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What started out to be a small "No More Chemo Party" picnic in May 1988, turned out to be a rather large celebration of life.
My youngest daughter Heather was diagnosed on Sept. 1, 1987, with not one but two types of leukemia: acute lymphoblastic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia. By Sept. 3 we were in the ICU at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Heather had a short remission, then relapsed in November 1988. She passed away April 17, 1989, 33 days after her bone marrow transplant.
During the 19 months following her diagnosis, all of our medical, travel and lodging expenses were paid by St. Jude, a staggering total that exceeded $730,000. This is only one of the reasons we thank God for St. Jude.
We continued to hold the picnic each year, titled the Heather Williams Memorial Picnic and Fishing Rodeo, until 1993. In 1992 Bishop Stanley Joseph Ott, the Bishop of Baton Rouge, La., and Jimmy Houston, then of ESPN, attended, and things took a change.
Bishop Ott enjoyed meeting and talking to approximately 31 St. Jude patients, for he had cancer, also. I was told that right before he died, he asked to see the film of the children at the Heather Williams Picnic. What a Godly man he was.
Houston asked me how much money I was raising for St. Jude. I told him, "Not a nickel, but it's costing a fortune." He asked that I consider holding a bass tournament to see what would happen. He, along with Mike Rabalais of Cajun Quest who at the time was filming the picnic, pointed me to the right people. I was invited to attend an Association of Louisiana Bass Clubs (ALBC) meeting Aug. 18, 1992, and everyone was in favor, voting overwhelmingly to support the tournament. The St. Jude Open Bass Tournament was born.
The first tournament was scheduled for April 17, 1993, the only day that was open on the tournament circuit and also the anniversary of Heather's death. My knowledge of hosting a bass tournament was limited, but with the help of many knowledgeable bass fishermen and women, as well as some great sponsors, it happened. With a mere 135 teams we had netted $20,000 for the kids by the end of the day. We were all elated.
The following year in April 1994, we raised $65,000. Some said we'd never top that figure. They turned out to be very wrong. In April 1995, $131,000 was our final figure, double the 1994 amount. And in the 1996 April event, (we seem to have a little weather girl in heaven, so we won't change our month for the tournament) we netted a whopping $161,000.
Then in 1997 Robinson Brothers Lincoln-Mercury came on board and things started looking up.
With Robinson Brothers Lincoln-Mercury's support, we raffled our first Navigator, which was the beginning of the largest (monetary) charitable bass tournament in the country. By 1999 the addition of Robinson Brothers Lincoln-Mercury had pushed our total to $275,000, our highest total ever. Since 2000, the bass tournament has averaged around a quarter of a million dollars each year. To date, the tournament has raised more than $2 million for St. Jude.
The late Danny Thomas, founder of St. Jude, once said, "No child should die in the dawn of life." That quote, coupled with one of the last things my daughter Heather said, "Daddy, never give up on the kids," is more than enough reason for me to help save these young lives.