BENNINGTON, Nebraska — Inspiration found Tim Peterson on a packed flight to Memphis and tapped him on the shoulder.
Peterson, a retired minister and Nebraska businessman, was wearing a red hoodie with the logo of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital on it and the word 'Hero' emblazoned across his back. It was a gift for the work he’d done to raise thousands of dollars for the children's research hospital by running marathons.
He was headed to Memphis for a tour of St. Jude in advance of the Boston Marathon. Headphones on, his mind hummed with plans on how best to tackle the infamously challenging Boston course.
It was 2018 and he’d only just beaten cancer himself 18 months earlier. The run took on greater purpose now that he personally understood the uncertainty and fear children with cancer and their families face.
He was processing all of this — what he had endured and what he was about to face — when a man with a broad smile and a Jamaican accent asked, “Are you a Hero? Do you run for St. Jude?” He was seated in the row right behind Tim’s.
“Yes,” Tim said, caught off guard by the question as the plane prepared to taxi.
“Thank you, thank you for all you do,” the man said. “St. Jude saved my daughter’s life.”
Tim nodded and said it was an honor. Their interaction was brief, though full of grace and gratitude. Tim felt the urge to talk more, but the plane’s engines roared ready for takeoff.
When the plane landed in Memphis and they were stalled at the gate, Tim turned around hoping to talk to the man more about his experience at St. Jude but saw he wasn’t alone. He was with his family, which included a shy and smiling 4-year-old named Azalea, whose hair was just starting to grow back after chemotherapy.
As people around them reached for bags stored in overhead compartments and squeezed into the aisles, Tim heard how a cancer diagnosis sent this one family through a journey of doubt, then hope and finally faith.
“It was my first time putting a face to the cause, and it really stuck with me,” Tim said.
The man’s name was Ricardo. Two years earlier, his daughter Azalea had been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a word he and his wife, Simone, could barely pronounce, much less understand. They’d been told chemotherapy drugs for the soft tissue cancer Azalea had would cost the couple a year’s salary in Jamaica. They’d been bereft, stuck in the parking lot of their Kingston oncologist’s office, determined to save their daughter’s life but frightfully uncertain about how. Then their doctor referred them to St. Jude, and miraculously they were on their way to Memphis for treatment.
Simone and Ricardo told Tim of arriving in winter after preparing the deed to their home and titles to both cars. They were willing to liquidate all they had to save Azalea’s life, but were surprised to learn St. Jude doesn’t send families a bill. Not a cent. Not for any of it. Not for the travel or the housing or the treatments and medicine. They’d been told how that was possible thanks to donations from large corporate partners and kind individuals alike.
People like Tim.
After Ricardo's story Tim said, “I just realized, ‘I’m no hero. That kid is the hero’ and I really gravitated toward that. The real heroes are those kids and the people who donate all this money so that kids like Azalea can live. I’m just out there beating the drum and getting the word out.”
Days later, Tim would see the family again in the hallways of St. Jude. Azalea hid behind her father’s legs, but peeked from behind them, curious about the man they kept encountering with the word Hero on his back.
Tim had simply listened to Azalea’s family’s story, the way he had for 16 years counseling in the ministry. He hadn’t shared his own story, that he had battled cancer the same year as Azalea. It came out of the blue for him, too.
He had been feeling fine, so fine that he had just run the New York City Marathon. The city was buzzing like a live wire the weekend of the marathon because it had been Halloween the day before the race and the Kansas City Royals were playing the New York Mets in the World Series in NYC that weekend. Tim was savoring the palpable excitement. In honor of his 50th birthday, Tim had set a goal to raise $5,000 for St. Jude. He raised $5,200.
After New York, Tim set a goal to run four marathons the following year in behalf of St. Jude.
Gearing up for races that 2016 spring, he went in for a routine checkup, and learned his PSAs were high.
“The only PSA I knew was Public Service Announcement, so I googled it. When I found out what it was, I just sank back into my chair,” he said.
This PSA stood for Prostate-Specific Antigen. The high levels indicated he had prostate cancer and surgeons would have to operate soon before it spread to other organs. He received his diagnosis just months before he’d planned to run marathons in Chicago and Memphis.
The diagnosis would have caused most people to shut down, cancel plans. But not Tim. He had too much life left to live.
He had Cornhusker football to see and not-yet-born grandchildren to meet. He wanted to visit all the Major League Baseball stadiums and travel the world with a wife he affectionately calls “The CHEERLEADER.” He faced cancer treatment and surgery with unfettered optimism, writing a blog called “The Best Year Yet” and signing off emails with the message: “MAKE it a great day.” He was determined to overcome cancer and had faith he could recover quickly and be strong enough to run marathons and raise money for the kids of St. Jude.
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: What he imagined, happened. A mere two months after his surgery, he ran the Chicago marathon. He usually took five hours to finish the 26.2 miles, but Chicago took six. Half way through he was so winded and sore, he was worried he’d not be able to finish, but he told himself: Keep at it. Take it one mile at a time.
When he crossed the finish line and entered the tent with his family and supporters, he was sobbing.
“It was just an overwhelming gratitude and satisfaction, a feeling there’s nothing that I can’t accomplish,” Tim said.
Six weeks later, he was in Memphis for the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend. He ultimately raised $6,000 for St. Jude that year.
He recalled all of this as he stood in St. Jude’s hallways talking to Ricardo about Azalea. He thought of the Jamaican family’s journey and thought of his own. He thought of how blessed he felt to have three adult sons happy and healthy, two of them joining him in his marathon running and fundraising efforts which have raised more than $51,000 for St. Jude. He thought of how devastating it would be if one of them faced the same diagnosis he had. He thought of children and their families who grapple with a diagnosis that threatens to steal their lives but push forth determined not to let it stop them.
“I can’t imagine how I would get through and see my child go through this, I just can’t imagine it, but that’s why I do everything I can to support this mission,” he said.
Azalea's story of survival on his mind, along with his own, Tim pushes himself mile after mile, training hard and steady along the paths and trails that carve the northwestern fringes of Omaha.
This year, he runs toward a goal of raising $10,000 for St. Jude.