publicity for Olean’s fourth-annual Relay for Life is the right thing to do for our community.

As for the stolen toilet story, the saga picked up additional steam when local radio and television stations broadcast the report. All of the media coverage apparently caught up to the neighbor of the person who reportedly took the toilet and had placed it in (his) yard. The neighbor, who was dubbed the “Good Samaritan,” said he hoped to return the toilet quietly to the mayor so it could be given back to the Flushing Squad.

In addition to recovering their missing toilet, the team also received another toilet from the Olean Medical Group and others in the community offered to provide commodes.

Mayor Witte saw the humor in the entire affair and sent out a press release explaining what had happened, while encouraging the community to support the Relay either by attending it or by making donations.

In looking back at this incident, it’s clear that it somewhat epitomized the concept of the Relay, which is to have fun and laugh while raising money to fight a disease that often makes us cry.

The Relay in Olean is slated for 4 p.m. June 15 to 6 a.m. June 16 at the Olean Intermediate Middle School track on Wayne Street. Meanwhile, the 10th annual Ellicottville Relay for Life begins at noon today at the Ellicottville Central School track and ends at midnight.

By the way, if you should make it to Olean’s Relay, stop and say hello to the Flushing Squad.

But please leave their purple potty alone.

(Contact Kate Day Sager at

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