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Leland's boat helps in the battle: Veteran builds boat while fighting cancer, donates it to Texas charity

Leland Hayes poses in front of a newly restored boat Tuesday afternoon at his home in Bemidji. (Malachi Petersen | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 2
Leland Hayes poses in front of the boat he built over a six-month period while battling cancer. He donated the boat to be raffled off for charity in Texas, where he spends his winters. (SUBMITTED PHOTO) 2 / 2

BEMIDJI-- Leland Hayes isn't going down without a fight.

The 72-year-old Bemidji man has faced many obstacles in his life, and is battling his biggest challenge now -- cancer. Helping him in that fight is a passion for building -- and giving back.

Hayes and his wife, Rachelle, winter in Port Aransas,Texas, and he recently donated a boat he built to benefit the community that helped get him back on his feet.

At age 16, Hayes, a native of Virginia, joined the U.S. Army and began driving trucks that carried missiles. While in the military, he finished his high school degree and began working on the very missiles he had once hauled. During his stint in the military, Hayes was stationed in Germany, where he met Rachelle, who he credits with being one of his biggest supporters.

After Hayes left the military, the couple moved to Bemidji where they raised their family. Hayes attended Bemidji State University and received master's degrees in industrial technology and school administration. He became a principal and then taught as an associate professor at BSU before retiring.

And it was in retirement where Hayes has faced the most challenging obstacle of his life. In 2001, he was diagnosed with cancer. For the past 13 years, Hayes has struggled through multiple radiation treatments, depression and remission.

"They didn't give me much of a prognosis. It wasn't good and I told them I wasn't ready to go anywhere," Hayes said.

Suffering from another remission of cancer, Hayes underwent a massive surgery that removed his bladder and his pelvic bone.

After the surgery, Hayes and his wife moved to their winter home in Port Aransas,Texas. Hayes describes this year as the "Lazyboy year."

"I can get very depressed for months, and when I found the cancer was back, I was very depressed."

Wanting to help with his depression, Rachelle gave Leland an ad from the local paper looking for volunteers at Farley Boat Works, a boat building and restoration business where people can learn shipbuilding techniques.

"He's never too busy. If he's busy, he's happy," Rachelle said.

Farley Boat Works was the perfect therapy for Leland. Before joining the military, he had worked as a mason and after leaving the army, he had started his own contracting business, which provided him with woodworking experience before he went to college.

"I found I was having a good time," Hayes said. "I had a key to the place, so if I woke up during the night and was ready to get up, which I would do, I was over there working at 3 in the morning."

The first summer in Texas, Hayes built a coffee table that sold for $6,500 at a fundraising event for the Port Aransas Museum, which is connected to the boat works.

A friend's coffee table raised more money and sparked a friendly competition between the two retirees. "I told him 'Boy you better look out next year 'cause you're not going to beat me.'"

After returning home to Bemidji, Hayes bought the plans for a shallow water flats boat and began his new project in the shed behind his house.

For six months, he worked night and day, sometimes skipping meals, to build his boat. After 780 hours of hammering, sanding and painting, he completed his boat. He then proceeded to hand make a trailer to haul the boat down to Texas.

The 16-foot, 800-lb boat is comprised of two layers of fiberglass, 19 coats of paint and epoxy, and about 900 different parts. It is capable of carrying up to four passengers and can either run on a 48-volt electric motor or gas motor. Hayes estimates that he spent more than $16,500 on just the materials for the project and hopes it will beat out his friend's project, which brought in $14,000 last year for the museum.

The handmade boat goes up for raffle Oct. 18 in Texas, with tickets $20 each or six for $100. Hayes said the raffle is open to everyone and people in Bemidji can event try to win it. To purchase a ticket, call 361-749-3800.

Since building the boat, the cancer has now spread to Hayes's spine and he now says it's becoming harder for him to walk. Even through all the challenges, Hayes continues to work on projects in his shed and is now contemplating on writing a book about his life.

"I like to say cancer is trying to live with me, and I don't care for it, therefore I fight it as much as I possibly can."