St. Jude Memphis-to-Peoria run founder speaks to East Peoria Kiwanis

Jeanette Kendall

What started as an idea after a parking lot run at Landmark is now a $2 million annual fundraiser.

It is the St. Jude Memphis-to-Peoria run, a four-day event that began 26 years ago.

Peoria County Sheriff Mike McCoy spoke about the St. Jude run at the East Peoria Kiwanis meeting Thursday at China Village Buffet in East Peoria.

In the 1950s, McCoy said entertainer Danny Thomas showed 12 friends an idea he wrote on a napkin of a children’s hospital that would offer free services. One of these 12 men was former Peoria mayor Jim Maloof.

Today, Maloof and two others from this group are still alive, and Thomas’ dream is now a reality.

In fact, a new, bigger St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is currently underway as part of the new OSF Saint Francis Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital. McCoy said the St. Jude clinic will be located on the first floor and be named the “St. Jude Jim Maloof Clinic.”

McCoy said the new St. Jude clinic will be three times larger than the former one, which will close after the new current facility opens. The new clinic is expected to open in spring 2010.

Initially, the St. Jude hospital was built in Memphis. It was not until Maloof talked to Thomas about building a St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Peoria that it happened.

McCoy said the board was going to deny the hospital in Peoria until Thomas showed up at the meeting and persuaded them differently.

McCoy said the Peoria hospital allows kids who are being treated by St. Jude not to have to travel to Memphis.

“For those of us who have healthy kids, that might not seem like a big deal,” McCoy said, assuring the Kiwanis crowd that it is a big deal for St. Jude patients and their families.

About 500 children are treated at the Peoria location.

What helps keep services free to these children is an idea of McCoys and Pratt.

Twenty-six years ago McCoy weighed 260 pounds. He joined Landmark Health Club and participated in a run around the parking lot for St. Jude.

Then, he and Pratt decided that the “running craze” needed to be amplified as a fundraiser. In 1982, they organized a group to run from Peoria to Memphis — and back.

“That’s a great idea until we looked at the map,” McCoy said. “That’s 1,000 miles.”

A group of 22 runners participated in the first run. They drove to Memphis and ran 465 miles back to Peoria.

“I wish we could have videotaped some of those first things we did,” McCoy said, adding that a charity run was a brand-new thing, and they did not know what they were doing.

One thing the runners tried was wearing welders’ helmets to protect them from bugs while running at night. McCoy said that did not last long because the helmets were hot and heavy.

McCoy borrowed a motor home from Ray Becker and had runners take turns every six miles.

“If you can stay up four or five days, you can do that,” McCoy said.

Lack of sleep was not the only problem on that first run. There was also a fire.

McCoy said someone called him on the CB to say Becker’s motor home was on fire. McCoy thought the person was joking until he saw the smoke pouring from the vehicle.

“We started throwing stuff out the windows,” McCoy said. “Ray Becker’s motor home burned to the ground.”

However, rather than getting angry when McCoy told Becker the news, Becker asked what he could do to help.

When the crew arrived in Memphis, they visited St. Jude Children’s Hospital. One floor was named after McDonald’s due to a $1 million donation.

The tour guide told McCoy’s group that perhaps they could have a floor named after them some day.

Some of the runners wanted to quit and go home that first year, but McCoy talked them into sticking it out. The 22 runners raised $22,500 for the cause.

Fast forward 26 years.

The event now has runners from 19 cities who participate in auxiliary (shorter) runs. This year, Washington created a run.

In 2007, 165 runners ran from Memphis to Peoria and raised $906,528.

Combined with the auxiliary runs, they raised $2,002,807. To date participants of the event raised more than $15 million.

And now things are better organized, McCoy said.

“No one complains any more,” he said.

One reason for the enthusiasm, McCoy said, is because all the runners cheer each other on.

One team has about nine runners in a motor home. Each runner runs six miles. When that six miles is reached, the motor home is waiting at that point. All the runners get off the motor home to cheer for the incoming runner. Then, the next runner takes off. This relay is done for 48 miles when the second team takes over.

McCoy and East Peorian Ryan Beck are leaders on the blue team, and Peoria mayor Jim Ardis and Chris Smith are leaders on the gold team.

The Peoria-to-Memphis runners leave Peoria July 29. They return Aug. 2 and meet with the auxiliary runners in Peoria on Kumpf Boulevard in time for the St. Jude telethon from 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on WEEK News 25.

McCoy will participate again this year. The run helped him lose 100 pounds, but the reason he participates is much deeper than maintaining his health.

Socially, McCoy is connected with Maloof.

“My dad was a good friend with Jim Maloof when I was young,” McCoy said.

But, the main reason for McCoy’s involvement is helping the kids.

“In 1982, an average of 4 percent of kids with cancer were living. Now at St. Jude’s, over 70 percent are living. Ninety percent of kids with ALL cancer (the most common cancer) are living,” McCoy said. “St. Jude offers services for free. We all want to do things to make things better. We all want to invest our time and energy that shows results, and St. Jude shows results.”

One Kiwanian asked McCoy if he ever got a floor at St. Jude in Memphis dedicated in his name.

He did not. Rather, he got a statue of St. Jude letting doves go and one in Peoria catching them — a symbolic honor for the run.