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St. Jude’s Memphis-to-Peoria run reaches 30 years; Value to research, survival rates continue growing

For 30 years, in some of the hottest weather of the summer, Mike McCoy has formed a posse he uses to chase what he says is the worst of all evildoers, cancer in children.

The Peoria County Sheriff believes that through the efforts of those who participate in annual fundraisers for St. Jude Children's Hospital – including the annual St. Jude's Memphis-to Peoria that is today happening for the 30th year – some of evil has been arrested and will continue to be restrained more in the future.

Given the run will top the $25 million mark this year McCoy has reason to be optimistic.

"If you are doing something like this for the right reason, it is worth the work setting up and running and all that has to get done. I guarantee you, all our volunteers are doing it for the right reason," McCoy said a few days ago while he and many others prepared for the run, which began Wednesday afternoon, a day after he and nearly 200 other runners trekked to Memphis in motor homes.

"This is not a running event. It's a fund raising event that uses running as a means in which to raise money. We're not racing; we're raising money. And we're doing it for the kids," he said.

We talked with McCoy as he and the others were prepping the 24 motor homes brought up last Saturday from St. Louis, filling them will water and food and supplies and equipping them with radios so they communicate with each and with the lead and chase vehicles – vans with large, lighted "Caution: Runners" signs attached to their roofs.

The prep work two days on Green Chevrolet property in North Peoria, then the drive from Peoria to Memphis began with a sendoff celebration at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday from St. Jude Run headquarters in Glen Plaza. Families were there, including some children still in pajamas, to see loved ones off and former Mayor Jim Maloof, the patriarch of the St. Jude Telethon, spoke a few words and wished the runners well.

Former St. Jude patients were there, waiting to board their motor homes for the journey. They included Dawn Johnson Tanner, who survived two bouts with leukemia as a child. Recently married, she and her husband Jordan Tanner were making the run together.

"This means so much to me and my family," she said just before the line of motor homes snaked their way out of Glen Plaza and headed out.

Tuesday night the runners were feted at a dinner then given a tour of the St. Jude Children's Hospital on Wednesday morning.

At noon Wednesday, with temperatures near or slightly above 100 degrees and a heat index topping 110 degrees, the first group of runners from the Gold Team – headed by Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis and Chris Smith – took off on the first leg of the 465-mile run.

The Blue Team, headed by McCoy and Ryan Beck, took over at 8 p.m. on Wednesday and ran until 6 a.m. Then the teams alternated every eight hours, running relay style.

The run is scheduled to conclude at about 6:30 p.m. when the Memphis-to-Peoria runners and all those hundreds of others running to Peoria from satellite cities reach the Peoria Civic Center. Then as a group all 1,800 will jog into the Civic Center and into the telethon to be greeted there by Jim Maloof, the man who started the telethon 34 years ago.

Altogether 26 cities now participate in the run. Those include Chicago and St. Louis and many in between, such as Springfield, Bloomington-Normal, Quincy, Macomb and Galesburg. Those on the Memphis-to-Peoria teams were required to get a minimum of $3,000 in pledges and to run 35 to 45 miles over a three-day stretch. Satellite runners were required to get a minimum of $750 in pledges.

The total amount raised from all of them will top $25 million this year, $2.7 million this year alone.

Not bad for an event started in 1982 by a couple guys – Mike McCoy and Gene Pratt -- who wondered what they could do for the St. Jude's cause. "We are proud of what we have accomplished and believe me it has taken many, many more than just two people from the very start. What is great is how it has grown every year because of people who want to make a difference. We all know it is making a difference and that we are part of helping find a cure for cancer, to help these kids live long, normal lives."

McCoy said he got involved through his father Dean McCoy and Maloof as a teen-ager and felt even then that it just wasn't right that children should get and die of cancer.

When the run started in 1982, only about 4 percent of the children who got cancer survived. Now, McCoy said, the national average survival rate is over 70 percent and in some types of cancer, over 90 percent.

"Why do we do this? It's simple. It's making a difference. We do it for the kids," he said.

Others helping to prepare the motor homes all basically said those three words when asked why they do it: "For the kids."

"We've been doing this and the telethon for 20-plus years," said Sherry Semonis, speaking for herself and her husband Rick. Their children have helped as well, she said.

Last Saturday night, she said, they went to the "Backyard Talent Show" in Morton that started four years ago in the back yard of the Kolvec home in Morton as an attempt by some pre-teens trying to raise a few bucks for St. Jude. It has turned into an event that raises big bucks – more than $25,000 to date – and had to be moved to a city park because it outgrew the Kolvec back yard.

Semonis estimated 400 to 500 people were at the talent show. "You see things like that and it really warms your heart. And you know that everybody is doing it for the kids of St. Jude," she said.

Another who gave that reason was Tom Kahn, in his ninth year in the run. Last Sunday he was not only putting water in the motor homes, he was making sure others working were getting water to stay hydrated in the intense heat. "We'll be hot enough on the run. We need to stay cool and hydrated when we're not running," he said.

Kahn said he feels lucky to still be running. Five years ago he and McCoy were jogging together along Western Avenue in Peoria when they struck by a car. Both were nearly killed and still bear scars today. But neither missed the St. Jude run that year, even though it was only months later.

"This is huge for all of us," Kahn said.

McCoy said he realizes he is lucky not only for surviving that accident but also because he never had to face what the parents of children with cancer do each day. "That's why I will keep doing this, as long as I am physically able," he said.


Paul Gordon is editor of The Peorian. He can be reached at (309) 692-7880 or at


About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).