An Eliot Tradition: The Jimmy Fund's Friends From Across the Charles

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

There were those drivers who honked as they passed, offering a handful of quick beeps on the horn, a wave or thumbs-up to the chain of perfectly ordinary people that stretched along cordoned-off roadsides from Hopkinton to the heart of Boston. These people were not easy to miss. The chain was dense in some places and rather sparse in others, but these were people for whom the police departments of Hopkinton, Natick, Wellesley Newton and even Boston itself were stopping traffic; they were ordinary people who, with no special preparation, had climbed out of bed that morning at a savagely early hour, perhaps driven a ways, and started to walk.

Far from trying to move the crowds out of their way, those drivers were beeping in support of theJimmy Fund—the Longwood-based charity that was holding its 13th annual marathon walk on behalf of its parent, the Dana Farber Cancer Center. The Jimmy Fund looks to receive “unrestricted funds,” for which Dana Farber finds the “most pressing current use.” That use is never a secret. At each of the route’s mileposts - from the Hopkinton town green to the finish line set into the ground in Boston’s Copley plaza—enormous color pictures of Dana Farber’s youngest patients stare and smile back. Some are dangerously, distressingly thin; some have only wisps of hair remaining. But they’re all smiling.

At the first mile marker that day, Amelie von Briesen ‘95– “Amie”—a lawyer and resident tutor in Eliot House, cheered the name and favorite hobbies of a photographed child. It was five past eight in the morning of her second Jimmy Fund Walk.

“I feel like I never left,” she said.

BEFORE THE RUNNING SHOE, THE ICE SKATE

Figure skating was not the sport in 1970 that it is now. A vastly less recognized, lower-profile operation, it had barely managed to sneak in through any window in the public consciousness. At the time, Arline Heimert had been co-master of Eliot House with her husband, Alan, for two years (a position in which they would remain until 1991). “I was a fan of the ballet,” she says now, speaking from her home in Winchester —“but I had never known you could do that on ice skates!”

That year, an Eliot junior and Olympic figure skater named John Misha Petkevich ‘72 met several “Jimmy Fund kids” while at the Children’s Hospital in Boston. He was so moved that he decided immediately, with his friend John Powers, to put his own exceptional talents to their benefit in any way he could. What had begun in concept as a figure-skating show for the kids themselves evolved almost immediately into a fundraising event for the Jimmy Fund, a one-time-only gathering of “Misha’s” friends within the skating world. No one at the time had any real expectations for it—not until the first performance was over, and the show’s attendees, who had purchased their tickets at $3 a head, were handing money to the ushers on the way out and begging that it be delivered to the Jimmy Fund’s coffers. Mrs. Heimert still speaks of that first night, remembers being seven months pregnant with a child now 30 years old, restricted to bed rest on doctor’s orders— until her husband came home with tears in his eyes. “I have never seen anything like this!” he told her; and not only did she attend the next night’s show against medical advice, but some time later took up ice-skating herself.

That first show was called “An Evening With Champions,” and the organization that has grown up around that name and memory has become an aspect of life in Eliot House that’s almost taken for granted today. Linette Lee ’02, this year’s executive manager of Evening With Champions (EWC) this year, flatly states that it is “the Eliot activity.”

Since the formative years of the early 70’s the entire operation has, in Mrs. Heimert’s eyes, grown steadily and notably more “professional.” It started “from the mother of one of the skaters making clam chowder in the back” for receptions, she said. Contrast that to today’s EWC, with catered banquets and corporate sponsorships and endorsements. (Such progress wasn’t proof against the experience of Gisela Mohring ’00. An EWC public-relations chair who went on to work in public relations for Dana Farber, Mohring is saddled with the memory of chasing Oksana Baiul’s escaped and frantically urinating chihuahua through the locker rooms of the Bright Hockey Center).

Every American skater who has medalled in the Olympics since 1970 has skated for their cause on Harvard’s ice. But EWC has seen shame match its praise. Nearly a decade ago, a staggering $127,000 was embezzled by two Harvard students, Charles K. Lee ‘93 and David G. Sword ‘93. So much money and fame had turned EWC into a target for theft, an event that has prompted the organization to conduct yearly financial audits.

After all, the Fund is a charity that’s very familiar to those who live in or around Boston. Alyssa M. Varley ’02, lifetime resident of Massachusetts and this year’s other EWC co-chair, was familiar with it already by the time she went to see the show in her freshman year.

She had lost her father to cancer at an early age. During her freshman and sophomore years at Harvard, she volunteered her time in the bone-marrow transplant ward at Children’s Hospital, and near the end of that second year she found herself moved up to the inpatient cancer floor. She noticed a difference right away. This wasn’t bone-marrow transplantation, where her patients were already in the process of recovering and some day soon were going to be just fine.

