Dawn Fink really wasn’t planning on embarking on any life changing journeys that day last September. All she wanted was a manicure. On an otherwise unremarkable Friday, the 36-year-old mother of two and part-time marketing professional from Owings Mills was getting her nails done at a Timonium salon when a brochure for Team In Training (TNT), the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s endurance training program, caught her eye. TNT was recruiting people to run or walk a marathon while raising money for the society.
Fink didn’t exactly think of herself as the marathon type. Seriously overweight and sedentary, she’d tried every diet known to man to no avail. But the cause was close to her heart; Dawn’s middle sister, Diane, had died of leukemia at age 27 in 1993 after an agonizing five-month battle.
Still, Dawn’s thoughts that day were more practical than anything else. “It was all selfish for me,” explains Fink, nestled into a corner of her cozy, knickknack-filled living room. “I wasn’t thinking about any consequences of raising money or whatever. I saw the pamphlet and thought, ‘You know, that might be a fun way to get in shape.’”
Buoyed by the idea that the training program was free and included a vacation, Fink was intrigued. “If I can’t use my sister’s motivation then I’m going to be fat for the rest of my life,” she reasoned. “This is my shot to either try to figure it out or not.”
One hundred and five pounds, one marathon, and $30,000 in fundraising later, it’s safe to say that Dawn Fink—now training for two more marathons, including next month’s in Baltimore—figured it out. And in the process of honoring the sister she’d lost, she found a surprising new best friend . . . in the sister she’d always had.
Dawn and her two sisters grew up comfortably in a leafy Lutherville neighborhood. Their house was always noisy and fun, filled with a veritable menagerie of animals from horses to chickens, and brimming with just the kind of behavioral chaos you’d expect from all that youthful female energy.
“When the three girls came down in the morning, I knew one of them wasn’t going to talk to me, I just didn’t know which one,” laughs their father, Richard Sammis, a car dealer who became a local celebrity playing a character called “Mr. Nobody” in a series of memorably shtick-riddled television ads. (Mom Dorothy was a homemaker.)
The daughters’ first names (Dawn, Diane, and Debbie) adhere to a family tradition, of sorts: besides Dorothy, Richard was known as “Dick” back in the 70’s. Even the family dog, Doodles, followed the rule.
Debbie was the classic oldest child, who followed every rule to stay on the straight and narrow. She’d race back home at breakneck speed to meet her curfew and followed a traditional path from Catholic school to college and marriage.
Dawn was the baby, the one the sisters would get to ask Dad for things because they knew he couldn’t say no to her. Outgoing and big-hearted, Dawn was the eager-to-please caretaker who longed more than anything to be a mommy.
And then there was Diane.
Her friends and family call Diane Marie Sammis a rebel without a cause. She was a beautiful free spirit, they say. Firecracker. Independent soul. Marched to the beat of her own drummer. A definite terror. A hellion. (That last description, by the way, from her own mother.)
“My mother would say to Diane, ‘Now don’t do this,’ and as soon as she left, Diane would come find us and say, ‘Mom said we can go do this,’” recalls Debbie, now 44. “And we’d do it and we’d all be in trouble.”
Diane was the one who elevated sneaking out her bedroom window to an art form. The one who tormented her sisters at 5 o’clock in the morning by riding an exercise bike as loudly as possible outside their bedrooms. The one who hid a dirt bike behind the family’s barn for her clandestine rides with the neighborhood boys.
The Sammises came home early one night to find their 35-foot motor home barreling down the driveway, with 16-year-old Diane at the wheel. The family legend is that Diane only managed to drive for three months out of the year she got her license; the rest of the time she was grounded.
Ask her sisters what Diane did for a living and Debbie dissolves into peals of amused laughter. Who could keep track? In and out of schools, she took off for Colorado, where she skied and worked as a nanny. She tried working at a car dealership. An inveterate dabbler, she was always trying some new craze, be it yoga or self-defense.
