Family Stories

History of the Ronald McDonald House of Memphis Radiothon

By Special Guest Writer C.J. Kirkland

As this year’s Ronald McDonald House of Memphis Radiothon approaches, I wanted to sit down and get a little more insight on the fundraiser from the three people who were instrumental in both its inception and subsequent success.  Bev Hart, Chris Jarman and Danni Bruns McCrary shared personal and professional stories coupled with life lessons that evolved through their work with the radiothon. The memory of John “Bad Dog” McCormack was evident throughout our interview and it was clear that all of them were meant to be part of this life-changing annual event.

Memphis Rocks
More than twenty years ago Ronald McDonald House of Memphis reached out to local radio station ROCK 103 with a challenge: raise $38,000 during its annual fundraiser for the building of what is now the Toddler Room. Bev Hart, deejay with NewsTalk 98.9, was a part of the original team given the task and she thought it was doable- until the deadline was a week away and they hadn’t raised a penny. That is how the concept for Ronald McDonald House of Memphis Radiothon came about. Of course, the birth of an idea and its execution are two very different things and as Bev and her team would soon find out one is often a little easier to handle than the other.

As the hours passed and the $38,000 goal was still a distant reality, Bev and her Wake Up Crew team, including the late John “Bad Dog” McCormack, decided that drastic measures were needed to ensure they followed through on the commitment they gave to Ronald McDonald House. Radio listeners were given the opportunity to call the station and request for a song to be played. They’d agree to do so, for a fee. “FCC be damned,” Bev says was their thought at the time, knowing that their efforts might be compared to “Pay to Play”, a practice in which radio stations were paid by artists or their record labels to put particular songs in heavy rotation. It worked. Pledges began rolling in while Memphians were rocking out to their favorite tunes. 

Chris Jarman, deejay with 98.1 The Max and a former producer with the Wake Up Crew, shares an important lesson they’ve learned over the years when approaching the radiothon’s deadline with a balance of their financial goal still looming: “Memphians react to Memphians.” So they reach out to local celebrities and the Who’s Who in Memphis. They appeal to local businesses and the people who make Memphis the city it is- those who call this place home and will do nothing short of seeing it thrive as a city that gives. Memphis was recently named the second most charitable city in the nation and the results yielded by the annual radiothon are indicative of that title. Since its inception it has raised $7.5 million dollars, always meeting or exceeding annual goals. 

Ronald McDonald House is often referred to as “the house that love built.” While Bev agrees this is an accurate description she believes that, more specifically, “This is the house that Memphis built. I know people who had nothing and would find something to give during the radiothon.” Some were on a fixed income yet gave enough to in return be given the commemorative jacket offered each year. She reflects on the many times she’s seen someone in Memphis wearing that commemorative jacket. “They wear it with such pride”, she says, and recalls one woman in particular who pointed to her from across a store and then pointed down at the embroidered logo on the front of the denim jacket she was wearing. The denim jacket they gave away more than twenty years ago. 
“Well, denim never goes out of style,” I joke.
“Stonewashed did,” Bev replies.
“It’s making a comeback.”
“God, I hope not.
”We all laugh and I envision a middle-aged woman wearing her stonewashed denim jacket, concerned not about current style trends but about showing how much Memphians care about Ronald McDonald House and how much Memphis rocks.

The Circle of Life
I ask Bev, Chris and Danni Bruns McCrary, WXMX 98.1 The Max Program Director and completing member of the radiothon team, to share some of the things that went on behind the scenes over the years they’ve been broadcasting this fundraiser. The air lightens as Chris recalls the intern who fainted because he’d worked so many hours without a break. Though it was no laughing matter when it happened, laughter fills the room as they remember every detail about the young man’s unfortunate accident and the sheer determination he showed in wanting to follow through to the end so that they would reach their goal. 

Rather swiftly the mood becomes a bit heavier as Bev recalls the employees whose children were born during the radiothon: one father left and came back; one never left at all. Pauses are difficult during an interview but I am stuck in one because I can only think of the significance of the Circle of Life for these fathers who are in the middle of a fundraiser to save a child’s life from ending and at the same time witness their own child’s life beginning. 

“There isn’t one, there are many,” Bev responds, when I ask if over the years the memories of any child in particular stand out. A solemn quietness fills the room when she shares the story of Dylan, a young boy who wrote her short letters to keep her up to date with his life. “Dear Ms. Bev, I am now in the fourth grade,” read one.

Through glassy eyes she then talks about Warren, a young boy who didn’t make it and Michael, a young boy who did. In fact, she got to see Michael speak at an engagement as a young twenty-something year old survivor though the moment was bittersweet; his sister was now battling the disease he had fought so hard to overcome. 

At some point during my coursework in college I was told that when interviewing I should always remain neutral and not allow my emotions to be outwardly displayed. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I would become a writer rather than a journalist because sometimes I just can’t help but to be outwardly affected by the heart-wrenching response I get to a question. It was difficult to keep the tears bottled in when I was sitting in front of a woman whose love for the children whom she’d met was unquestionable in the heartbreak she could not hide when talking about them.  

In the stirring song sung at the beginning of Disney’s The Lion King, we hear:“It’s the Circle of Life and it moves us all; through despair and hope, through faith and love.” In her 22 years with the radiothon Bev has seen the despair and hope, been witness to faith and love. And though she understands the circle of life, watching it unfold is no less difficult.

