CEO Tammy Whitworth with St. Jude patient Alana at the Window World Christmas party in 2018.
In the shock and grief following her husband’s unexpected death in 2010, Tammy Whitworth faced a difficult decision.
Her husband, Todd, was chief executive officer of Window World, Inc., a growing exterior remodeling company founded by his father in 1995. Now its future was uncertain.
Tammy knew the business. She worked in their first store starting in 1998, running the office and scheduling installers while Todd handled sales, and opened a second. Over the next few years, they opened five more new Window World locations before purchasing the corporate headquarters in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 2007. Todd took the helm.
For the last two years, Tammy had been a stay-at-home mom and worked only part-time as president of the business’ charitable foundation, Window World Cares.
Tammy could sell the business. No one would fault her for that. Not with what she and her kids, then 11, 9 and 5, were going through.
Even in her despair, Tammy couldn’t imagine it.
Their employees were like family.
And when Tammy and Todd started Window World Cares in 2008, they had made a promise to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. A promise Tammy wanted to keep.
Overnight, Tammy became CEO of Window World. She would run the business for her Window World family — and for the kids of St. Jude.
“I felt very strongly that it was what I had to do,” Tammy said. “It was what I wanted to do.”
She would measure her success not by sales figures or profits, but by lives changed.
The first time Tammy visited St. Jude in 2008, she steeled herself for the tour. She knew what hospitals were like.
Tammy was hospitalized for 16 days when pregnant with her first child. Once Anna Grace was born, prematurely at 28 weeks and weighing just 2 pounds, 15 ounces, they spent 51 days in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Tammy remembered the smell of antiseptic, the hushed whispering and the fear.
“There were very scary days,” she said. Three days after her birth, Anna Grace’s lungs collapsed. Tammy stayed with her daughter, but some babies had no visitors.
Anna Grace survived, and then thrived. She’s 24 now, studying law in college.
But Tammy remembers that time in the hospital as bleak and overwhelmingly sad.
St. Jude wasn’t like that.
“It’s bright and cheery, and there’s art everywhere,” Tammy said.
She and Todd saw the state-of-the-art labs where scientists doggedly worked on cutting-edge research and met with medical staff. Tammy was awed by their dedication.
She saw families just like hers, holding tight to one another under the most challenging circumstances.
And she saw children, some bald from chemotherapy and towing IV poles, painting pictures, playing games and laughing. Laughing.
“It was life-changing,” Tammy said. “There is no other way to describe it.”
What she saw at St. Jude filled her not with sadness but with hope. She wanted to be a part of it.
As the Whitworths drove to the Memphis airport to return home, Todd told Tammy, “We’re going to run the hospital for a day.” At the time, that cost was $700,000.
She’d keep that promise for Todd — and do even more.
Need for St. Jude hits close to home
A year after Tammy dedicated herself and Window World to the mission of St. Jude, the young nephew of Jan Kilby, Window World’s longest tenured employee at 20 years, was treated at St. Jude.
“Never did we think someone in our Window World family would need St. Jude,” Tammy said. It strengthened her resolve.
Noah was 3 in 2009 when he was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, an inoperable brain tumor entrenched in his brain stem and entangled among nerves.
Fewer than 10 percent of children with DIPG in the United States survive more than two years. Noah’s parents, Richard and Billie, were told their son had just months to live.
Jan urged them to get a referral to St. Jude.
At St. Jude, Noah was enrolled in a clinical trial that marked the first time a particular drug combination was used with irradiation in children with DIPG.
It worked, shrinking the tumor, for a while. In January 2011, an MRI showed Noah’s tumor had grown and the cancer spread.
Noah, 5, died at home on Sept. 21, 2011, surrounded by his family.
With treatment at St. Jude, Noah lived an additional 18 months, giving his family precious time to make more memories.
“Noah was such an amazing little man who left such a huge impact on all of us,” Tammy said.
