February 25, 2005

Heart Gala’s rich history one of support, success

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Orrin Ingram, left, and Hal Moses, M.D., were all smiles at the ‘Steppin’ Down Hoedown’ held to honor Moses’ work as director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.
photo by Dana Johnson

Heart Gala’s rich history one of support, success

During the past 31 years, researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center have received more than $6.7 million in funds raised through the American Heart Association's annual Nashville Heart Gala.

“We are very appreciative of the efforts of the Nashville Heart Gala volunteers who have worked so hard to raise the funds that are critical to advancements in cardiology,” said Harry R. Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs. “Some of these volunteers have been there since the beginning of the Heart Gala more than 30 years ago, and Vanderbilt has benefited greatly from their dedication and tireless effort. We're proud to be fighting alongside the American Heart Association against cardiovascular disease, and this highly successful event is one of our most important weapons.”

This year alone, the gala raised $770,000 for the AHA, all of which will go to Vanderbilt cardiovascular research programs and clinical activities.

According to Douglas E. Vaughan, M.D., chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, the money comes to Vanderbilt in a variety of ways including fellowship research awards to support trainees, early career development awards and specific research projects developed by more senior investigators.

Scott Baldwin, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology and president of the Middle Tennessee chapter of the American Heart Association, said Vanderbilt's ties to the event are particularly strong.

“I think we're absolutely dependant on cardiovascular research and the American Heart Association — particularly the Heart Gala, which is the single largest fundraiser for the Middle Tennessee chapter — is largely responsible for sustaining new investigators in cardiovascular research at Vanderbilt.”

The event, which was created by a group of Nashville women who wanted to support the Middle Tennessee chapter of the AHA, has become one of the city's largest and most recognized annual social events.

The gala has blossomed from its first year as a small function with 200 attendees in the local National Guard Armory, raising $10,000.

The most recent gala, held Feb. 12, was attended by approximately 1,200 AHA supporters at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, had a live auction and backing from more than 50 corporations. The most recent gala was planned by a committee of more than 100 members.

Marion Couch, the first non-medical woman to ever be president of the Middle Tennessee AHA, presided over the inaugural gala in 1974.

Couch gives credit for the idea to the late Jane Sadler, who was the general chairman the first year.

“We just executed the event, she really had the vision,” said Couch, who still attends the Nashville Heart Gala each year.

Couch and Adell Bernard, the wife of Vanderbilt Medical School alumnus and Nashville surgeon Stanley Bernard, M.D., have fond memories of the first years of the gala.

“We didn't have anything, and no one wanted to give us money to put on the gala,” said Bernard, who helped put on the first event and was chairman of presentations (gifts for attendees.)

Holding the first event in an armory spawned decorating challenges to create a formal setting for cocktails, a gourmet dinner and entertainment by an orchestra and other performers.

“We covered the armory in hot pink and orange chiffon, and tented the room in floral fabric,” recalls Couch. “It was a good party, and it was kind of intriguing the first year.”

Added Bernard, “We brought in a silver candelabra and big flowers. The gala was new and different and about 200 people came. We wished more would have come.”

Even with what organizers thought was a relatively low turnout, the black-tie event was successful enough for the women to throw a second one the following year. The gala continued to build momentum in the mid-1970s, and was becoming an anticipated affair covered in the local social pages.

The Suburban News referred to the third gala as “a brilliant oasis in a winter social season already climaxed by Christmas and New Year's events” and gave previews of the attire of organizers.

Bernard, who served as chairman on the 1976 gala, was to wear “a silk dress in pink, bronze and gold tones overlaid with chiffon.” Couch, advisory chair for 1976, was to wear “pistachio trimmed with spruce green … sleeveless with an Empire waistline.”

But organizers knew the event was much more than a party to get dressed up for — and it became a decades-long commitment for many of the women who were there from the start. Couch, who sits on the Heart Gala's honorary patrons council, and Bernard, a lifetime honorary member of the Heart Gala Board of Directors, continue to support the event.

“We have all had several friends who died from heart attacks,” said Bernard. “My husband had six coronary bypasses the same year the first Heart Gala was held. It's a matter of giving your time, because the heart touches everyone.”