Bob Hope

In Seattle, the man had heart.

BOB HOPE'S DEATH Monday, July 28, brings back memories of the time I worked for him. Sort of.

From 1982 to 1984, I was on the staff of the Bob Hope International Heart Research Institute here in Seattlenow know simply as the Hope Heart Institute. The center, headed by pioneer heart surgeon Dr. Lester Sauvage (once controversially labeled "St. Sauvage" in a Seattle Weekly cover story), was attempting a $30 million expansion. For years, the institute had worked to develop the means to surgically repair diseased and damaged hearts. During that time, Sauvage had worked to develop and test artificial arteries and veins, heart valves, and to perfect surgical techniques, such as coronary bypass operations.

But Sauvageand here's where the "St." part comes inwas also controversial because, a devout Catholic, he believed passionately that a person's spiritual life should not be divorced from the healing process. The institute, across the street from the city's Catholic hospital, Providence, had many supporters who agreed, not a few of them former patients of Sauvage. But the traditional medical establishment was somewhat skeptical of Sauvage's approach, though also respectful of his medical work.

After decades of fixing people's cardiovascular plumbing, the surgeon decided to branch out into the area of heart-disease prevention. This would involve expanded research and public outreach.

The intensity of Sauvage's commitment drew many of all faiths to support his work, including Mother Teresa. But in pre-Microsoft Seattle, $30 million was big money, especially in a town where you could count the millionaires on a single, typewritten sheet of paper. It was going to have to be a national effort. Through mutual friends here in Seattle, though, Sauvage was introduced to Bob Hope. He became convinced that Hope couldindeed mustbe enlisted in the cause. Not only would his fame and celebrity be an asset to the institute, but his name itself, Hope, would convey the sense of mission that drove the institute's scientific purpose.

FEW THOUGHT he could do it, but Sauvage used his amazing powers of persuasion to convince Hope to lend his name and time to this small research center in Seattle with big plans. Through Hope, Sauvage was able to recruit other entertainers, millionaires, and the politically connected to help out. Bob Hope's name opened doors. Big doors. Notably, Hope helped secure the involvement of President Ronald Reagan in filming a personal fund-raising appeal for the center. The Hope name and face also were attached to everything we did, from stationary to public-service spots on TV. We attached Hope's name and image to a direct-mail fund-raising appeal, and the response was incredible. I'll never forget sifting through hundreds of envelopes that poured in with checks, many with heartfelt notes from Hope's fans. The depth of goodwill for the man was incredible.

I worked in the development office of the institute as a fund-raiser. I was hired to write grant proposals and later was put in charge of corporate and foundation fund-raising. Because I had a publishing background, anything having to do with public-service announcements or brochure copywriting fell into my lap. I was also involved in fund-raising strategy sessions.

One drawback of Hope's involvement was that he had lent his name but had given us little in the way of actual cashand in fund-raising circles, big givers gauge commitment by how big a check your chief donor has given. This was a problem for my bosses in the fund-raising office, and there were two solutions. One was to continue to leverage Hope's contacts and goodwill to open doors, and the other was to convince Hope to write a big check.

It wasn't that Hope hadn't already done a lot to raise money. First, his donations of time and celebrity were incalculable. He'd even come to Seattle for a benefit performance, at the Paramount, which had raised money and our profile. That was the only time I saw the man in person. I later visited his modest office in Los Angeles, and once I was on a conference call with him during which the sum total of what I said was something to the effect of, "Good morning, Mr. Hope." I had also drafted letters for his signature on a number of occasions.

Bob Hope could also be very difficult to deal with at times. It was clear the institute was a tiny speck on his radar, and he did not suffer fools. When he taped public-service spots for us, he insisted that we use his longtime cue-card guy and threatened to walk out at one point. He was professional, be it for profit or charity. He could be pretty humorless in the cause of humor.

THE SEATTLE SHOW that Hope did also created some PR problems for us down the road. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had designated the institute as a beneficiary of its annual charity campaign, which involved writing human-interest stories about the institute's work and Sauvage's patients, then asking readers to give. The following year, my boss and I went down to the P-I to discuss renewing the campaign for the following year. Then-publisher Virgil Fassio made it know that he was very unhappy because when Hope came to town for the show, Fassio hadn't been on the invite list for a VIP party at the Westinobviously a major oversight. My boss pointed out that the press had not been invited to the event. Fassio pointed to his then-editor, Jim Rennie, who was sitting in on the meeting. He barked something to the effect of, "You see him, he's the press. I'm not the press." We slunk out, chastened. I was struck with how important some people regarded a chance to meet Bob Hope and also with the fact that the publisher of a major metropolitan newspaper didn't consider himself a member of "the press." That seemed to pretty much sum up the problem with modern journalism.

In the fund-raising office, our dirty little secret was our desire to get the institute into Bob Hope's last will and testament. As far as I know, we never did. Hope was then in his early 80s, and it seemed prudent to plan ahead. There was a certain amount of black humor regarding our wish that he not die of some other disease, like cancer, and screw our chances. Any development office, at any major charity, will tell you that getting in the will"planned giving" is the euphemismis a major opportunity. Most of the biggest gifts come from estates. But I couldn't help but feel like we were a bunch of vultures waiting for this great man to keel overbut not until we'd sold him on making us part of his legacy. Over these last years, I've taken great delight in the comedian's longevity. He beat the reaperand our best-laid plansby 20 years.

POLITICALLY, I COULDN'T have been farther removed from Bob Hope's circles. Many of the VIPs enlisted in our project through Hope's connections were conservatives and members of Reagan's kitchen cabinet. And, as a onetime anti-Vietnam War protester, I certainly hadn't agreed with Hope's support of that wara stand that set him among the generational dinosaurs of the 1960s and 1970s, like John Wayne. But despite those associations, there has always been a gloriously subversive element to Hope's humorhe made jokes at his own expense, played a fool gaming his way through life. He popped the balloons of the pompous and helped to popularize the humor of neuroses that has helped comics like Woody Allen to make a living. His comedic persona was likeable, and his presence at events like the Academy Awards made such self-congratulation bearable because Hope was there to remind you how silly and shallow it all wasespecially since he'd never won an Oscar.

He also was a generous man who used his time and talent to make things better. As I schlepped around the country showing the Bob Hope fund-raising film starring Ronald Reagan, the one saving grace for me was that it was in a good cause.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
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