A Place for Parents
Danni, mother of one with another on the way, talks about Ronald McDonald House from a parent’s perspective. “This house isn’t about being sick, it’s about being well.” She finds that it is the parents who need to relate and fellowship, maybe more so than the children undergoing treatment and whose resilience is incomparable. It makes sense as she explains how much more parents are impacted by the possibility that their child may not live a long life because children don’t really dwell in “tomorrow”, they focus on the “right now”. Because of the money raised by the radiothon and other fundraisers parents have a place to go where they can have a bad day without trying to hide it from everyone, or share in a laugh without feeling guilty. In this house it is understood that people react differently to life-changing crises because, well, we are all different.  

Purpose Collides with Destiny
Immediately after I explain that I’d like to know more about their roles with the radiothon Chris and Danni defer me to Bev, co-founder of the radiothon and the one who’s been with it the longest. There is no hesitation as she leans slightly forward, looks me directly in the eyes and says, “I know my purpose if, for nothing else, is for these two days,” referring to the two days carved out each year for Ronald McDonald House of Memphis Radiothon. Her tears have welled up in eyes filled with conviction. Chris and Danni chime in and begin to share with me some of the history behind this annual fundraiser that is Ronald McDonald House’s biggest of the year. I learn that Bev and Chris started on this a long time ago with John “Bad Dog” McCormack, the well-known Memphis radio personality who was one of Ronald McDonald House’s greatest supporters and who, sadly, lost his battle with leukemia in 2011. The path to purpose is not linear: at one point on their journey they ended up at different radio stations and for a short time were not directly involved with the radiothon. Destiny is predetermined:  in 2012 Bev, Chris and Danni were again under the same radio station roof, now working with Cumulus Media. They picked up right where they left off.

“The show was meant to be with us,” exclaims Bev.

Chris shares that Danni met John when she was a high school senior and he visited the school for Career Day. He asked her what she was going to do when she graduated. She replied, “Take your job.” Danni didn’t quite take John’s job but she came close to fulfilling her prophecy after leaving Memphis for California, leaving California to return to Memphis, becoming an intern at the radio station and finally becoming the third member of the three person team at the helm of the annual radiothon. 

We begin to talk about John. They reiterate things I’ve read about him: his dedication, giving spirit and infectious humor. Bev picks up her phone, fiddles with it a bit then places it in the center of the table. A voice is singing a riff with which I am initially unfamiliar, but as soon as she explains who and what it is I realize it actually is familiar. John is singing the melody of the theme song to Bonanza. It is a routine he and Bev established once he began spending more time in the hospital. When he wanted her to visit he’d call her; she never answered. Instead Bev waited to listen to his voicemail and then made her way to the hospital, arriving in time for the two of them to watch Bonanza together. We sit around the conference table and listen to the entire Bonanza theme song, sung only the way John could sing it. Bev smiles, I wipe my eyes. Some of the most beautiful and most poignant memories of their lives are forever wrapped up in an old, favorite western series.

“I don’t understand why it had to be cancer,” Chris ponders aloud.  He leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head, and continues to wonder aloud about why the very illness John worked so hard against would be that which also took his life. There are no concrete answers yet I feel deep down that in some way it may have to do with that certainty in purpose Bev spoke of earlier, based on a quote of John’s I came across during my research. He asked that it be posted after his death:“I have gone to be with God and He is holding me tightly and I am surrounded by many of Ronald McDonald House kids. Do not say you have lost a friend. One is only lost when you don’t know where they are. You know where I am.” 

I contemplate aloud that maybe John had to in some ways experience what Ronald McDonald House kids experienced so when they met up again there’d be a deeper, truer understanding of their journeys. He moved from a place of sympathy to a position of empathy. I imagine when he saw some of those kids that the embrace was a little tighter, the smiles a bit brighter, the laughter a little louder, because they knew that he now truly understood what they had gone through. John transitioned from a pursuit of purpose to a fulfillment of purpose and though it was painful, I believe in many ways most necessary to his destiny.

We all learn something new that morning. Chris reveals for the first time publicly that he was born with Hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus is a brain condition in which the cerebral spinal fluid is unable to drain from the brain, causing a backup of fluid in the skull. He underwent a Shunt procedure which involved surgically implanting one end of a catheter into a ventricle of the brain. Chris points to the place on his skull where the shunt was implanted. And he is usually able to see the shunt placement in many of the children with whom he interacts during the radiothon. A puzzled look washes over his face. “Wow, I can’t believe I’ve never shared that before.”  

I can, because it ties right into his purpose of being part of the largest annual fundraiser for a charity whose mission is to provide a “home-away-from-home” for sick children and their families. It was not a coincidence that Chris underwent surgery as a child, or John experienced a painful battle with Leukemia. It isn’t by chance that Bev’s convictions are so strong, or that Danni unknowingly foresaw in high school she would one day be part of the radio station. These lives were all destined to intertwine, and then intertwine with the children of the Ronald McDonald House. According to author and sociologist Bertice Berry, “when you walk with purpose you collide with destiny.” Because they all had the courage to embrace purpose, these four lives did just that- collided with destiny.

Continuing John’s Legacy  
Bev, Chris and Danni are determined to continue John’s legacy.  John’s example doesn’t allow for excuses, Chris says as he reflects on the days John broadcast live from his hospital bed. “It’s a motivator. My life could be a lot worse,” he shares while tapping his finger on the table, drifting into deeper thoughts. Bev follows Chris’ sentiment and adds, “You’re never guaranteed another day. Do the best for your family, for your community.” In the span of two years she lost her mother, brother, sister-in-law and friends Sherri and John. As long as she has anything to do with it, the annual radiothon will continue and the memory of those lost will remain a source of strength and encouragement to keep going. One of John’s final declarations was “I love all of you and that will never go away.” This trio of friends and co-workers will ensure that we are reminded of this at least once a year. John’s legacy will continue. 

Posted by John Parie at 9:40 AM
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