Dan Gagnon, smoker turned marathon runner, is all about the kids

  • Dan Gagnon at his day job running a trash pickup truck at the Royal Gardens in Concord on Tuesday. Gagnon, a truck driver from Center Barnstead, quit smoking and now runs marathons to raise money for kids battling illnesses. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Dan Gagnon runs in the Boston Marathon in this undated courtesy photo. Gagnon, a truck driver from Center Barnstead, quit smoking and now runs marathons. COURTESY—Dan Gagnon

  • Dan Gagnon in his St. jude Hero running bib in a courtesy photo. Gagnon, a truck driver from Center Barnstead, quit smoking and now runs marathons. COURTESY—Dan Gagnon

  • Dan Gagnon runs in a marathon in this undated photo. Gagnon, a truck driver from Center Barnstead, quit smoking and now runs marathons. Dan Gagnon

Monitor columnist
Published: 2/5/2023 3:00:27 PM

In another life, Dan Gagnon, a truck driver from Center Barnstead, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.

Just like his dad, Leon Gagnon, once did. Leon died from lung cancer when Dan was 9. Dan later had a 20-year struggle, forever trying to quit smoking himself so as not to repeat the mistake Leon had made. Stay healthy and live longer. For his children’s sake, mostly.

Then, as an adult, Dan’s dentist said the words that he needed to hear. The words that would set him free. But more on that later.

The story of Gagnon’s transformation, from a wheezing middle-aged man to a marathon runner, prompted his wife, Jodie Buffum, to add him to the Monitor’s list of Hometown Heroes.

“(Running) is the biggest part of what makes him a Hometown Hero,” Jodie wrote. “It also makes him a St. Jude Hero.”

That’s the kicker. Sure, Dan wants to stay in shape and avoid all-night munch fests after quitting smoking 12 years ago, at age 40. But that’s secondary to raising money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, as it continues searching for better ways to combat a relentless foe.

To raise money, Gagnon runs marathons. His personal best is 4:20, clocked on the Seacoast in his first marathon, eight years ago. He’s run in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Disney Land, Boston twice.

He stopped in the middle of the Disney World Marathon and got selfies taken with the Little Mermaid and Goofy. He heard the screams from the Wellesley College women at the halfway point of the Boston Marathon, and he crossed the Thames Bridge last fall in the London Marathon.

Next up, Germany this fall.

Now, about that dentist. A conflict had been brewing in Gagnon’s mind for some time. This time, he was the father of two children. And this time, he was the smoker, not his father.

With the memory of his father still alive, gnawing at him to quit smoking for the sake of the children, Gagnon visited his dentist.

The doctor didn’t like Gagnon’s tobacco-stained teeth. He told his patient, too.

“He gave me a hard time about my teeth,” Gagnon said. “I told him I’ve tried to quit. He said quit.”

He continued: “At the time, I smoked and my father’s smoking weighed on me. I’ve had people in my life who have dropped dead, and some, I’m sure, were smokers. I was shamed by my dentist and that was the last straw.”

For years, Leon Gagnon’s potentially avoidable death had forced Dan to look hard in the mirror. The Death of Leon shadowed him. Every time he smoked.

After a few years of hacking, Gagnon quit smoking and started waking up in the wee hours, sometimes running 10, 15, 20 miles on weekends to prepare for races, rising early to ensure he’d have more time later to spend with Jodie and their two children.

Now, he runs 26.2-mile races. Sponsorship dollars gathered by runners pay for research and treatment, and all expenses stemming from a prolonged stay at the hospital are paid by St. Jude fundraising efforts.

“I thought I was good at (running), so I wondered what I could do in the real world to help,” said Gagnon, who’s 52. “I could help someone with cancer who wants to be playing in the backyard or who wants to go to school, rather than spending time at a hospital getting pricked all the time.”

Make no mistake, this is a commitment. Gagnon is part of the St. Jude 15-person team. The minimum pledge for some races is $10,000. You pay the balance if you’re short.

This was an adjustment. Gagnon said he was quiet a decade ago, certainly not someone interested in bugging people for money.

“Before, I was shy,” Gagnon said. “The first time I went out raising money was terrifying, but it makes you into a great communicator. It cracks you right out of your shell.”

He continued: “People started coming up to me and asking if I was running again this year; they wanted to donate. I’ve been in Concord for 19 years and I know a lot of business leaders.”

He’s run nine marathons, seven while representing St. Jude. He surpassed his monetary goal each time. He’s raised $13,000 and $11,000 in his two Boston Marathon appearances.

“I’m over my goal each time, and I’m pretty proud of that,” Gagnon said.

He said he hacked up a lung now and then shortly after quitting. Four years later, he was pounding the pavement in what has become a central piece to his life.

His experience and knowledge came into sharper focus two years ago, when St. Jude took some of its team members to Tennessee, home of St. Jude’s headquarters. Gagnon took a tour of the hospital.

He saw the kids with no hair and lots of tubes emanating from them. That’s all the motivation he said he needed.

It sure beats smoking.

“You see these kids and what they go through each day,” Gagnon said. “It changes your life when you see it, what they go through. But sometimes you see the smiles on their faces.

“That’s phenomenal.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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