“She could get on your nerves, but she’s one of those people we all wish we could be more like,” says Debbie’s husband, Ken Higgins. “She was going to live the way she wanted, and she was afraid of nothing.”
At some point in her twenties, Diane’s demons got the best of her. The carefree party girl with the enviable spunk descended into a cloud of alcohol and drugs and crossed the line from being charmingly rebellious to actively unpleasant—a “time bomb,” says her father—whom no one liked to be around. Her parents cut her off until she was willing to get help, which she finally did. She emerged from rehab a new person, focused and together. She went back to school and was working for her father. She reconnected with her family, and had a great boyfriend her sisters thought she might marry.
In March of 1993, Diane wasn’t feeling well, and went to the doctor. When the blood tests came back, the diagnosis was staggering: leukemia. She was told to report immediately to Johns Hopkins, where she remained for treatment—save a two-week period in June during which she served as maid of honor at her sister Dawn’s wedding—until she died that August with her family around her, just as they had been all along. In five months, Diane never spent a night in the hospital alone.
The timing of Diane’s illness seemed a particularly cruel twist of fate, an irony that wasn’t lost on her.
“I can remember her sitting in the hospital bed saying, ‘This is great. I’ve been sober now for a year and a half and now I’m in the worst health I’ve ever been in,’” says Dawn.
Yet even after Diane died, her fiery spirit continued to make its presence known. Never a risk taker, Debbie was inspired by her late sister to take her first solo trip at age 40.
“Since she died, there are so many times in my head I’ll be like, ‘Should I do this or should I do this?’” says Debbie. “And I think, ‘Oh, Diane would say go do it, so go do it!’ She’s become so much a part of my life now that I carry her thought processes with me. I probably think of her more now than I ever did when she was here.”
After Diane passed away, her sisters’ relationship stalled. Eight years apart in age and with few common interests, they found themselves leading very different lives.
Dawn loved nothing more than constant visitors and an active social calendar. She and her husband Charles became parents and busied themselves with daughters Ally, now 7, and Grace, 4.
Debbie’s childhood passion for horses continued into adulthood and she remains an avid rider. A natural homebody, she and her husband, Ken, who have no children, tended to keep to themselves, spending most of their time together. (“They’re thick as thieves,” laughs Dawn.)
The sisters were never estranged—but they weren’t particularly close.
“Everybody has a busy life,” explains Debbie. “If I saw my sister maybe twice a month in passing or for dinner at mom and dad’s, that was the way it was. It wasn’t that we hated each other. We just didn’t make the time.”
Until that Friday morning at the nail salon, when Dawn picked up the flyer and called the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Richard Sammis runs an annual celebrity golf tournament that has raised about a million dollars for the organization, so Dawn knew a few people there. She was connected to Senior Campaign Director Jessica Suriano, and asked Suriano to level with her.
“’You’ve seen me before,’” she told Suriano. “Realistically, I’m fat. Is this even possible? Tell me the truth.”
Suriano assured Dawn she could do it, and invited her to a kickoff breakfast the next day. Without telling a soul, Dawn signed up on the spot to walk the 26.2-mile Rock ’n Roll Marathon in Phoenix, Arizona. She went back to her parents’ house and excitedly told her mother what she’d done. Dorothy Sammis called Debbie and said, “You’ll never believe what your sister’s going to do. Call her.”
So Debbie called Dawn. And as soon as she heard about the marathon, she immediately agreed to do it as well, something she now attributes to the fact that it was too early in the morning to make a sound decision.
“By that night, I was driving home thinking, ‘I don’t know. This marathon thing doesn’t sound like a really good idea,’” she laughs.
But the two sisters persevered, dutifully following the training schedule to the letter. They met three mornings a week to walk at Lutherville’s Meadowood Park, and then did long Saturday group walks with the Team in Training crew on the NCR trail.
