February 13, 1998

Country music ski retreat boosts cancer research

Country music ski retreat boosts cancer research

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Andrew Jacobson (left) and Dr. Joseph Smith Jr. hit the slopes in Colorado to take part in this year's Country in the Rockies event. (Photo by Cynthia Manley)

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Dr. Harry Jacobson (right) and Dr. Harold Moses flank Frances Williams Preston as she displays a plaque from the Vanderbilt Cancer Center. (Photo by Cynthia Manley)

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The celebrity ski races drew plenty of crowds, including Dr. Harold Moses and his wife, Linda. (Photo by Cynthia Manley)

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. ‹ Picture perfect skiing weather apparently put everyone in a giving mood at the fourth annual "Country in the Rockies" benefit for cancer research at Vanderbilt.

Representatives of Nashville's most well-known industry ‹ country music ‹ gathered with fans and folks from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in this southwestern Colorado ski resort Jan. 28-Feb. 1. The event combined skiing and other winter sports with country music to raise money for the T.J. Martell Foundation, which funds the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at the Vanderbilt Cancer Center.

The tally of how much was raised won't be ready for several weeks. However, organizers said that with more participants, more sponsors and record-setting fund-raising events, the 1998 Country in the Rockies seemed certain to surpass the $100,000 generated last year.

"We've done this a number of years now, and we see many of the same people volunteering year after year," said Dr. Harold L. Moses, Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Clinical Oncology and director of the VCC.

"When I see how hard these people are working for us ‹ to support the work that we do at the Vanderbilt Cancer Center ‹ it's very inspiring. We treat these funds with a lot of respect. We want to get the most out of it."

The grant from the T.J. Martell Foundation for 1998 will be an even $1 million, bringing the total support to more than $4 million since the labs were established in 1993.

Among the recording artists who gave their time and talent to the event were Aaron Barker, Blackhawk, Paul Brandt, Anita Cochran, Mark Collie, Billy Dean, Kevin and Brian Delaney, Skip Ewing, Kathy Mattea, Delbert McClinton, Mindy McCready (accompanied by her fiancee, actor Dean Cain), Gary Morris, Nikki Nelson, Gary Nicholson, Lari White, and Chely Wright.

Participants began arriving on Wednesday to settle in, adjust to the altitude of more than 9,300 feet, and attend a welcoming dinner highlighted by a video about the VCC. Researchers and cancer survivors related, in their own words, what the VCC means to them and how the efforts supported by the T.J. Martell Foundation and others have made a difference in their lives.

The message was well-received. The nearly 200 Country in the Rockies guests rose to their feet with a standing ovation at the video's conclusion.

The VCC will use the video in other settings to raise community awareness about the urgent need for maintaining the momentum in cancer research.

"Cancer is a universal disease that has had an impact on each of us in this room," Moses told the group. "At the heart of all our efforts and your support are people. This video was put together to show you in a very concrete and succinct way what your support means to the real people behind the quest for discovery and healing.

"New discoveries continue to come at a mind-boggling rate. With help like yours, we can keep up that pace and make the dream of a cure for cancer a reality."

After dinner, participants got a taste of the entertainment to come with a "fireside guitar pull." Several of the country artists sang and played in a casual setting at the hotel hearth.

For the participants from Nashville, the blue skies and bright sunshine that greeted them on Thursday were a welcome sight after the gray and dreary January back home. Snowboarding and snowmobiling beckoned those with other winter-sport interests, as did shopping and sightseeing for those not enamored of the snowy slopes.

On Thursday night, the 'cha-ching' of donations mixed with the sounds of country music as the Country in the Rockies artists commandeered two local bars in "downtown Crested Butte," a historic mining town at the base of the mountain. The entertainers hammed it up as celebrity bartenders, with all tips going to support the Preston Labs, named for the chief executive officer of the music licensing company BMI.

At the end of the evening, the grand total came to $18,172 ‹ nearly five times the previous record set at last year's Celebrity Bartending Happy Hour.

On Friday, there was more skiing, including qualifying for the celebrity races the following day.

After dinner, Country in the Rockies guests were treated to a special concert. Between songs, several of the artists talked about the cause that had brought them to the mountain.

"I used to work in a children's hospital, so I know the difference those research dollars make," said Paul Brandt, who left Country in the Rockies the next day to serenade the Olympic team from his native Canada before it headed to Japan for the winter games in Nagano.

Mindy McCready, making a slightly nervous first singing appearance since a tonsillectomy last fall, choked back tears as she talked about having lost her grandfather to cancer.

"The work you're doing is so wonderful," she said. "You'll never know what it means to me, what you're doing. I'm so proud to be a part of it."

Many folks, worn out from a day in the sun and snow, retired to their hotel rooms after the concert, but a small group of hard-core fun-seekers sat around the fire till the wee hours of the morning, listening to an impromptu encore by some of the singers.

Saturday brought celebrity ski races, the conclusion of a silent auction of artwork and celebrity memorabilia, and a live auction of trips, memorabilia and other items.

A downhill racing team including Dr. Joseph A. Smith Jr., William L. Bray Professor and chairman of Urologic Surgery, placed second in the celebrity races ‹ a respectable showing considering they were up against Superman. A team led by Cain, who played Clark Kent/Superman on the television show Lois and Clark, placed first, and Cain was ranked as the event's fastest skier behind professional skier Wayne Wong.

Peggy Wood, one of three members of the Vanderbilt Cancer Center Board of Overseers in attendance, also received an award on Saturday night, the "Oh Be Joyful Award" given in honor of her enthusiastic return to skiing after a 19-year absence from the slopes.

"I've never had so much fun in my life," Wood said. "I'll never miss another Country in the Rockies."

Recreation aside, the important cause of supporting cancer research was high on everyone's list of why they had come to Crested Butte.

And expressing gratitude for that support was also high on the list of the representatives of the VCC.

Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs, presented a special thanks to Preston for lending her name and her commitment to the cause: a granite sculpture mountain, inscribed with appreciation from the VCC.

Jacobson noted that cancer care and research is one of several areas in which Vanderbilt distinguishes itself among the nation's top medical centers. But he also noted that the VCC cannot do its work without the support of the T.J. Martell Foundation and others.

"No one wants to win the fight against cancer more than Frances and no one has worked harder or more effectively to provide the resources so that Hal and his team can win that fight," Jacobson said.

In accepting the gift, Preston turned the audience's attention to "the real reason we're here" ‹ the patients facing a diagnosis of cancer, including Alison Chambers, who is battling advanced ovarian cancer. Two years ago, Chambers had a life expectancy of just months when she became a participant in a VCC study, supported by the Martell Foundation, testing the safety of an innovative new treatment.

Chambers, now in the midst of her ninth chemotherapy, is living life to the fullest. At this year's Country in the Rockies, she was having a ball, skiing every day, sharing vintage Madeira wines with other guests, and showing off photos of her recent Far East and Australian cruise with her son.

"I remember Alison said to me two years ago, 'I hope I live to go to Country in the Rockies,' and she did," Preston recalled. "Well, Alison skied with us again today.

"This is why we are here. Alison, we hope to see you skiing with us again next year."