A conversation she overheard between two mothers one week gave her all the proof of that she would ever need. Both of these women’s children were gravely ill, but one toddler had developed an invasive cyst on her ovary which had gone undetected until it was so large as to be palpable from the outside. It just didn’t seem fair to Alyssa— “It’s not even something you would think to look for” in a seven-year-old. It was enough, “after I cried myself to sleep several nights in a row,” to convince her that she could not possibly do this as a career. “I guess I’d just never thought of these kids dying before,” she muses.

With volunteers like Alyssa, EWC recovered from its fiasco and stepped up its fundrasing efforts by sending a cadre of walkers and supporters to the Jimmy Fund’s marathon.

THE WALK

What the cheering, beeping, waving passers-by on the morning of September 30 may have had a tough time explaining was the sentiment of the walkers. Hands in the air above their heads, each of them looked as if he or she was either on a forced march or about to part the Red Sea. In 26.2 miles of walking, some very interesting things start to happen. Blood, for instance, begins to pool in hands hanging down at the sides—and the praise-His-name gesture that most of the walkers adopted was an attempt to drain some of that back into the body, avoiding perpetually swollen, numbed hands.

This advice had been one portion of the briefings issued by the experienced walkers that morning, as an improvised contingent of EWC members and other Eliot residents gathered and poised themselves long before dawn in the House’s stone breezeway. It was so early it was late, as the group exchanged knowing nods for the silent, evasive greetings of young Eliot men on their long and chilly walk home. To wear two pairs of socks, to smear Vaseline on feet to cut down on friction—these had been part of the warning as well.

Beyond the walkers, the EWC contribution to the marathon—organized by Jen M. Rodriguez ’03—ncluded volunteers staffing one of the ten water and first-aid stations along the route. Jen was among them, as was Kris. Later they were joined by co-Master Anna Bensted at the Natick station who helped them pass out oranges, bananas, chocolate-chip cookies and M&M’s.

Group travel seemed to be the standard among the walkers – as corporations, families, or schools. A number of these groups wore special dedications on their back: Either “In Honor of . . .” someone who was still fighting the good fight, or “In memory of . . .” someone who had finished the race; occasionally these were set above a photograph. Around the five-mile mark the walkers from Eliot passed one man walking alone, an “In memory of” across his back. His stride was firm and his focus imperturbable—in a fearsome, solitary quest to do honorably by the loved one whom cancer had taken away.

THE JIMMY of THE JIMMY FUND

For 50 years no one outside of Dana Farber and practically no one inside it knew anything about the original “Jimmy” of the eponymous Fund. They knew that there had been a 1948 broadcast—when the Dana Farber Center, then known as the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation, was one year old—of the Ralph Edwards Show from the bedside of a boy identified only as “Jimmy” to protect his privacy. Edwards was conducting a radio-thon to buy Jimmy a TV so that Jimmy, a fan of the then-Boston Braves, could watch his heroes play. When the event raised over $250,000 (and this was in 1948), the potential for philanthropy was clear—and a charity was born.

As for Jimmy, his identity was protected under patient-confidentiality rights. Given the grave nature of his disease, EWC had always assumed that Jimmy passed away soon after the radio broadcast.There was no reason to believe otherwise until 1998–just before the organization’s 50th-anniversary celebration–when Jimmy’s sister called the Dana Farber Center with the news that her brother was very much alive. He was a truck driver in northern Maine named Einar Gustasson.

Mr. Gustasson died earlier this year, but only after having served as an honorary chairman and guest at a number of charitable functions in the organization that was, in the most roundabout way, named for him.

ANOTHER STEP, ANOTHER YEAR

There are typically three performances of the Evening With Champions: Friday and Saturday evening shows, and also a Saturday matinee after which Jimmy Fund kids are invited with their parents and siblings to a much-loved “Kids’ Party.” For Kris Mendez, this is the most memorable event the EWC holds since it is the most immediate. “I can still see their faces,” he said. “That’s where it struck me that this isn’t about ‘poor kids with cancer.’ It’s about letting them be kids and have their moments of normalcy.”

For Eliot’s Jimmy Fund walkers, the closing hours of Sunday’s marathon bring with them more than just burning muscles, but a hope to someday see these children enjoying their own moment or two of normalcy. They’re kids who love trains and purple and roses and want to be firemen, kids who seem shining and vital and alive even in a picture, even when seriously ill–and their photographs continue to line the route to the finish. By mile 24, nearing the end, past lunch at Wellesley and the miles of Heartbreak Hill and the interminable length of Brookline, those mile-marker posters take on what Amie calls “an almost totemic significance” for the walkers, who’ve now developed a slight stagger and are trying, less and less successfully, to drain the pooling blood from their hands. But mile 25 will be next, and then 26–and from there it’s only 0.2 miles to the tents and music and mylar “space blankets” of Copley Plaza; just another turn, maybe two, hands held up in supplication, and the end is almost in sight.