As fall gave way to winter, those 5:30 and 6 a.m. walks became harder and harder. The sisters, both avowed non-morning people, would head out when it was still pitch black and often so bitterly cold that they’d sometimes find icicles on their eyelashes. Their only companion was a man who would come to the track with a miner’s light on his head, a detail that seemed to sum up perfectly how absurd the experience was. But they never quit.
“Toward the end [of our walks], Dawn would walk like this,” says Debbie, slumping her chin to her chest. “She’d say, ‘I’m not looking up till I get to the end. You tell me when I’m done.’ And I’d say, ‘OK. This is what you need to do.’” Ever the older sister, Debbie would walk ahead, spelling out a name with each thudding footfall: D-I-A-N-E. D-I-A-N-E.
“She was there with us every step of the way,” agrees Dawn. “Any time I ever was feeling ‘This is ridiculous, what are we doing?’ I’d think, ‘She laid in that bed getting needles stuck in her arm. This is nothing compared to what people are going through, so just suck it up and keep going and be thankful that you’re able to be out here walking.’”
With hours and hours to pass while walking each week, the two sisters found themselves talking about anything and everything, opening up in ways they never had before and getting to know each other all over again. And gradually, the distance between them evaporated.
“We really became best friends,” says Debbie.
“I know now that I could call [Debbie] for absolutely anything in the world,” says Dawn. “And I don’t know that she would have been the first person I would have called before.”
The two now wear lockets inscribed with the letters “DDD”; inside are a photo of Diane and one of the two of them at the marathon. They often speak in unison and finish each other’s sentences.
“It gives you goose bumps when you think about it and you see these two girls together. Their love for each other has grown so much,” says Richard Sammis, who says his daughters’ new relationship is “way past” what it was. “We’ve reached a point with the girls that I don’t know what else we could do that would give us that much gratification.”
The Sammis sisters have also apparently inherited Dad’s knack for fundraising. Team in Training required each marathon participant to solicit $3,600 in donations to cover costs—a sum the sisters naively thought they might have to pay in part themselves. They sent out letters to friends and associates and the checks just kept piling up, ultimately totaling about $30,000.
“We were thinking we were kind of doing what every one else was doing,” says Debbie sheepishly. “We had no idea.”
At a dinner the night before the marathon last January, they learned that their efforts made them the top fundraisers in the nation for the event.
“Clearing $10,000 is not typical,” says the Society’s Suriano. “$30,000 is very, very rare. They’re superstars.” (Indeed, at the Society’s Hunt Valley offices, the sisters are so well known that they’re referred to only by their first names.)
After walking their first marathon in six hours, 42 minutes and 49 seconds, the two women have begun training to run a marathon for Team in Training in Anchorage next June. They’re planning to test the waters at next month’s Baltimore marathon by walking half the course and running the rest.
“It’s all driven by [Diane],” says Dawn, who has lost an astonishing 105 pounds. “It’s not something I normally would do, for sure. But now that I’ve done it, I say that I’ll never go back to the way I was. I hope that’s true.”
Friends and family say Dawn’s new body (“It was like looking at a different person,” marvels Suriano) is accompanied by a fresh outlook. “She’s more energetic and loving life,” says Dawn’s husband, Charles. “It’s not that she was fat and miserable before, but people get self-conscious. Now she’s got a snap in her walk.”
“My self-esteem is better,” says Dawn. “My health is better. I can do things with my kids. That was really the whole benefit for me, the health part of it. All the other things that come along with it are bonuses.”
Debbie unceremoniously raps Dawn on the shoulder with a bottle of Diet Coke, as only a big sister can. “What do you mean it’s the health benefit? I thought it was the wonderful relationship with your sister,” she says, recoiling in mock horror. “I’m not getting up in the morning with you anymore.”
But they will get up in the morning, wearing miner’s lamps if they have to. Putting one foot in front of the other, muttering D-I-A-N-E with each step, for as long as it takes.