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As country music group Trick Pony walked along the halls of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital® they reminisced about their last visit to St. Jude three years ago, when they met a patient named Tyler.
Band member Heidi Newfield said she has in her bedroom the photo they took those years ago, with her and her band mates Ira Dean and Keith Burns surrounding the 2-year-old boy.
Tyler kept coming to their mind as they walked around the hospital visiting some of the inpatient rooms. Then they headed for the room where many other patients had been invited to mingle with the country artists who were touring as part of the Country Cares Radio Training Seminar.
The doors opened and a Trick Pony song began playing as Tyler—that Tyler—greeted them, gleefully jumping up and down at the sight of the three country stars. “Trick Pony! Trick Pony!” he screamed.
“TYLER!” Ira, Keith and Heidi all yelled as they rushed in the door and bent down for hugs from one of their favorite fans.
Trick Pony was just one of many country artists that got—and gave—hugs on Jan. 14 during the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids Training Seminar. Buddy Jewell, Josh Gracin, Blue County, Amy Dalley, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Keith Anderson, Blaine Larsen, Keni Thomas, Jeff Bates, Hot Apple Pie, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall, George Canyon, Matt Jenkins, Shelly Fairchild, Kerry Harvick, Doug Stone, and duo Hanna-McEuen all came to be a part of the seminar, which is the second largest gathering of country music industry professionals in the nation.
“It lets you know that people outside of St. Jude care,” said Laura, mother of 5-year-old St. Jude patient Griffin, one of the patients Trick Pony visited. “That they would take time out of their day to come here is just great.”
The country trio joined Griffin in playing with his Legos® as he sat in his bed. “We just came to play with your toys actually,” Ira said. Griffin smiled slightly but was soon laughing heartily along with the group as they played together. Griffin got an autographed ball cap and a T-shirt from the group. “We want you to come see a Trick Pony show,” the told him as they said their goodbyes.
“I just love coming here and spending time with the kids,” said country artist Buddy Jewell. For Jewell, it was his very first Country Cares seminar, but his fifth trip to St. Jude within the past 12 months.
Jewell said that his favorite moment of the day came when he saw Destiny in the medicine room. Jewell had met the little girl when he had come to St. Jude during the holidays to sing Christmas carols with the children. At the time, Destiny didn’t want to have much to do with Jewell. But today was different. “She looked at me with those big blue eyes and she recognized me,” he said. “And by the time I left, she had a big grin on her face. That is what I will always carry with me.”
Jewell knows all too well the efforts St. Jude goes through to save a child. He witnessed that first hand when his cousin Michael was treated at St. Jude in the late 1970s. Michael unfortunately lost his battle.
For more than 16 years, the country music industry has put all of their support behind St. Jude, helping to raise more than $225 million in pledges since the program began. Randy Owen, of the GRAMMY® Award-winning country group ALABAMA, helped to create the Country Cares radiothons when he issued a challenge in 1989 to the country music industry to step up its support for St. Jude.
For American Idol finalist Josh Gracin, it was his very first trip to St. Jude and experiencing the emotion of seeing the patients who are battling for their lives.
“I have a child myself, so when you see this, it really hits home,” Gracin said. “I know that these are the people (St. Jude) that I could count on if something happened in my family.”
Guests spent the morning on guided tours of the hospital, learning about areas of the hospital such as the Patient Care Center, where patients come to receive their treatments on an outpatient basis, and the Danny Thomas Research Center where cutting-edge research is done every day. They also got a chance to meet a few of the patients as they toured, witnessing with their own eyes the hope that they have given so many families in their most desperate hour.
In the evening, the radio representatives moved to The Peabody Memphis for the Lucky Duck Casino Night, where they tried to turn $500 of play money into even more in order to “buy” special items that could be used to raise funds at upcoming radiothons. Some of the items included guitars autographed by Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts, Travis Tritt, Montgomery Gentry, Craig Morgan, Sherrie Austin, Joe Diffee; a Brooks & Dunn denim jacket; boots autographed by Terri Clark; and a George Strait-autographed, boxed CD set.
After touring the hospital on Friday, station representatives started the next day with a special breakfast featuring St. Jude father Jeff McIlrath, who discussed his family’s experiences while his daughter Alethea was being treated at St. Jude. “The staff at ALSAC and St. Jude are extremely dedicated to this cause,” McIlrath said. “They work so hard, so that one day, they won't have jobs.”
After breakfast, the attendees participated in roundtables where they discussed ideas and techniques to improve the radiothons. During lunch, the stations representatives heard an audio message from Terre Thomas, daughter of St. Jude Founder Danny Thomas and Country Cares co-founder.
Thomas apologized to the group for not being able to attend, as she was recovering from recent surgery. She shared how her father founded the hospital and then thanked them for their dedication to its life-saving mission.
Jack Pavlat, father of St. Jude patient Suzanne, also addressed the group, sharing with them the battle his daughter endured for eight years against neuroblastoma, a solid tumor.
“Suzanne loved Country Cares. She sat on Randy Owen’s lap twice for photos. And in 2001, she demanded to be released from the inpatient area, so she could be part of the event,” he said.
He reminded the audience that while the survival rates for many of the cancers may have risen, they are still not 100 percent. “After 8 years of fighting, her body gave out. At one point, Suzanne asked me, ‘Will people remember me?’ I said, ‘It's my job to help people remember you.’
“So at your radiothons,” Pavlat asked, “please play the song ‘Please Remember Me’ (by Tim McGraw) in honor of Suzanne.”
After lunch, a special guest provided a motivational message to the attendees. Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton walked up to the stage with a phone book and proceeded to drop the book in front of the podium and step up on it, drawing a cheerful laugh from the audience. Scott has been a supporter of St. Jude for many years. He contributed the fitness center and arts and crafts room at Target House.
Hamilton congratulated the group on their fund-raising work, and talked about his own experiences as a cancer patient—and cancer survivor.
Hamilton underwent chemotherapy and surgery to eliminate his cancer. He recalled awakening after the surgery and feeling great. “I felt brand new because it was the first day I could be called a cancer survivor. That’s when my whole life came into focus.”
Following Hamilton, attendees heard stories from St. Jude families during the Meet the Patients session, hosted by ALSAC Chief Executive Officer Richard C. Shadyac. The family members of patients Madison, Noah, Tyler, and Matthew shared their stories.
“I want you to feel a closeness to these families,” Shadyac said. “If you have one of those lousy days, take a look at their pictures.”
The Country Cares weekend concluded with the annual Songwriters’ Dinner, featuring performances by a number of well-known country songwriters such as Walt Aldridge (No Getting’ Over Me); Deborah Allen (Baby I Lied); Larry Butler (Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song); Tony Lane (Run); Doug Johnson (Three Wooden Crosses); and Larry Willoughby (Operator, Operator).
A special tribute was presented to Richard Shadyac, who is stepping down this year as CEO of ALSAC. “I haven't had a job; it’s been a love affair. I know the future is in good hands. We have a lot of money to raise... our children need it and I know you’ll help provide it.”
“Every year the country music industry—from the artists to the fans—shows their compassion and generosity as they start the new season of Country Cares radiothons,” said David L. McKee, chief operating officer of ALSAC, the hospital’s fund-raising arm. “And every year, they increase the efforts and continue to push new heights, giving our doctors and scientists the tools needed so they can continue the research that has helped so many over the years.”
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Editor's note: We regret to inform you that Griffin passed away on September 3, 2005.