In Noah’s memory, on his birthday every year, Tammy and other Window World employees eat at McDonald’s, Noah’s favorite. In her office, Tammy keeps a framed picture of her and Noah on her desk.
A reminder of what’s at stake.
A new holiday tradition
As the first Christmas after her husband’s death approached, Tammy couldn’t bring herself to host Window World’s annual holiday party at her house.
She asked if Window World could host a party for the kids at St. Jude and invited everyone there instead. They brought toys and food, made crafts and danced to a live band.
“It was just all about the kids and bringing them some joy,” Tammy said. Even if just for a few hours.
The party became an annual event, except during the pandemic. “It’s my favorite day of the whole year,” Tammy said.
More importantly, her Window World family and vendors got the chance to visit St. Jude and see the impact they were making. Tammy said those visits were transformational.
“It changed my life, and everybody I can get there, it changes their life, too,” she said.
Window World’s support of St. Jude is a team effort, Tammy said. It’s how she runs the business, too.
When Tammy became Window World CEO, she formed a board of directors of people who had been close advisers to her husband. Together, in 2011, they decided to move the business to a franchise model, and Tammy created an advisory council of franchise owners, turning to them for advice, too.
She expanded Window World’s offerings to include siding, shutters and exterior doors. And within 10 years of her becoming CEO, Window World had more than doubled sales.
Tammy credits the people she works with. While she’s proud of the business they’ve built — Window World now has more than 200 locally owned franchises nationwide — what she talks most passionately about is the philanthropic work they’ve done, especially for St. Jude.
“Everything we do, we ask, ‘How can we raise money for St. Jude?’” Tammy said. “We weave it into everything.”
Through Window World Cares, they raise money for St. Jude year-round, asking customers to donate for every window sold, hosting fundraising events from galas and golf tournaments to concerts and comedy shows.
A room just off Tammy’s office at corporate headquarters is decorated with art and framed photographs from St. Jude, along with three gleaming motorcycles created by American Chopper.
One honors her late husband, decorated with cobalt blue swirls and pink, yellow and red handprints of their children. The second features a design with a Purple Heart in honor of veterans. The third is emblazoned with the iconic red St. Jude logo.
American Chopper made street-legal versions of the bikes, which were auctioned off to benefit St. Jude.
Racing is big in her part of the country, and as part of a partnership with the famous Andretti family, in 2011, Window World commissioned the construction of The Stinger race car, a modern-day replica of the 1911 Marmon Wasp.
Once completed, race car driver John Andretti shuttled the car to races, museums and home shows across the country asking Indy 500 veterans to sign it. For each of nearly 250 signatures collected during its tour, Window World donated $1,890 to Window World Cares for St. Jude.
Then, in 2016, The Stinger was auctioned at a gala, raising $1,034,000 for St. Jude.
Window World also is a national sponsor of the St. Jude Walk/Run and annually fields a national team organized by Noah’s aunt, Jan. Tammy has been the top individual fundraiser three years running.
She doesn’t have any qualms about asking for donations, no matter how many times it takes. “It’s for the kids,” she said. Kids like Noah.
“Everybody knows it’s coming, and if they ignore one email, they know they are going to get another, and another,” Tammy said, laughing. “I am relentless.”
As a single mother of three and a full-time executive, Tammy felt guilty when her kids were growing up, knowing she was needed at work and at home.
But her kids understood that the business provided for them and other families — and allowed them to make a difference in the world.
“We have been blessed, and we do have a responsibility to give back,” Tammy said.
She discovered that no matter what life threw at her — unexpected loss, a breast cancer diagnosis in 2015 — she was stronger than she thought.
“I’ve had my own tough times, and I’ve survived,” Tammy said. That’s what she wants for the kids of St. Jude.
All told, Window World Cares has raised more than $16 million for St. Jude since 2008.
“It has become my life’s work,” Tammy said.
She’s not done yet.